Hot, muggy weather of the sort we’ve been having lately makes me want to find cool and easy summer meals. After 25 years of relying on fans, we’ve got A/C in our home now, which is nice, but I still don’t want to heat up the kitchen too much.
Which makes me wonder — what, in those long, hot summer days before widespread air-conditioning, did my mom and her fellow homemakers do to put dinner on the table?
When I was a kid, we lived in attached housing, with windows opening only front and back. If whatever breeze there was blew sideways, well, we were just out of luck.
We had electric fans, but these were generally not run all day long. And especially not all night long, as my parents were afraid the long-running motors would cause a fire. So we’d get a few hours of relief, then the fan went off and we stifled for the rest of the night.
On one or two occasions, my dad would command that our mattresses be brought from the steaming second story of our home down to the cooler main floor. That was an adventure! Mom and Dad wrestled their double mattress down the stairs, and my brother and I pitched in to drag our twin mattresses down and into the living room. Those must have been really hot nights, because I think we even left the front door open, with just the screen door latched to protect us from whatever lurked outside. For a while, anyway. (My folks were also afraid someone might break in, so the door would be closed shortly afterward. But I think we at least had the windows open. For a while, anyway.)
Being on a mattress in the living room was more comfortable, but a bit disorienting. I remember lying still, being quietly entranced by the look of our house in the dark. The furniture seemed strange. The streetlights cast light at a different angle. Beams from passing cars flashed on the walls.
One Saturday, Dad brought home a surprise: a window-unit air conditioner. What a luxury! I’m sure it was a big day for Mom, too, because it finally cooled the main floor, at least, so her kitchen wasn’t nearly as sweltering.
Dad had another brainstorm: He hung a blanket to block the top of the stairway so the hot air stayed upstairs and the cool air stayed downstairs. This worked great until we had to go upstairs, to use the one bathroom, for example. Then we nearly suffocated. Eventually the air conditioner migrated upstairs to my parents’ bedroom, and my brother and I got some of that cool air filtering into our rooms, too.
But what I can’t remember was what kinds of cool, please-don’t-heat-up-the-kitchen dinners we ate on hot summer nights. This was before the advent of the “big” salad, or the wrap, or sushi — at least in our neighborhood. (The only kind of pasta salad was mayonnaise-laden macaroni salad, and that was strictly a side dish.)
Working husbands demanded meat for their dinners, and I’m sure some wives had to have pot roasts and stews cooking on the stove, even though the kitchen was already simmering. Going out to a restaurant, where air-conditioning blew freely, was simply not in the budget for many families, including ours.
Did my mom cook full spaghetti or stovetop meals for us, despite the temperatures? Probably. We might have had tuna sandwiches, or quick-frying burgers and hot dogs. I wish I could remember, but I can’t, and neither can anyone else in the family.
What would have been a delightful solution — though quite a bit ahead of its time — is this cool, nutritious and low-fat grain salad. I’ve brought it to potlucks, served it on the side with sandwiches, and yes, offered it as a main dish with or without adding pieces of chicken, sausage or ham. Easy to prepare, it features bulgur (or bulghur) wheat, which cooks in 30 minutes while you chop veggies and open cans. And when I say “cooks,” I use the term loosely. You’ll see.
I found this recipe in a health newsletter from Sav-On, which shows you how long I’ve had it. It’s also on www.myrecipes.com, credited to Southern Living magazine. Feel free to vary the ingredients to suit your tastes: I usually bump up the cilantro and green onion.
1 cup uncooked bulgur wheat
1 cup boiling water
2 tomatoes, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
1 can (15 1/2 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (8 3/4 ounces) no-salt-added corn kernels, drained
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon grated lime rind
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
In large bowl, place bulgur. Add 1 cup boiling water. Cover and let stand 30 minutes.
Add chopped tomato, onions, beans, corn, cilantro and remaining ingredients to bulghur. Toss gently. Tastes better chilled, but can be served at once.
Makes 8 cups.
Per serving: 157 calories; 4g fat (0.6 saurated, 2.8 monounsaturated, 0.6 polyunsaturated); 4g protein; 28g carbohydrate; 6.7g fiber; 0mg cholesterol; 226mg sodium; 24mg calcium.
(c) copyright 2015 Laura Groch