I saw a brutal tweet the other day, from Jeremiah Langhorne, the chef de cuisine of McCrady’s in Charleston, SC: “Hottest night of my life last night. Hoods died with 50 covers seated at 6:30. We cooked till 9:30. Temp on the line: 167 F.” That’s what summer cooking can mean for the pros.
But summer cooking at home can mean the very opposite—chilling out, taking it easy. Maybe you just make a massive pile of great salad. Keep the stove off and whip out the blender to make a richly refreshing soup. Or even if you’re not avoiding fire, you can still take it easy and let summer’s produce do most of the work.
Take this dish, for example, which weaves the snap, crackle, pop of fresh corn kernels through tangles of pasta. Tomatoes’ sweet tang hits you next, then wafts of garlic, and then a little finishing buzz of chile. That’s a lot of payoff for about 20 minutes of work, and I haven’t even told you yet about the flavor thing that happens when you splash a little soy sauce in with the tomato. (It’s a good thing.) It’s one of my favorite go-to meals, and it’s reason enough to keep good corn in the fridge and a bowl of great tomatoes on the counter all season long.
Also, because I make it so often, I also make lots of variations on it: You can add garlic, subtract garlic; you can use onions or fresh chiles, you can drop the soy sauce and instead crush a couple of anchovies or olives into the oil in the beginning, or finish with cheese.
The point of all this is that, basically, if you have good corn and good tomatoes, you can be pretty lazy with the rest. You don’t have to be super careful to sauté the corn just-so, you don’t have to micromanage the tomatoes so they reduce exactly to the density that would cling to an angel’s wing. It’s summer, and summer cooking means you don’t really have to sweat it.
The only rule is shop well: Sniff the tomatoes before buying them; if they don’t smell like great tomatoes, they are probably not great tomatoes. Pluck out a kernel of corn with your fingers and sneak a taste—buy it if it’s sweet and pops in your mouth and tastes the way corn is supposed to taste. Repeat these two little crazy-old-lady tricks throughout the summer, and you’ll barely have to do more than sing for your supper.
Pasta with sweet corn ragu
Serves 4 as a main course
3 ears corn, shucked (if you really dig corn, add another ear)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
6 cloves garlic, chopped (don’t be shy)
1 pinch cayenne pepper, or other chile to taste
1½ pounds great tomatoes (about 3 medium)
12 ounces pasta
1 handful great cherry tomatoes (if you got ‘em)
8 leaves basil (or other fragrant herb), chopped
Salt, to taste
2 teaspoons good soy sauce (like, no La Choy or leftover packets from last week’s takeout)
Boil some water: Set a large pot of water to boil over high heat, and salt it like you’re teaching it a lesson. It should taste notably, but pleasantly, salty.
Cut corn off the cob: Lay the ear down, pointing away from you. With a sharp chef’s knife, cut off the kernels on one side; don’t worry about getting them all. Turn the cob so that it lies flat, and repeat. Go all the way around. Stand the cob up and shave down the rest of the kernels you missed. (You can also stick the cob in the middle of a Bundt cake pan, cut off the kernels, and let the pan catch them.)
Cut tomatoes: Roughly chop the tomatoes (not the cherry tomatoes) and reserve with their juice. If you have cherry tomatoes, quarter them and toss with a pinch of salt and a little olive oil in a separate bowl.
Infuse oil and sauté: Set a large, deep sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add 4 tablespoons of oil and the garlic. Give it a few stirs, and when the garlic is very fragrant and just turning color, stir in the corn kernels. Season with chile pepper and a few generous pinches of salt.
Add tomatoes and simmer: Stir in the chopped tomatoes (not the cherry tomatoes), let them dissolve in the heat and come to a boil, then turn down and let simmer for about 7 minutes – until the flesh is really liquidy and starting to form a little sauce around the corn. Season with salt and chile, but it’s ok to leave it a little less salty because: soy sauce.
Cook pasta and combine: While the corn and tomato cook, cook pasta until al dente. Drain, then combine with the vegetables. Taste, adjust seasoning with soy sauce, (it’ll look less the gorgeous for a second, but keep stirring it in) and serve, topping with basil, cherry tomatoes, and a splash of olive oil.