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LIGHT FARE FOR THE BEACH Key to cool cooking: A pantry stocked with basic foods


Beach eating is a lot like beach reading.

Like those few determined souls who faithfully tote Tolstoy to the waves each June, there are undoubtedly some people out there who, even in summer, like to stuff out on all-American Sunday dinners of pot roast with all the trimmings. Or who don't mind in the least spending a sunny afternoon in the kitchen stuffing chicken breasts with pheasant forcemeat or whipping up a sublime little supper of pike quenelles Nantua.

But I bet you're not one of them, are you? Me neither. Summer meals, like the best summer books, aren't heavy going or labor-intensive. They are on the light side, refreshing to the body and the spirit, and should have a sweet simplicity appropriate to the delicious playing-hooky feeling that even adults get on vacation.

But summer meals should be nourishing and memorable, too. Like Danielle Steel novels, meals of weenies and bean dip and Thrasher's fries can be fun, but vacationers who care about food want something as elegant and adult as it is easy to digest. A Jane Austen or Anne Tyler kind of meal, let's say.

To promote this sort of easy elegance, wise beach cooks combine the best of the city with the freshest of the country. When they head for the shore or the bay, they take along the kind of staples that will enhance the foods that they will be picking up on the dock, at the corner grocery, or from a farmer's produce stand.

When Nick Sheridan of Cuisine Catering is in residence in the house he rents in south Rehoboth, the back yard grill gets much more use than the stove. "It doesn't seem worth heating the place up," he explains. So when he stocks his beach pantry, he thinks of things that will help make his grills special, but that might not be readily available at beach markets.

For barbecues, he takes along Was Dis Here sauce, a spicconcoction that was invented by Baltimore entrepreneur Fred Douglass, and which Mr. Sheridan finds an excellent foil for chicken and shrimp.

"I'd definitely take a bottle of sherry. That would be partly for drinking when I was cooking," he jokes, "but lime juice and sherry are a wonderful marinade for those steaky fishes like shark that you can get at the beach. I'd also take some kind of flavored vinegar, again for a meat marinade, or for vegetable marinades or salads. I just had some wonderful peach vinegar."

BVegetable and fruit salads and vinaigrettes are also at the top of his summer-dining list, because they can be toted to the beach for picnics without worries about spoilage. To make these, he'd take along not only the flavored vinegars, but a really good olive oil.

In the cooler, he would have a supply of something he'd prepared ahead of time: homemade pesto. "I make two kinds, the regular kind with basil, and one with fresh cilantro," he says. "I buy [the basil and cilantro] in big bunches at the Waverly farmer's market. They don't last too long fresh, so you have to do something with them."

When the pesto is prepared, he freezes it in ice cube trays. A frozen pesto cube can the quickly thawed for use as a sauce for chicken or pasta.

A Rehoboth stay might also be preceded by a visit to an Asiafood market to pick up some passion fruit concentrate.

"I use it for making nice mixed drinks with whatever booze iaround, and for pouring over ice cream," Mr. Sheridan says. "It's not even expensive, and it's wonderful stuff."

Janis Talbott, owner of Morton's gourmet and wine shop, has friends with a farm on Virginia's Eastern Shore, where the major "crop" is soft-shell crabs. To prepare for such a feast, she (and her husband Bob, who actually does the cooking in the household) would take along two bottles of white wine and two hTC bottles of red from the wine shop, a box of rice ("Arborio, or sometimes Uncle Ben's"), and saffron.

"We walk down and order our crabs early in the day, then go back later and pick them up. We get them fresh, right out of the pens. All you need is a little bacon grease from that day's breakfast to fry the soft crabs. The crabs, with saffron rice and salad -- you could do that three days in a row," she enthuses.

The Talbott beach pantry would also include pasta and garlic cloves, to be tossed with whichever fresh seafood looks most tempting. And, depending on the season, the couple might tote their own fresh fruits and vegetables. "We have a great produce man. That's another luxury," Ms. Talbott explains.

"Silver Queen corn is also great with soft crabs. If it's that time of year, and we know we can buy it fresh on the road, we do. We've also pinpointed certain places to buy fresh vegetables. Otherwise we'll take some with us, because we know it will be better than what we can get in some grocery store.

"One thing we'd take with us that we don't do at home is dessert wine," she adds, recommending a Peter Lehmann 1988 Botrytis Semillon sauterne. Some sauterne for sipping, some good chocolate (also a beach pantry must), and the sweetest, most beautiful strawberries your favorite roadside produce stand can offer -- what summer dessert could be easier or more sophisticated?

Brian Beaven, owner of the Morning Edition cafe and a summevisitor to Rehoboth, takes the beach pantry concept a step further. He advocates taking not only the ingredients for a memorable meal to the beach, but taking the whole meal. Spending a few days ahead of time cooking main dishes that can be frozen or chilled, transported easily, and quickly reheated if necessary, will make the vacationer's life easier by leaving more room for fun and relaxation, rather than kitchen duties, at the beach house.

Some of the easy pre-prepped dishes he would recommend are hummus (a Middle Eastern puree of chick peas, sesame paste garlic and lemon, which can be eaten as a dip with pita bread), marinated grilled chicken, a light, cheesy vegetarian lasagna, pasta salads, and temperature-cool but spicy-hot marinated Thai beef salad.

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