An invitation to dine entails a pact of sorts. You, the host, offer to properly nourish your guests; they, lucky things, get to show up and adore you for your labors. Nowhere in this social contract does it say you, the host, need to work up a sweat.
Here's a summer menu that's sufficiently impressive without requiring any actual cooking, meaning no heating up the kitchen. Start with a smoked trout pate. Creme fraiche and cream cheese give the spread its requisite richness, while marinated cucumber strips add crunch and tang. A spicy, saladlike garnish of crab and corn adds interest to each bite of a creamy, chilled avocado and melon soup.
The entree is built upon a store-bought rotisserie bird: Dice the chicken, add white beans, fennel and arugula. Tomato aspic -- a preparation in which the fruit's juices become a savory gelatin -- provides a retro twist. Finish the meal with a classic icebox cake layered with sophistication. Lemon and blueberry flavor the tiers of cream built on an easy graham cracker base.
Hey, you're still the one who put it all together. So accolades will be earned the honest way.
Blueberry and Lemon-Cream Icebox Cake
8 to 10 servings
This take on a traditional icebox cake alternates creamy layers of lemon whipped cream and berry-infused mascarpone. The striped slices look nice on a plate.
You'll need a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.
MAKE AHEAD: The cake needs to be refrigerated for at least 4 hours (to set) or up to a day in advance. From food writer and cookbook author Tony Rosenfeld.
2 pints fresh blueberries, stemmed and rinsed
1/2 cup Lyle's Golden Syrup (available at larger grocery stores, on the baking aisle)
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
12 ounces mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups chilled heavy cream
8 ounces graham crackers, or more as needed
Confectioners' sugar, for serving
Puree the blueberries in a food processor until smooth. Use a flexible spatula to push the puree through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing to extract as much as possible from the solids (discard them). There should be about 2 cups of strained puree. Return it to the food processor, along with the syrup and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, and blend until well incorporated. Reserve 1 cup as a sauce for serving; cover and refrigerate it.
Add the mascarpone to the remaining blueberry mixture (in the food processor) and blend until the mixture becomes uniform and smooth.
Combine the lemon zest, granulated sugar and heavy cream in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Beat on low speed for about 1 minute, then on medium-high speed for about 2 minutes or until stiff peaks form.
Use parchment paper to line the bottom and sides of the loaf pan (an initial light coating of cooking oil spray may help). Use an offset spatula to spread half of the blueberry-mascarpone mixture evenly in the bottom. Cover completely with the graham crackers, making a single layer that uses about one-quarter of the crackers; breaking them as needed.
Next, use the spatula to spread half of the lemon whipped cream evenly over the graham cracker layer, then repeat with another graham cracker layer, the remaining blueberry mascarpone mixture, a graham cracker layer, the remaining lemon whipped cream and a final graham cracker layer. Compress very gently; the assembled cake should come to the top of the pan. Wrap in plastic wrap and weight with a heavy plate or pan. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to a day in advance.
To serve, remove the weight and plastic wrap. Place a platter over the pan, then use both hands to invert the cake so it lands on the platter. Gently peel away the parchment paper and discard it.
Whisk the reserved cup of blueberry puree so it becomes smooth and pourable. Drizzle some over each slice of cake, then sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. Serve right away.
NUTRITION Per serving (based on 10): 520 calories, 3 g protein, 52 g carbohydrates, 35 g fat, 21 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 28 g sugar
Smoked Trout Pate With Creme Fraiche and Dill Cucumber Strips
Makes a scant 2 cups of pate (8 servings)
Serve this rich spread on crusty baguette rounds, rosemary crackers or anything else that offers a little crunch.
MAKE AHEAD: The pate can be made and refrigerated a day in advance; freshen it with a splash of lemon juice before serving. Make the cucumber strips just before serving so they maintain their crispness. From food writer and cookbook author Tony Rosenfeld.
For the pate
8 ounces smoked trout, skin, bones and blood lines discarded
1/2 cup creme fraiche (may substitute low-fat sour cream)
1/2 cup low-fat cream cheese (4 ounces; do not use nonfat)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more as needed
2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
1/2 cup minced fresh chives (optional)
For the cucumber
1 English seedless cucumber (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Crusty baguette, cut crosswise into thin slices, or crackers, for serving
For the pate: Flake the trout into a food processor; pulse to chop. Add the creme fraiche, cream cheese, lemon juice, mustard, Tabasco and black pepper. Pulse until smooth.
Transfer to a container. Fold in the chives, if using, and season with salt to taste, then taste and add pepper and/or lemon juice as needed. Seal and refrigerate until ready to serve.
For the cucumber: Trim, then peel the cucumber, preferably using a Y-shaped peeler. Applying greater pressure, use the peeler to shave wide strips into a mixing bowl until you reach the cucumber's seed core, which can be reserved for a separate use. Add the vinegar, the tablespoon of dill and the salt, tossing gently to incorporate.
To serve, spread a generous schmear of pate on the bread or crackers. Top with a few ribbons of the cucumber and dill.
NUTRITION Per serving (without the baguette): 160 calories, 11 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Chilled Avocado and Melon Soup With Spicy Crab-Corn Salad
Makes 8 cups (8 servings)
The soothing richness of this soup is perked up by the heat and acidity of the marinated crab-and-corn salad. At this point in the summer, fresh-picked corn is tender and sweet enough to serve raw.
MAKE AHEAD: The soup needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour and up to a day. The salad needs to sit for 10 minutes before serving and can be assembled up to 1 hour in advance. From food writer and cookbook author Tony Rosenfeld.
For the soup
3 cups peeled and diced ripe honeydew melon (from about 1/2 melon)
3 cups cold water, or more as needed
2 ripe avocados (about 2 cups pulp)
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more as needed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
For the salad
6 ounces lump crabmeat, shredded (about 1 cup)
3/4 cup fresh sweet corn kernels (from 1 ear)
1 Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, seeded and finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 lime), or more as needed
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, washed and patted dry
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
For the soup: Combine the melon, water, avocados, heavy cream, lemon juice, cumin, salt and pepper in a blender and puree until smooth; thin the mixture with more water as needed. Stir in the scallions and mint, and set in the refrigerator to chill for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day; taste for salt, pepper and lemon juice after refrigerating (and before serving).
For the salad: Combine the crab, corn, Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, lime juice, sugar, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl; let the mixture sit for 10 minutes, giving it a gentle toss or two during that time. Stir in the cilantro and oil; taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Divide the soup among individual bowls. Spoon equal portions of the crab-corn mixture onto the center of each bowl. Serve right away.
NUTRITION Per serving: 220 calories, 6 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 17 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 570 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
Italian Chicken Salad With Fennel, White Beans and Heirloom Tomato Aspic
Think of aspic as a savory Jell-O. Here, the juices of ripe tomatoes are transformed into a refreshing palate-cleansing partner to a Mediterranean chicken salad.
You'll need eight 4-ounce ramekins. Greased cupcake tins with 1/2-cup wells can be substituted, but they will be harder to unmold, and the aspic will react unpleasantly with metal tins if they remain in contact for an extended time.
MAKE AHEAD: The aspic needs to be refrigerated at least 4 hours and up to 2 days. Assemble the chicken salad an hour or so before serving. From food writer and cookbook author Tony Rosenfeld.
For the aspic
2- 1/2 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes (about 4 beefsteak)
About 2- 1/2 tablespoons (3 envelopes) unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup very hot water
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1- 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
For the salad
One 3-pound rotisserie chicken
28 ounces canned, no-salt-added cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 small bulb fennel, quartered, cored and very thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 ounces baby arugula (about 4 cups)
3/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings (made using a peeler), plus more for garnish
12 leaves basil, torn, plus more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
For the aspic: Lightly grease eight 4-ounce ramekins with cooking oil spray.
Seed one of the tomatoes, letting the seeds, gel and liquid fall into the bowl of the food processor. Finely dice the flesh to yield 1/2 cup; transfer to a small bowl. Cut the remainder of the seeded tomato and the remaining whole tomatoes into 1-inch chunks and add to the food processor. Process until completely pureed, about 1 minute. Strain into a 1-quart liquid measuring cup through a fine-mesh strainer, using a flexible spatula to press through as much of the juice as possible; discard any solids in the strainer. You'll need 23/4 cups of juice; reserve any extra for another use (such as a gazpacho or vinaigrette). If you don't have enough juice, add water to yield a total of 2 3/4 cups.
Transfer a generous 1/2 cup of the juice to a very wide, shallow bowl. (You need a large surface area.) Sprinkle the gelatin evenly onto the juice, letting it sit on the surface. After 10 minutes, add the hottest possible tap water and stir until the gelatin has dissolved and the mixture is thick yet not lumpy. Add it to the remaining 21/4 cups of tomato juice in the measuring cup, stirring to incorporate completely. Add the reserved 1/2 cup of diced tomato, along with the vinegar, salt, thyme and crushed red pepper flakes.
Pour equal amounts of the aspic mixture into each ramekin. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the aspic sets, at least 4 hours and up to 2 days.
For the salad: Discard the skin, bones and all visible fat from the chicken. Cut the remaining meat into 1/2-inch pieces, placing them in a large serving bowl as you work. The yield is about 6 cups.
Add the beans, fennel, oil, vinegar and lemon juice, and toss well to incorporate. Let the salad sit for 5 minutes, so the fennel begins to soften and the chicken picks up the flavor of the dressing. Add the arugula, Parmigiano-Reggiano and basil, and toss well. Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.
To serve, dip a paring knife into hot water, then run it around the inside edge of each ramekin. Invert the aspic onto individual plates. Mound the chicken salad around or next to the aspic, and garnish with additional cheese and basil.
NUTRITION Per serving: 430 calories, 42 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar