Cool cuisine in hot times

Dinner: When the mercury rises, these chilly dishes can temper the temperature and make outside dining bearable.

July 28, 1999|By Maureen Sajbel

LOS ANGELES TIMES — LAS VEGAS -- It's said that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. That may be fine for some, but most people still have to get dinner on the table.

To beat the heat, you may have tried microwaving food and grilled burgers until you can't stand the sight of another ground beef patty. You may have made reservations at local restaurants. Now what?

Take a few tips from the chefs and restaurateurs in Las Vegas, where the desert climate makes 100-plus degree temperatures common this time of year, and evenings rarely cool off below the mid-70s.

"The one thing they've perfected here is air conditioning," says Jeffrey Chodorow, who owns several Las Vegas restaurants, including China Grill and rumjungle.

"It's 116 outside and 60 inside. It feels like Antarctica. Because of that, we can have indoor barbecues."

True, restaurants here all have cooled kitchens. But, once home, chefs, like everyone else, head for their outdoor grills or stove tops and avoid anything that involves cranking up the oven. They know how to put zest back into dinner time, with or without the AC.

In a nutshell, their secrets for making food more appetizing for listless, heat-affected eaters include relying on flavorful marinades, using exotic spices, varying food temperatures, choosing brightly colored foods and always having an abundance of cold drinks.

Soups, salads and marinated fish and chicken are the staples.

But before the chefs even step into the kitchen, they make sure the dining area is conducive to eating.

The first thing that Four Seasons Hotel executive chef Wolfgang von Wieser did when he moved to Las Vegas from Berlin was to install a swimming pool in his back yard. And then he borrowed a few ideas from his hotel, which has an outdoor terrace restaurant, a rarity in this hot desert climate. The hotel made alfresco dining bearable by placing the tables near the pool, shading everyone with large white canvas umbrellas as well as olive, lemon and palm trees, and periodically spritzing the air with cool water misters, which temper the desert heat.

Von Wieser liked the misters so much that he borrowed the idea for his own back yard.

"Misters take the temperature down and block the heat like a curtain," he explains.

After the stage is set, keep in mind what makes hot weather eating different from eating in winter.

"In Berlin," says von Wieser, "people eat more meat and there's more grease involved -- from cooking to serving. There are more calories. They eat three meals a day and people drink more alcohol, including wine at lunch.

"Here," he says, "all the recipes are lighter, and have more vegetables and less starch. Lunch is very light. Or if someone has a good lunch, they might skip dinner. People go for grilled items. They drink more liquids of all kinds, but they don't drink alcohol at lunch. At dinner, they might have a light rose, spritzer or white wine."

When planning your menu, says Robert Oliver, consulting chef at rumjungle, think carefully about temperature -- the food's temperature, that is, not the soaring mercury.

"Alternate the temperatures of the food," recommends this Fiji- and Samoa-raised chef who created the restaurant's South Pacific-influenced menu based on his own experiences in tropical climates. Items include meat grilled on sword-sized skewers and Bahamian conch fritters with hot banana ketchup.

"Serve an icy cold first course, maybe cold marinated fish like ceviche, or gazpacho, then a hot course that can be simple grilled food. Then go back to cold with a dessert like fruit or ices," he says.

Contrasting temperatures also can be contained in one dish, like a cool, crisp bed of greens with hot grilled food on top, he says. One of his featured salads contains chilled ripe tropical fruit topped with prawns that have been grilled in a guava/sweet chili sauce mixture.

For hot or cold courses, don't shy away from soups and stews, he adds. "You'd think stew would be out in a hot climate, but it's not. India has curry, and oxtail stew is everywhere in Jamaica."

One of his favorites is the Fijian Fisherman's Stew, which is a curry and fish mixture that's light, exotic and colorful.

"In hot countries, people eat hot, spicy foods," he says. "Spicy foods make your capillaries dilate and make you sweat, which cools you down and wakes you up. Also, cook with aromatics, like ginger, lemon grass and kaffir lime. They give a citrus life to food. They're flavors that wake you up."

Things to avoid in the heat are heavy bread and dairy products, says Oliver. "I think they make you tired."

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