August 12, 2022

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Safe healthy food

Experts dish on crisp salads, clever toasts and cold mezze

5 min read

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It’s hot. And turning on the oven feels like torture.

But Livermore’s Rebekah Culp is a master of no-cook cooking. Even when summer temperatures tick above 100 degrees, Culp doesn’t break a sweat, because she gets loads of dinner inspiration from the creative, jewel-like “toastinis” and big, bountiful salads served at her artisan cafe, The Press.

At The Press, which has locations in Pleasanton and Livermore, Culp and her crew use Acme whole wheat sourdough and housemade ricotta to build stunning seasonal toastinis like Peach and Coppa with honey and basil or The Eloté-Ro with local roasted corn, bacon, hot sauce and “summer fairy dust,” which is just Tajin. But we’re calling that chile pepper-lime mixture summer fairy dust from now on.

“You have your carb, add your good fat and protein, sprinkle some garnishes for texture, and it becomes a complete meal,” says Culp, founder and co-owner, with her husband, Marshall, of the popular Tri-Valley cafes.

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA - JULY 22: Strawberry toastini, left, avocado and egg toastini and peach and coppa tostini are some of the menu items served at The Press artisan cafe in Livermore, Calif., on Friday, July 22, 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Strawberry toastini, left, avocado and egg toastini and peach and coppa tostini are among the specialties served at The Press artisan in Livermore. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

So when the temperature soars, and you simply can’t eat another no-recipe salad with store-bought chicken on top, there are some incredible alternatives. Go all in on Culp’s toastinis, or serve them as the perfect accompaniment to other California chef- and food blogger-approved no-cook dishes, from mezze or charcuterie platters to Andrea Potischman’s spicy sushi bowls, Andy Baraghani’s cold noodles with lemony peanut sauce, watermelon-laced gazpacho or a citrusy take on burrata.

Culp came up with the open-faced idea back in 2015, after leaving a career in corporate dining to start her own business in Pleasanton. Since then, that tiny cafe on Santa Rita Road has doubled in size. In 2018, the Culps opened their second location on First Street in downtown Livermore, where they serve 10 varieties of toastinis alongside Chromatic Coffee.

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA - JULY 22: The Press owners Rebekah Culp, left, and her husband Marshall Culp pose for a photo with some of the menu items served at their artisan cafe in Livermore, Calif., on Friday, July 22, 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
The Press owners Rebekah Culp, left, and her husband Marshall Culp at their artisan cafe in Livermore. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

“People told me they didn’t want the standard breakfast with heavy pancakes and potatoes,” she says. “So I came up with an avocado and egg toast. And every year, we keep adding more.”

Her tips: Start with a hearty bread sliced thinner than you normally would and toast it at medium heat. Spread the toast with a layer of goat cheese or ricotta and top it with fresh slices of whatever you have on hand — tomato, beets, stone fruits. Add depth with a drizzle of good olive oil or honey, and crunch from microgreens, seeds, bacon crumbles or sea salt. Avocado is wonderful instead of ricotta. And any nut butter works great with fresh fruit.

“They’re just so easy to make and so versatile,” Culp says.

If you’re a planner, like Michelle Tam of Palo Alto, you can get ahead of the heat by cooking extra batches of protein before temperatures start to climb. The Nom Nom Paleo blogger and award-winning cookbook author tests recipes for a living, so she can’t step away from the kitchen even when she wants to.

“If I know the weekend is going to be hot, I’ll throw two flank steaks on the grill instead of one or make an extra batch of ginger-poached chicken,” Tam says. “Both taste good cold and can be used in different ways.”

Her family’s favorite way is in salads brimming with fresh, crunchy vegetables, like carrots, cucumbers and daikon radishes drizzled with sesame ginger dressing. On hot days, Tam stays away from the oven and stove but relies on smaller appliances that don’t heat up the house, like the microwave, Instant Pot or Air Fryer. She cooks whole chicken in her Air Fryer.

Her secret weapon is a piece of microwave cookware called Anyday. Invented by a female Chinese-American and backed by Momofuku chef David Chang, the tightly-sealed and vented glass bowls locks in moisture, steaming meat and veggies in minutes. “It’s pretty life changing — and I promise I don’t work for them,” Tam says, laughing.

When her family of four craves more than salad, Tam favors cold or room temperature egg dishes, like frittatas, or noodles made from kohlrabi or daikon (as a gluten-free eater, she gets zoodle fatigue). “Just remember to blanch the daikon first to reduce its bite,” she says.

At Beth Lee’s house in San Jose, the OMG! Yummy blogger and Jewish cookbook author assembles bowls, mezze platters and charcuterie boards by foraging her fridge.

“You’re usually a little less hungry when it’s hot so just pour a glass of cold lemonade or rosé and pick at those things,” says Lee, author of “The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook” (Rockridge Press, $17).

Look through the cheese drawer, discover cold cuts, fresh fruit or pieces of fish, Lee says, and never underestimate the power of proscuitto — whether it comes from Eataly or Trader Joe’s. She’s been known to make a meal from crisped-up leftover grains sauteed briefly with herbs or tomatoes and an egg in the middle, á la egg-in-a-hole toast.

On the hottest nights, Lee will put together a platter with store-bought hummus and zhush it up with za’atar and a drizzle of good olive oil. She’ll toast leftover pieces of bread as a vehicle for avocado, canned fish or smoked salmon. Or she’ll marinate extra-firm tofu with soy sauce, sesame oil, rice or black vinegar, chopped green onions and togarashi.

“We love chilled tofu,” she says. “It’s so refreshing. Take out a bag of edamame. Maybe you have some leftover rice. Suddenly, it’s a meal.”

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