It’s Too Hot to Cook!

Don’t let the weather drive you to the drive-thru


By Niki Cleary, Tulalip News 

Summer is hot. This summer, in particular, has been a scorcher. The last thing you want to think about when it’s hot, is heating up the oven and making the house even hotter. Not to mention who wants to do dishes (which means adding humidity to the already miserable heat)? So, what do you do for dinner? Eat out of course.

Wait, wait, wait. Bad idea. Why? The average drive through meal at McDonald’s can easily top 1,000 calories. Let’s do the math: that’s one quarter pounder with cheese at 520 calories, medium fries an additional 340 calories and a 12 oz. strawberry banana smoothie (hey, it’s hot and smoothies are healthy, right?) at 210 calories. For reference, moderately active adult women typically need about 2,000 calories a day, and men closer to 3,000. I don’t even want to talk about federal subsidies for unhealthy foods, the power of corporate food or why that kind of food is unethical. Okay, I do want to talk about it, but not in this article.

So, rather than pack on the pounds in the middle of bikini season, with a little prep you can enjoy home-cooked meals that don’t turn your house into a sauna. First, let me preface this by saying, I enjoy cooking. But even if you don’t, these recipes are easy enough to follow.

How to get started; food, like a house, requires a good foundation in order to be awesome. In this case, that means buying fresh, in-season, preferably local and possibly organic. Sounds like a tall order, right? I’m not just being difficult (although according to my relatives, I can be), there’s actually a good reason for those requirements. Bear with me, I’ve been told shopping with me is like a civics lesson.

First, when you buy food in season, and local, it just tastes better. Out of season food doesn’t have the same intensity of flavor, and often has weird textures. Second, the more local your food, the closer to ripe it is when it’s picked. When food travels it has to be picked under ripe, stored in refrigeration while it’s shipped. Last, local food bypasses the guilt of knowing your meal came with a carbon footprint. Add to that the fact that buying local means you are providing jobs in your community and it feels like good karma all around.

Before you decide whether to buy organic or not, take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) lists: The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen ( This list features the foods that are most and least contaminated by pesticides. Every year the EWG tests samples of produce for pesticide presence and makes a recommendation based on the results. Let’s face it, organic is expensive and unless you want to spend a whole paycheck grocery shopping (which I’ve been known to do), you need to prioritize. Either avoid, or buy organic the Dirty Dozen and don’t worry about organic for the Clean Fifteen.

Fresh is important. It’s easy to get carried away when you buy produce, especially if you treat yourself to a farmer’s market where there are samples, and the booths are cute and you can’t stand to not support that kooky old guy wearing bibs and a straw hat. I can’t state this enough, don’t buy too much. If you do buy too much, process and freeze it immediately.

Trust me you’re not going to eat 10 pounds of potatoes, five pints of blueberries, five pounds of carrots, three bunches of kale and several pounds of beautiful, bright red cherries all while they’re still at their peak flavor. It doesn’t matter how mouthwatering they are, unless you have a family of 10 eating every meal together, you’re going to throw them away and feel bad about it.

Now that we feel good about shopping, let’s look at the menu. You’re going to have to imagine my Julia Child’s impression: Today we’re making a delectable meal that requires very little cooking indoors. I have one last confession: I don’t measure very often, so this is an approximation of the last time I made this meal, your results may vary.


Grilled stuffed red bell peppers Photo/Niki Cleary
Grilled stuffed red bell peppers
Photo/Niki Cleary


Grilled stuffed red bell peppers

  • 4 organic red bell peppers (you decide if organic is worth the price, but all your friends are doing it, so…)
  • 1 package of ground Italian sausage (it comes in hot or mild)
  • 1 cup of rice
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 can of diced stewed tomatoes
  • Shredded Italian blend of cheeses (I buy a pre-shredded mix because I despise shredding cheese)

Pre-heat gas or charcoal grill to medium heat (about 350 F)

In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute the Italian sausage. I find that a spatula works way better than a spoon for breaking up ground meats. You don’t have to cook it completely, just until there is very little pink. Add to that your rice, water and stewed tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to low heat. Simmer for about 20 minutes.

While that’s simmering, slice your peppers in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. I use red peppers because they cook more quickly than green, but really, you can use any color your heart desires and the market sells. As soon as your rice mixture is done, you’ll fill the halved peppers and top with shredded cheese, then pop them on the grill for another 10-15 minutes. Serve hot.


Quinoa salad.Photo/ Niki Cleary
Quinoa salad.
Photo/ Niki Cleary


Red white and blue quinoa salad

  • 2 cups of quinoa
  • 1-2 cups Blueberries
  • 1-2 cups Strawberries
  • ½ cup Mint leaves
  • Honey
  • Juice from 2 Limes
  • Salt to taste

Prepare about 2 cups of quinoa according to the package instructions. The key with quinoa is to rinse and drain it a couple of times before you cook it, that helps it come up light and fluffy. Chop your fruit and mint and add to the cooked quinoa. In a small bowl mix the juice from two limes with honey and salt to taste. I don’t know what to tell you guys, I didn’t measure, so just go with what tastes good to you. Pour the lime mixture into your salad, mix and serve at room temperature, or make ahead and serve chilled.


Cheesecake graham crackers.Photo/Niki Cleary
Cheesecake graham crackers.
Photo/Niki Cleary


Cheesecake graham crackers

  • Graham crackers
  • Local, in season fruit (this time of year it’s blueberries, blackberries and peaches)


Cheesecake frosting

  • 1 cup of butter (use the real stuff for goodness sake, it just tastes better)
  • 2 boxes of cream cheese
  • Juice from 1 large lemon
  • Vanilla (a couple capfuls? I’ll be honest, I just dump some in straight from the bottle)
  • Powdered sugar

This is the decadent dessert portion of our meal. I make no apologies for the calories, they’re worth it. Just use moderation, or halve the cream cheese frosting recipe, or put some of it away and slather it on French toast or banana bread later in the week. It’s also great for no-cook cheesecake, by the way. It keeps well in the fridge for about a week, or you can freeze it for about a month. If you freeze it, thaw it overnight in the fridge prior to use.

Allow your butter and cream cheese to come to room temperature. Using a hand mixer, cream the butter and cream cheese until well blended. Add the lemon juice and vanilla and blend again. Add the powdered sugar a little at a time, and to taste. I’m pretty sparing with the sugar, I don’t like it too sweet. Add a little, taste it, add a little more. Remember the graham crackers and fruit are sweet, so you don’t need too much sugar.

Place your cream cheese and fruit on pretty serving dishes and assemble your desired cheesecake graham crackers one at a time. Yum!



Please email and let me know how these recipes work for you ( and give me some feedback on whether I’m being too complicated or too vague or if you like or dislike the food. Enjoy your summer and please, don’t let the heat drive you to the drive-thru!