Chill-out dinner provides cold comfort for hot night

Just when Mother Nature throws the sultriest nights of the season our way, she also provides the wherewithal for us to entertain friends using local ingredients in a "chill out" meal that'll revive flagging appetites.

Our bill of fare for such a soiree designed to make eight people very happy begins with caponata on pita toasts — a melange of wonderful vegetables that is Italy's answer toFrance'sratatouille, give or take. Guests can quaff a rose wine, or a beer. For the teetotalers, we return to the vegetable patch with a cucumber-lemonade spritzer.

We follow up with more veggies in a main-dish salad featuring shrimp, feta and tomatoes. And side this with a quick-fixing couscous enhanced by butter pine nuts.

Dessert also stars local ingredients in a angel food cake with peach-blackberry compote.

Whether you decide to dine inside or al fresco (don't forget the repellent), this chill out dinner will make for a memorable, no-sweat evening.

Have fun!

To begin with…

The spritzers

1 1/2 cups water

2/3 cup light brown sugar

3 cups peeled, diced cucumber (hot house/English cukes have fewer seeds)

2/3 cup fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons peeled, minced, fresh ginger

4 cups sparkling water, chilled

8 small cucumber spears, garnish

In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, combine water and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Cool.

In a blender, in batches if need be, combine cooled sugar syrup, diced cucumber, lemon juice and ginger, and process until smooth. Cover and chill.

To serve, combine chilled cucumber mixture and sparkling water in a chilled pitcher. Whisk until well combined. Pour into iced-filled glasses. Garnish each serving with a cucumber spear. Makes 8 cups.

The pita toasts

8 small loaves pita bread (white or whole wheat)

Olive oil

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Stack four pita loaves, one on top of another. Cut loaves into 6 wedges. Repeat with remaining pita bread. Arrange wedges on baking sheets. Brush each wedge with a little olive oil. Sprinkle on some garlic powder if you wish. Bake about 15 minutes, until toasty. Switch baking sheets on shelves halfway through baking. Makes 48 toasts.

The caponata

This recipe makes more caponata than you'll probably need, but consider it investment cooking. Try it later in omelets, with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Or saute some chicken, then add the caponata along with some of your homemade marinara sauce, or even a best quality store bought jar sauce, and serve over penne pasta.

3 medium eggplants

Vegetable cooking spray

About 4 tablespoons olive oil

3 medium onions, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups finely chopped fennel, or use celery

2 large zucchini, scrubbed, trimmed, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped perfectly ripe tomatoes

1/3 cup drained capers (chopped if large)

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

5 teaspoons sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

Sea salt, if you must

Pre-heat broiler and cut eggplants into half-inch thick slices (don't peel). Arrange on a broiler pan (in batches) and lightly spray cooking spray over eggplant slices. Broil until tops are brown, about 5 minutes. Turn eggplant slices over and continue broiling until slices begin to brown on other side. Remove to a baking sheet and repeat process with remaining eggplant. When eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut slices into small dice and set aside.

In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium-high, heat olive oil. Add onions and fennel and saute until fennel begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add zucchini and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, capers, vinegar, sugar and pepper. Continue cooking for 5 minutes. Add diced broiled eggplant and stir well. Simmer about 5 minutes longer. Taste for seasonings. Serve at room temperature. Or refrigerate or freeze and bring to room temperature before serving. Serve with pita toasts. Makes about 8 cups.

Entree salad

This combination of shrimp, feta cheese and tomatoes continues our quasi-Mediterranean theme. Arrange the salad in a platter lined with red and green lettuce leaves. Save some oregano sprigs for garnish (or use fresh parsley). You can make the salad a day ahead, then cover and chill until serving time. But bring to room temperature before servings.

We're serving this salad with a carb — couscous — but if you feel you must, provide additional pita toasts, or untoasted pita bread or chewy-tender Italian bread. A dry white or rose wine makes a creditable quaff.

About 1/3 cup olive oil, divided

3 pounds medium shrimp, shelled and deveined

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper

2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled

12 ounces crumbled feta cheese

7 perfectly ripe plum (Roma) tomatoes, in small dice

1 1/2 cups thinly sliced celery

1 1/2 cups pitted Kalamata olives, cut into slivers

Oregano sprigs or flat-leaf parsley, garnish

Red and green lettuce leaves, for lining chilled platter

In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium-high, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil just until it begins to smoke. Add shrimp and saute/stir-fry for 5 minutes, just until they begin to firm up. Remove to large bowl and let cool.

In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, vinegar, lemon zest, oregano and pepper. Whisk in remaining oil and continue whisking until mixture begins to thicken/emulsify.

Add the feta, tomatoes, celery and olives to bowl with cooled shrimp. Mix gently. Add dressing and mix well until shrimp mixture is well moistened. Taste for seasonings. Add pepper, and salt if you must. Serve at room temperature, as suggested above.

Nutty couscous

Pine nuts add their butter texture to quick-fixing couscous. This dish is also designed to be served at room temperature — and by that, we mean cool room temperature, not 85 or 90 degrees.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups couscous

3/4 cup toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup minced, fresh parsley leaves

2/3 cup thinly sliced scallion

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

In a saucepan, over medium-high, combine butter, salt and 3 cups water and bring to a boil. Stir in couscous, cover and remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes and fluff with a fork. Stir in pine nuts, parsley, scallions and vinegar. Serve warm or at cool room temperature.

Sweet endings

We're not going to torture you with a recipe for angel food cake. Buy a mix or buy one baked in your supermarket. Or, you might even consider using lady fingers for this treat.

Do go to a local produce stand for the peaches and berries, though.

Know how to peel a peach? Have ready a bowl of ice water. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on top of the stove. Cut an X into bottom of peach. Trim a bit around the stem end. Add one peach at a time to boiling water. Simmer about 2 minutes, until it looks like skin is loosened. Immediately (using a slotted spoon), remove peach to ice water. Skin should slip right off. If not, return to boiling water for a minute or so. Repeat with remaining peaches. When cool enough to handle, cut in half, remove pits and slice thinly.

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons grated lime zest

4 to 5 cups sliced peaches (about 6 large)

2 1/2 cups fresh blackberries (the blacker the berry, the sweeter it should be)

Sweetened whipped cream, for serving

Additional blackberries, garnish

Toasted sliced almonds, garnish

In a large bowl, combine honey, lime juice and zest well. Add peaches and blackberries and stir gently, but well. Chill before serving.

To serve, arrange angel food cake wedges on individual plates. Spoon on some compote. Add some whipped cream. Garnish with berries and toasted almonds.

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