You probably didn't give them a thought all winter — but now that the weather's warming up, you'll find yourself craving uniquely summer treats of all kinds. These days, summer grub offers a seesawing tension between the super-healthy and the wildly indulgent. Remember: A balanced life requires some of each. And tomorrow's a great day to start the diet.
SOFT-SERVE DIP CONES
Sure, all those boutique ice creams in exotic flavors are great. But nothing brings back childhood summers like a tottering cone of vanilla or chocolate soft-serve ice cream — the modern replacement for real frozen custard — from one of those gaudy little stands with a name like Taste-T-Freez that don't even open their order windows until May. You'll find them in old-style shopping strips like East 185th street, where Mickey's white-and-red building with the cluster of picnic tables out back is a paradigm of its kind. You can sit at a table with a scenic view of the back door and dumpster, and try to eat the crunchy pieces of the chocolate dip top while chasing driplets down the side of the cone with your tongue. Don't forget to grab every napkin you can find.
Watermelon was meant to be enjoyed in the summer — and preferably eaten outdoors. Not only is it messy and drippy, but the kind God intended us to eat has those seeds to spit out in the grass. These days, even watermelons have gone upscale, with new colors, sizes, and shapes hitting the market all the time. Most of us remember the hefty dark-green oblongs with the bright pink flesh and the big black seeds. Now they come in sizes ranging from 3 to 150 pounds, with gold, yellow, or white flesh, and black, tan, patterned, or solid-color rinds. Billy Buchholz of Murray Hill Market says the round, seedless "cannonball" variety is becoming popular. By the time Wade Oval Wednesdays kick off at University Circle on June 13, he'll have his booth stocked with ice-cold watermelon wedges, sourced locally throughout the summer.
Ever made funnel cake at home? Ever even thought about funnel cake at home? Chances are they've never even passed through your mind until you've walked through the gates of a carnival or county fair. That's where these concoctions taste best. The calorific masses of fried dough under a blizzard of powdered sugar break every dietary rule. But you're at the fair, so who cares? It's the perfect chaser for a corn dog. The Summit County Fair, which opens July 24 in Tallmadge, is an early opportunity to snag some this season. But the biggie is the Great Geauga County Fair, Labor Day weekend in Burton — a fair so vast and sprawling, you'll probably need three or four funnel cakes just to get from one end to the other.
The ingredients of the classic Middle Eastern dish offer a riot of summer flavors. Crisp parsley, mint, and lemon punctuate a base of cracked wheat. Other summer vegetables are mixed in according to taste: tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, or whatever seems fresh and delish. Constantino's in the Warehouse District makes theirs with feta; in New Orleans we had a version featuring currants and pistachio nuts. What you want to avoid is the soggy, sour, pre-packed tabouli you find in groceries around town. Make your own — or stop at any Aladdin's for a freshly made order to take along on your picnic.
LILLY HANDMADE CHOCOLATE
Chocolate may be the ultimate stuck-indoors-in-a-snowstorm comfort food. How can it be summery too? Trot over to Lilly Handmade Chocolate in Tremont and find out. Amanda Montague's adorable little shop changes its menu of distinctive truffles, conceived and crafted in-house, from season to season. The lime truffle, combining fresh lime juice, clover honey, and white chocolate, works wonders for the chocoholic when the weather warms up, evoking the Caribbean island you can't afford to visit. And the Maui Wowee — with Madagascar vanilla bean, Hawaiian black lava sea salt, and white chocolate — is like popping an ocean breeze in your mouth.
Gradually, Americans are losing their taste for winter tomatoes — those pink, flavorless, flabby pieces of blah lurking on January salads. Some restaurants won't even serve off-season tomatoes anymore. That's because grow-your-own and farmers market tomatoes have refined palates for the real thing. Nothing beats those sun-warm cherry and plum tomatoes plucked right off a backyard vine and plopped straight into the mouth. The explosion of local growers means that gardeners, groceries, chefs, and home cooks have access to a greater variety — the kinds that are too fragile to hold up to lengthy shipping and storage. Markets will soon start to overflow with them — purple ones, yellow ones, green striped ones. If you'd like to grow your own, head out to Mulberry Creek Herb Farm in Huron, where you can find Mister Stripeys (green with pink stripes), black plums (a paste tomato with mahogany-colored skin), or the golden-orange Jubilees, among a couple dozen other varieties.
PEANUTS AND CRACKER JACK
Yes, ballpark food is going uptown too. They're hiring chefs and bringing in exotic sausages with fancy toppings like blue cheese and banana peppers to satisfy those for whom a plain old frank with Bertman's Mustard just won't do. But look: The song says "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack," and that's just what you should do. You can find all the nuts you'll need at Peterson Nuts on Carnegie, right across from Progressive Field — if a persistent vendor on Carnegie doesn't get to you first. You can pick up the Cracker Jack — that little rectangular package of goo-covered popcorn and peanuts — at the park. If you haven't had a box in years, be warned: The little plastic prizes you dug for so eagerly have been replaced with even cheaper paper items.
& AND OTHER FOODS ENDING IN I
They call Little Italy's Feast of the Assumption, which closes down two blocks of Mayfield Road for four days in August, a "feast" for a reason. What you will do there is a lot of eating. Sure, there's some religion mixed in, with the procession and Mass at Holy Rosary Church on August 15. But most Clevelanders seem to think the 113-year-old event is about the assumption onto a plate of a mountain of rigatoni, which is then eaten sitting on a curb. After brushing the dirt off their pants, they head to a booth vending cannoli — tubes of pastry with creamy filling. If you insist on eating at a table, Holy Rosary has a cavatelli dinner in the church hall from noon till 3:30 p.m. on August 15. So you can bring your grandmother.