Don’t Cook Your Meals,
Assemble Them

Summertime calls for quick and low-key strategies

Summer pasta meal

Having grown up with two working—and exhausted—parents, most of my meals were of the “just add water” school of cooking. I graduated and moved to the city, where my meals were bought on a card paid for by my tuition. Nights were kebabs and pizza eaten on street corners. I spent some time in Italy, living at a convent to save some money. Their meals were simple. Roasted chicken and cuts of ham. Looking back, I do not remember desserts (perhaps sugar was considered sinful?), but I do remember always keeping a handful of change in the drawer of my bed stand for the vending machine. I had a golosi di dolce, even then at nineteen.

You see, I did not grow up with a refined palate; and so, as I developed a love for all things cookery, I had to start by instinct. I must also confess that I'm terribly lazy. Even the most delicious meals I make now never take more time than they need to. This is why I follow a simple rule for menus: don't fuss about it. Assemble the dinner, but don't try to cook it.

We're inundated with perfection these days. It's a plague, really. Scroll through your Instagram and see how many plates of food have the perfect basil leaf cocked cheekily on the perfect forkful of pasta. These meals we create to show others never taste as satisfying as they look. I would be frustrated to create a meal like this.

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Instead, I don't sweat it. My dinners are platters of messy sauces and imperfectly cut noodles. The pasta above is just fried zucchini that's whizzed in a food processor with some pasta water and garlic. Add some cheese and butter and you're all set. I will cook a grain and throw on top whatever needs to be used up from the veg crisper in my refrigerator. I will make a box of instant pudding and fold in berries and slices of pound cake and call it a trifle.

I chalk my mistakes up to one word: rustic. I have stopped apologizing for the messy dinners and how, after years, I still don't know how to properly dice an onion. Instead, I make what feels good to make, what gets my hands dirty, what shows the colors of the season, and often what is on sale at the grocery store. Instead, I tear basil leaves with my hands and call it a day. I measure only when I need to. I grab blobs of dough and put them on a baking sheet and hope the cookies won't spread too much. “Hey, it's rustic,” I say, shrugging my shoulders and harboring no guilt about my laissez-faire cooking.

Summer peaches meal
Summer peaches meal

It's an easy excuse to make when one lives on a farm with a flock of hens as I do, where I can make an entire folklore about seasonality and locality and appreciating the land. There is a market run by Mennonites; I like my peaches from there the best. There are usually basil plants in jam jars and coffee cans scattered on the deck. We use a lot of it. Tons, if I were to guess. And with these peaches and fresh eggs and basil, one can make an entire meal. A few slices of prosciutto can accompany any stone fruit. Perhaps some citrus will be dashed in a salad with the basil leaves. A boiled egg is unmatched to cure an Aperol Spritz hangover. A forkful of tinned anchovies or sardines on crusty bread can make for a quick lunch or light dinner.

This is what Summer meals are all about. It comes back to assembling a meal, not cooking one. And, as I have said before, I am very lazy. This type of cookery suits me just fine. And I've never had a dinner guest complain.

So here I come to you, dear reader, to join me in imperfections. Think of a recipe as a suggestion and go from there. Buy what tastes good and throw it all together. Lots of salt helps for dinner and lots of berries helps for dessert. Life is imperfect. Give yourself some leniency and just cook what makes you happy. It's as simple as that.

Stock Up

Best bottles of olive oil

Stock Up

A good bottle of olive oil is key when you’re cooking like this. We’ve pulled together some of the best bottles according to chefs, food writers and shop owners.

NOTE: Items featured in this story are independently selected by the editorial team. Purchasing via our links may earn Valet. a portion of the sale, which helps fund our editorial mission.

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