Melissa's Summer Dinner Formula, Plus 12 Fresh Recipes

Get Melissa's take on simple summertime meals, and check out a dozen of her veggie-focused recipes.
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In the winter months, I love nothing more than tucking into a warm meaty stew or sliding a butter knife through succulent tender braised roasts. I create my meals around the protein — sometimes relegating the sides to a secondary consideration, sticking to tried-and-true standbys most weeknights. If I am trying out a new flavor in the kitchen, it isn't usually in the veggies.

I realize that as the weather warms up, there is a subtle shift to my cooking: I create my meals around the vegetables and keep the proteins uber-simple, usually just tossing them on the grill and then slicing to serve on a small platter, almost as a side to the veggie stars. The vegetables become my canvas for improvisation. Sometime around April or May, I start bulking up my veggie purchases, and I find myself browsing the local farmers market, or even just the supermarket produce aisle. Last week at dinner, my nephew Jack commented on the plethora of veggie dishes I served — I served three, but they were full recipes, not just the quick steamy work of a microwave. (I feel compelled to add that he even gave my sauteed cabbage a 55 on a scale of 1 to 10, which is something for cabbage and a 10-year-old.)

The meat becomes almost the accompaniment, and the veggies are the main attraction. I have fun with all sorts of flavors and spices. The average home cook can also improvise and play with flavors — it is harder to “mess up” a veggie because you can taste along the way (unlike a chicken dish, which you cannot safely taste until the chicken is cooked through). And there is another secret weapon at your disposal on the veggie-experimentation front: Amazing vegetarian and vegan cookbook authors, magazines and bloggers all have easy but interesting vegetable recipes for you to try out. Turns out, not eating meat ever leads to a lot of veggie-combining experience, and the result is some truly tasty food in combinations that we meat eaters might never have taken the time to explore. Some of the best recipes being written right now are from vegetarians, if you ask me. So take advantage of that and branch out a bit.

My summertime weeknight formula allows you to do just that. It is simple enough to allow for all sorts of plug-and-play options, but it’s just enough structure to keep the stress of meal planning at bay:

2 or 3 veggie dishes + simply grilled protein + quinoa, rice or a crusty loaf of bread

I serve the veggies up in matching white bowls that I bought at Costco, so they look colorful (in a perfect world, I try to serve veggies of varying colors at one meal). And if I am serving up three veggies, usually one of them is a salad of some sort — even just a simple kale salad dressed in lemon, garlic and olive oil, and topped with Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast. (Yep, a vegan blogger friend turned me on to nutritional yeast years ago — thanks, Kathy Patalsky!) Another tip: Don’t be afraid to mix up ethnic flavor profiles on the veggies! I’ll serve Indian curry-sauteed carrots right next to some eggplant I’ve roasted with Italian herbs, tomato and garlic. There’s lots of leeway!

I'll use a large white dinner plate or small platter to serve up the grilled protein — usually boneless skinless chicken breasts, wild salmon or sliced steak. For the protein, usually I just coat it with a bit of oil, salt and pepper, grill and then squeeze on some lemon juice while it rests. On the side, I’ll add some quinoa (so my microwave doesn’t get lonely) or a crusty baguette. Really simple stuff, so the veggies shine.

What an easy way to celebrate the season of veggie abundance! Head to the farmers market, join a CSA, search for some unique recipes, and see how my summertime weeknight dinner formula can help remove the stress of dinner planning.

Some recipes to get you started:
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