There's a touch of fall in the air here in the Northeast, but most of the country still has plenty of hot, sticky weather to look forward to for the next few weeks. Here are some easy, breezy dinner ideas to help you get through the rest of the season.

When you hear tomato sauce, most people think of cooked tomato sauce. But you can also make a fresh tomato sauce that's incredibly refreshing and perfect with penne or fusilli. Summer tomatoes (at least the ones I've been buying at the farmers market) are really at their tastiest now, with a nice balance of earthiness and sweetness. Mix it up, taste it, and see what it needs.

Pasta With Fresh Tomato Sauce

  • 1 pound fresh tomatoes, preferably heirloom (at room temp—never refrigerated fresh tomatoes), cored and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup basil, sliced thinly
  • 1 pound pasta of your choice
  • Freshly grated Parmesan, for serving

In a medium bowl, combine the chopped tomatoes with the olive oil, salt, pepper, and basil. Set aside at room temperature and allow the flavors to blend.

Cook pasta according to package directions and drain. Toss the hot pasta with the tomato sauce, sprinkle with the Parmesan and serve.

Rice Salad
Another low to no-cook idea is a rice salad packed with lots of goodies. You can start with either the ultra-easy frozen brown rice (like the one from Rice Expressions or Whole Foods store brand), or the 10-minute stove-top kind. Once you have the cooked, cooled rice, just start free styling with stuff that's in your fridge.

Directions: Simply stir ingredients together in a large bowl. Either serve at room temperature, or cover and chill for 2 hours before serving.

Tex Mex Rice Salad

  • 2 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup black beans
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • A squeeze of a fresh lime
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • Optional protein: 1 cup rotisserie chicken, chopped

Mediterranean Rice Salad

  • 2 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cucumber, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/3 cup crumbled feta
  • A squeeze of fresh lemon
  • 1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • Optional protein: 1 can Italian tuna, packed in oil and drained

Indian Rice Salad

  • 2 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins, plumped in hot water
  • 1/2 teaspoon curry powder (more if you love curry)
  • 1/4 cup cashews
  • 1 cup red grapes, halved
  • 1 cup canned garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
  • A drizzle of honey, optional

Big Fat Sandwich
My favorite sandwich of all time is the "sandwich under a brick" that I learned from Martha Stewart about 10 years ago. It was perfect for my kitchen situation at the time—a one-room apartment with one of those "efficiency" kitchens. Basically, I couldn't really cook in my apartment, but I could make this sandwich. And you don't need a brick. A heavy art book or dictionary works perfectly well. This recipe is ideal for an end of summer picnic. I'll be making it for Labor Day.

Here's what you'll need (this is my favorite combo, but go nuts—anything goes):

  • A large, crusty bread round, such as peasant bread, or a long rectangular bread like ciabatta
  • Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling on bread
  • An 8-ounce log of goat cheese, at room temperature
  • A jar or tub of black olive tapenade
  • A 7-ounce jar of roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
  • A 6-ounce jar of marinated artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
  • 8 ounces of thinly sliced prosciutto
  • 2 cups arugula leaves

Slice the bread in half, lengthwise. Tear out a little bit of the soft, doughy center to make room for the other ingredients. Set the top part of the bread aside. Place a large sheet of wax or parchment paper under the bottom of the bread.

Drizzle a little olive oil on the bottom half of the bread. Then use a silicone spatula to spread the goat cheese across the bread in an even layer. Next, spread a thin layer of the tapenade (most are pretty strong) over the cheese. Then scatter the roasted red peppers over the surface of the bread, followed by the artichoke hearts. Finally, layer the sliced prosciutto evenly over the surface, and follow with the arugula leaves.

Now you're ready to place the top of the bread back on the giant sandwich. Wrap the sandwich tightly in the wax or parchment paper. Tie with some string if you have any. Then, place the sandwich in your fridge (might need to clear some space first) and top with a really heavy book, like that dictionary you never use anymore.

Let the sandwich sit and compress for 2-3 hours. Remove from the fridge, cut into quarters, and either wrap and take to your picnic, or eat immediately.

By Frances Largeman-Roth

(PHOTO: 123RF)