Summer entertaining should be easy and mellow. I love having friends over throughout the year, but there’s something especially wonderful about cooking during the summer. It’s impossible not to be inspired when shopping for ingredients: plump tomatoes look so ripe they might burst, peaches and plums pile up, and fresh basil is sold in bunches as big as bouquets of flowers. When you get home, there’s not much that’s needed to be done in the kitchen. The tomatoes are sliced, sprinkled with salt, and maybe drizzled with olive oil. The basil leaves get torn. The peaches and plums are perfect just as they are. It may be considered the cliché of California cooking, but I’ll always take a beautiful, juicy peach over one that’s been cooked, overly handled, or otherwise messed with.
During summer, I even like to take this hands-off approach to cooking one step further. I leave the final step of assembling a dish to my guests. For a sushi meal, I’ll steam the rice and slice the vegetables and fish, then set everything out on a platter and let my friends roll their own sushi. On a particularly hot day, I’ll gently poach shrimp, squid, cod, and scallops, chill the seafood in the refrigerator, and serve it hours later with garlicky aioli and undressed arugula, letting our guests put together a plate of exactly what they want. The time not spent cooking over a hot stove turns into more time around the table with people I love.
There are plenty of no-fuss appetizers: a small bowl of olives, sweet-and-salty mixed nuts, sliced prosciutto and ripe fruit, a cheese platter. If you’re looking for a first course that fits this summer-style cooking and is a little special, try shishito peppers fried in a pan until blistered in a few spots. Sprinkled with flaky salt, they are as addictive as potato chips and they pair exceptionally well with ice-cold beer.
You may have seen shishito peppers in farmers markets and Asian grocery stores around town. The petite green peppers are easy to come by in the summer months, and they’ve become so popular that Trader Joe’s now sells them pre-bagged.
Most shishito peppers are mild and sweet, with nearly the same level of heat as a bell pepper, but occasionally a rogue one will be fiery enough to surprise you. There’s no way of knowing which pepper that will be. You can count on one spicy shishito in every handful or so. This quality only makes shishito peppers all the more fun to enjoy during summertime.
Blistered Shishito Pepper and Soft Cheese Toasts
If you come across Padrón peppers, they are very similar to shishitos and can definitely be substituted in this recipe.
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer
6 to 8 slices country-style bread
1 garlic clove, halved
1 cup fresh, soft cheese (such as farmers cheese, ricotta, or mild goat cheese)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon sea salt
Large pinch of freshly ground black pepper
¾ pound shishito peppers
Flaky sea salt
Toast the bread (in a toaster, under the broiler, or on a grill) and immediately rub each piece with the garlic.
In a bowl, stir together the soft cheese, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, then add the peppers and stir to coat them in the oil. Cook, without stirring, for 1 minute, then stir and turn the peppers. Cook for another 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until blistered in a few spots.
Transfer the peppers to a platter and sprinkle generously with flaky salt. Serve promptly, with the toast and cheese alongside, letting your guests spread the cheese across the toast and top with peppers as they please. (The pepper stems are too fibrous to eat; set a small bowl on the table for tossing the stems.)