In Praise of No-Cook Summer Meals

The season calls as much for elaborate family feasts as for easy, no-cook salads, bursting with fresh summer produce
June 26, 2019 Updated: June 26, 2019

For my entire life, my extended family on my mother’s side has gathered every other summer or so in some corner of the continental United States for a family reunion. An ambitious planning effort by my mother brought us all to Taos, New Mexico a couple of summers ago, but other than that, we typically congregate in the North Carolina mountains, from which my great-grandmother Florine, the matriarch of this branch on my family tree, hailed.

Three weeks ago, in one of our best turnouts to date, 80 members of the Coleman family descended upon Flat Rock, North Carolina. For three days, 62 adults and 18 children from Texas, Colorado, California, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and beyond wreaked absolute havoc on a little inn perched on a lake about thirty minutes outside of Asheville.

We competed in family olympics (Team America versus Team Camo, of course), fished off the dock (my uncle Jim brought about 500 crickets for bait), took over the local bowling alley during a rainstorm, canoed around the lake, had epic dance competitions, and hugged each other’s babies tight.

But most of all, like any good Southern family, we ate.

coleman family at bowling alley
The Coleman clan takes bowling. (Courtesy of Caroline Chambers)

Family Feasts

My grandmother always used to joke that in our family, we start planning dinner when we’re only one bite into lunch. I’d say that’s a fair statement. Food gathers and unites people, which is one of the things I’ve always loved the most about it. My memories of the grocery store fried chicken eaten on picnic tables at the reunion are just as joyful as any fine dining experience I’ve ever had.

Often it isn’t about what’s on your (flimsy, paper) plate; it’s just about who you’re eating it with. Although, OK, it was also really good fried chicken. But more importantly, I got to eat it with my favorite people in the world, in one of my favorite places in the world.

Reflecting on the weekend, my favorite meals weren’t the planned ones (though my mountain-high plate of collard greens, mac and cheese, and pulled pork from the barbecue on Saturday night might suggest otherwise). My favorite meals were the in-between meals.

Despite the fact that every meal was catered, it seems like nearly every family member showed up with extra food to share. Uncle Jim prepared an epic cheese board for cocktail hour on Saturday night. My mom brought pounds of her incredible fig preserves. Aunt Betsy made five of her famous rum cakes, which she forgot to put out for dessert, and were thus ravaged at 1 a.m., complete with fresh roadside strawberries and whipped cream. One of the Georgia cousins brought the most massive crate of juicy peaches you’ve ever seen. Even my mother-in-law sent a massive container of a true Southern delicacy, sausage dip, so that my husband George and I, who had flown in from California, wouldn’t show up empty-handed. In the South, you never show up empty-handed.

Rather than flying back to California after the reunion, I drove back to my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina to spend some more time with my parents. Lucky me, a bag full of leftover Georgia peaches, North Carolina blueberries, and local goat cheese made their way home with us, inspiring this very recipe.

Summer Not-Cooking

Summer weekends are often so much fun, spent eating good food and drinking delicious drinks outdoors with our loved ones, that they leave us feeling a bit haggard on Monday. George and I try to balance that by eating as clean as possible during the week. And during the summer, eating clean is at its easiest.

Tougher winter vegetables like sweet potatoes and butternut squash have to be cooked into submission before they taste delicious, but so many seasonal fruits and vegetables are best uncooked in the summertime, making it a breeze to quickly prepare a beautiful meal.

This summer salad involves absolutely zero cooking. It stars, along with all of that beautiful fruit from my family, one of my favorite summer delicacies: raw corn. It’s sweet and crisp and adds the most delightful pop of flavor. George is one of those “no meat, no meal” kind of guys, so I shredded some rotisserie chicken to add to ours, but if you want to keep it vegetarian, throw in a handful of chickpeas for added protein.

Use this recipe as inspiration to create your own no-cook, fully loaded summer salad. Instead of corn, try shaving summer squash thinly with a vegetable peeler and adding those “ribbons” to the salad. Swap in strawberries for peaches, pitted cherries for blueberries, feta for goat cheese, pistachios for the pecans.

But whatever you do, don’t miss out on the basil vinaigrette. The recipe makes a large batch, so you’ll have some leftover for your next salad, or to drizzle over grilled vegetables.

In my past two columns I’ve preached about my love of grilling during the summer months, but that love is followed by only one other thing: not cooking at all! This salad is more “assembling” than it is “cooking.” It’s quick (maybe 10 minutes of chopping, and that’s it), it takes advantage of summer’s finest produce, and it allows you to spend more time enjoying your company than cooking. So give your grill a night off, and enjoy not-cooking for your loved one.

Summer Salad With Peaches, Corn, Blueberries, and Goat Cheese

Serves 2

For the basil vinaigrette:

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed, plus more for garnish (1 large bunch is perfect)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons white balsamic or red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Pinch red pepper flakes

For the salad:

  • 1 large head romaine lettuce, very thinly sliced (about 4 loosely packed cups)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 ear of sweet white corn, cut off the cob
  • 1 peach, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup fresh blueberries
  • 4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1 small avocado, cut into small chunks
  • 2 cups shredded chicken (from a store-bought rotisserie chicken, or grill a couple chicken breasts and chop them up)
  • 1/3 cup candied pecans (or any toasted nuts)

To make the vinaigrette, combine all ingredients in a blender until only small specks remain. Set aside.

To make the salad, place the lettuce in a shallow serving platter and season with salt and pepper. This is the key to a good salad: season your greens before you toss with the dressing.

Distribute corn, peach slices, blueberries, goat cheese, avocado, chicken, pecans, and the reserved basil leaves over the lettuce. Lightly toss. Drizzle with desired amount of dressing (you’ll likely have some leftover, which will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator). Enjoy!

Caroline Chambers is a recipe developer, food writer, and author of “Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds.” She currently lives in Carmel, California, with her husband, George, and baby boy, Mattis. Follow her on Instagram for cooking tips and snippets from her life in Northern California @carochambers

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