Homemade condiments, no-cook recipes, and other secrets for getting dinner on the table easier and faster.
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Selection of homemade condiments
Credit: Courtesy of Melina Hammer

Melina Hammer is many things: recipe developer, food stylist, food photographer, bestselling author, and the owner of Catbird Cottage in New York's Hudson Valley. The idyllic bed and breakfast was the inspiration for Hammer's newest book, A Year at Catbird Cottage: Recipes for a Nourished Life ($30.23, bookshop.org), which features recipes for seasonal, locally sourced, and foraged dishes from Hammer, plus her tips for foraging and preserving. The book is divided into four sections inspired by each of the seasons. As we head into the hot weather, who better to ask for weeknight dinner tips for summer than someone who wrote an entire section of her book about just that? Here, Hammer shares her ideas, pantry staples, and favorite recipes for summer weeknight dinners.

Plan Ahead for Weeknight Meals

"Prior planning is your friend, so you can soak up the dwindling glimmer of a beautiful evening with minimal work," Hammer says. For her, planning ahead takes the form of stocking a summer pantry and refrigerator with homemade condiments that level up the flavor of whatever she's making. Take inspiration from her ideas and use them with your own DIY condiments or favorite store-bought ones.

For example, Hammer makes an aioli using herbs from her garden and create a delicious spread around it––think fresh and cooked vegetables (new potatoes, juicy cucumbers, crunchy radishes) and a couple of jammy hard boiled eggs. Add some fish or seafood (which can be cooked a day or two before) and you have a full-on feast.

She almost always has a jar of her Wild Mushroom Escabeche (a lightly pickled condiment made with foraged mushrooms) in the fridge, which she tosses into pasta or rice, or serves with beans, eggs, or chicken. If you don't forage for mushrooms, follow her advice and use "vibrant pesto-style sauces, they do delicious heavy lifting when all I want to prepare is toast." Slather some on slices of toasted bread, then top with vegetables, mortadella, soppressata, and a custardy egg. "It's remarkably satisfying for how little work goes into making it!"

Beyond homemade condiments, pantry must-haves for Hammer include eggs, anchovies, and lemons. "I am fortunate to receive eggs from my neighbor's hens and ducks," she says, and when she has a surplus she makes an eggy, Spanish-style tortilla, to serve with salad. "It can feed a crowd or we pull from it over the course of a few meals," she says.

Choose No- or Low-Cook Meals for Summer

When it's sweltering outside, the last thing you want to do is to cook over a hot flame or make your house even hotter by turning on the oven. "Ever since I started a garden, I eagerly anticipate morning harvest time," Hammer says. "Gathering whatever is peak-ripe helps shape whatever the next meals will be, a routine I've grown to really enjoy. Give me an indulgent wedge of cheese alongside chunky wedges of a just-harvested cucumber and a handful of bursting ripe tomatoes and I am happy."

For a dish that feels a little more prepared, ceviche is a go-to for Hammer. "It feels fancy, but it's really an incredibly simple thing to throw together," she says. "The key is incorporating the freshest fish or seafood you can find, and then adding a bunch of zippy elements." She serves her ceviche with pickled pearl onions and shaved serrano peppers for contrast. "Eating it feels extremely nourishing and uplifting," she says.

Fire Up the Grill

When entertaining friends and family, Hammer breaks out her Weber grill. Since grilling is more of an event as far as prep, time, and cleanup go, she'll typically wait for entertaining occasions or when she has a lot of vegetables to cook at once. "If I have a glut of spring onions, garlic scapes, or summer squash, I love firing up the grill and making quick work of them so they get charred in spots, then pulling from the batch for breakfast, lunch, and dinner until it is all used up," she says.

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