Relish the fresh flavor

A side dish concocted from what's in the fridge can perk up a summer meal.

Joanne Ciccarello – Staff
Just add shrimp: Pineapple, corn, onion, basil, and lemon juice make a quick relish.

In fall, winter, or even early spring, I'm content to spend a lazy day over bubbling pots and a roaring oven. But come summer, I have only one goal when it comes to cooking: Get in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible – and do so without sacrificing flair or flavor.

For the main course, this means using the grill or broiler to keep heat levels down. But a well-cooked piece of meat or fish has only so much excitement to offer.

Enter relish, the secret "sauce" of summer.

Because of its close kinship with the hot dog, the term relish has gotten a bit of a low-brow reputation. So let's be clear upfront: When I say relish, I'm not talking about the pickled, neon-green stuff. I'm talking about a piquant combination of fruits or vegetables, herbs, and a splash of something acidic for a bit of zing.

A less gourmet definition of relish might characterize it as a sort of dribs-and-drabs affair. But for cooks (like me) who are always looking to use up half a tomato and a handful of herbs, relishes are as much about not wasting as they are about zip and zest.

Blame it on relish's origins, actually. In Old French you'll find reles, meaning "something remaining." And while we've strayed from relish's assumed historical purpose – to prevent spoilage and to preserve vegetables during the winter months – the basic building blocks remain.

In my relish research, I ran across all sorts of starting points for what has become a distinctly summery condiment. Sweet corn and tomatoes were standard, but other players ranged from cucumbers to an ingredient as surprising as endive.

And then there were the fruit "relishes." Some cooks argue that using fruit transforms the concoction from a relish into a chutney. Either way, the two condiments are close cousins. For a fruit version, choose mangoes, peaches, strawberries, or even cherries.

Or do as I did on a day when I had a few almost-expired chunks of pineapple on hand. I tossed them with a handful of leftover corn, a little basil, diced sweet onion, and lemon juice and served with grilled chicken.

Once you've chosen your relish's protagonist, it's time to figure out the supporting cast. I like relishes for the way they allow flavors both to stand out and to work together, and for me this means keeping things simple.

A general rule? Include something with a little bite (such as a sweet or red onion or a milder addition like a shallot), something green (basil is a good team player), and something acidic (lemon juice or vinegar, balsamic in particular).

For those who love heat, a bit of chopped jalapeño or a sprinkle of red pepper flakes can amp things up just the right amount. Then add salt and pepper to taste, and you're good to go.

There are, of course, cooked relishes. And if you're in the mood for something a little more labor-intensive – and, perhaps, truer to relish's roots – there's a case to be made for the way cooking can intensify and concentrate the flavors of certain components.

In general, though, I'm content to save the stirring and simmering for the other nine months out of the year. For now, I'd like to let the fresh flavors of summer shine – and to head out onto my balcony where the rest of the season, and a simple, flavorful supper, await me.

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