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No sweat: Cook without heating up the kitchen

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Updated: October 26, 2011 12:21AM

It’s the middle of summer. And, it’s hot. Right now, most of us don’t feel like heating up our kitchens with ovens blaring and pots a-blazing.

Grilling, of course, is what this season’s all about, but even that can become a production after a long day of work. So what’s a cook to do?

For one, consider the Crock-Pot. Sure, it has a reputation for wintry dishes such as slow-roasted short ribs and pot roasts. But Pat Sondgeroth, a farmer and co-owner of Heartland Meats in Mendota with her husband John, has another idea: Italian beef sandwiches.

Typically, Italian beef sandwiches are made by roasting the top sirloin, round or even fattier chuck roast in an oven for several hours. The meat is cut into paper-thin slices and served with its juices in a soft hoagie topped with “hot” or “sweet” peppers (a k a the beloved giardinera and roasted bell peppers, respectively).

For a Crock-Pot version, it’s best to work backwards: Slice the beef first before slow-cooking, otherwise you’ll end up with a heap of shredded beef (which tastes fine, too, and makes for a great BBQ beef sandwich).

If you are using Heartland meat, which comes frozen per farmers market regulations (they sell at Green City Market and several suburban markets), partially thaw it, then slice it with a very sharp knife. Alternatively, Sondgeroth suggests pre-ordering thin-sliced eye of round roast in the same desired poundage. Most butchers will slice a raw roast for you.

Cold soup, cheesy bread

When it comes to cold soup, most of us have gazpacho on the brain.

In a unique take on the classic soup traditionally made from pureed tomatoes, summer squash and other vegetables, chef Chris Pandel of the Bristol, 2152 N. Damen, reaches for white grape juice, toasted almonds, pine nuts, champagne vinegar and day-old bread for a “blanco” version.

“When blended together, it becomes a rich, fluffy soup,” Pandel says. “When chilled down, it’s really delicious and goes great with chilled shrimp as a garnish.”

Another of Pandel’s easy, stove-free ideas: pan con tomate, a traditional Barcelonian street snack also known as toaster-oven pizza here at home.

“I’ll go to a good baker and buy ciabatta or focaccia bread and split it for a nice, thin slice. Rub the slices with a raw garlic clove, brush on a little olive oil, add some good mozzarella cheese if you want and pop it in the toaster until it’s nice and crunchy,” Pandel says.

He then will slice in half a ripe, preferably in-season heirloom tomato, “squeeze the life” out of each half over the bread slices and top with a little sea salt and a few slices of prosciutto or serrano ham.

“It’s like heaven,” he says.

If you’re really lazy (in a good way), use the bounty of light that summer brings to make Southern-style sun tea. Throw a few bags of tea in a glass with honey, brown sugar and filtered water and let the sun do its work for a few hours.

“Squeeze in some lemon, pour over ice and you’re done,” Pandel says.

Simple seafood

For a just-as-easy meal or snack, Pandel will make a fish crudo. Sushisamba Rio chef Dan Tucker also favors summertime sashimi.

For at-home versions, “tuna is probably the easiest fish to track down and the safest to eat raw at home,” Tucker says. “Fish like salmon needs to be smoked or cured and rinsed first to control infection, and a lot of other seafood for sashimi needs to be deep-frozen before it’s safe to consume.”

That said, Tucker recommends buying fish labeled as “sashimi grade.” That’s an indicator the fish has been deep-frozen for either seven days at zero degrees or 40 degrees below zero for 24 hours, making it safe for raw consumption.

Tucker’s tuna and avocado salad at the restaurant also works well at home. Buy a slab of big eye or ahi tuna, dice it into cubes and toss in a mixing bowl with kosher salt, a squirt of olive oil, minced chives and diced avocado.

“Give it a little toss, then cut a key lime or regular lime in half and squeeze that over the bowl, tossing again,” Tucker says. Serve the tuna with fresh microgreens.

At Cafe des Architectes in the Sofitel Chicago, 20 E. Chestnut, chef Greg Biggers makes a tuna and hamachi dip with diced sashimi-grade fish and a Japanese-style marinade of sesame oil, soy, chili flakes, cilantro, togarashi (a Japanese spice mixture), diced shallots and chives. He tops it with fresh yuzu juice and pureed avocado for scooping with homemade, paper-thin root vegetable chips.

For a prettier presentation, he layers the dip in shallow mason jars so the colors show through the glass; it’s something easily recreated at home.

Biggers suggests grilling extra vegetables when cooking outside. Chilled, these veggies can be pureed for summery dips such as his Eggplant Tapenade with Pepper Puree and Creme Fraiche.

Sweet and easy

Even easier than homemade sorbet or ice cream is a granita, says Tucker.

“Create a sorbet base with fresh fruit that’s in season like strawberries or raspberries, pop it in the freezer overnight so it sets up well,” he says. When serving, use an ice cream scoop or heavy serving spoon to scrape a bowl full. “You get this slushy, snow cone, Italian ice thing going on.”

Extra granita can go back into the freezer and be scraped again later for relatively little mess and fuss. Use a deep-set, square baking dish for easy freezing; store-bought sorbet containers also work well.

Then, there’s the microwave. Most would balk at using the zapper for more intricate cooking, but it’s a good standby on hotter days. Bake a potato in it. Or, make a cake. Stephanie Prida, pastry chef at the Elysian’s Ria and Balsan restaurants, uses the microwave for a sweet, cornmeal-based version.

She whips cornmeal with clarified butter, corn “juice,” sugar, salt and eggs in a blender, then loads the mixture into an empty whipped cream canister and sprays the batter into a paper cup with three holes punched in the bottom for steaming. Microwave on high for 60 seconds, turn the cup upside down and there you have it: microwaved cake. (Without a CO2 cartridge, you can whip the cake mixture with an electric mixer to create an airy batter, then spoon it into the cup.)

Even professional chefs can tire of a hot kitchen during the summer. Try out a few of their ideas, then sit back, eat and be cool.

Amelia Levin is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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