Summer's sublime comforts extend far beyond beachcombing jaunts, sun-kissed getaways and surf-tastic escapes.
If you're Alex Guarnaschelli, a divine taste of summer arrives right on your plate.
The New York City–based chef and Food Network star has crafted a menu of her top picks for a perfect summer comfort-food feast—a toothsome selection of vittles both sweet and savory pulled from her just-released cookbook, Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook.
"I like food that's seasonal and respects the seasons, but I think it has to be light," she says of her criteria for choosing the summer-appropriate dishes you see below. "So I think that there's a caveat with summer that there isn't with any other season."
As for what constitutes "comfort food," the chef remains endlessly fascinated by how our concept of it continues to evolve—while still remaining both richly universal and deeply specific.
"I think that we, as Americans, are constantly developing an idea of what we use to define as the food of our culture," she says. "So, on the one hand, it's the universal thought: All Americans love comfort food. But then there's all the nuanced dishes that, because of your culture or whoever was cooking when you were brought up, are your own. That's what I liked about it: On the one hand, it's a universal sentiment. But the other hand, it becomes very specialized and personal."
Check out these picks for Alex's spot-on summer comfort-food prix fixe:
Baked Clams With Bacon: "Start with something like the ocean, but a little bit with deep flavors," she says of this palate teaser, which is made with Littleneck clams topped with a luscious mixture of bacon, bread crumbs, scallions, garlic and lemon zest, and garnished with parsley. "The comfort of bacon and the universal love of bacon" makes the dish an easy winner, Alex says, revealing that her mother, famed cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, always used to make clams for the family when she was growing up.
Shrimp and Cucumber Salad: "It's just light and fresh, and you can make it all ahead of time and just toss it together at the last minute," Alex says of the dish, a mélange of cucumbers seasoned with kosher salt, vinegar and ginger, and tossed with roasted shrimp and scoops of avocado. (Chopped cilantro provides a happy kick.)
Quickie Strawberry Tartlets: Alex says that the key appeal of this dessert—delectably crisp shells teeming with lemon-zest-accented strawberries resting on a bed of sour cream—is its versatility: Creative chefs can substitute the strawberries with any kind of fruit. "So you can make some with strawberries, some with blueberries, some with blackberries," she says, adding that her parents instilled in her a "buy what's good" attitude—a cooking ethos based on simply choosing the freshest and most seasonal ingredients available at any given point in time.