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Summer Cooking Tips From 'America's Test Kitchen'

Grilled short ribs are a delicious addition to any summer barbecue. (America's Test Kitchen)

Tired of regular old hamburgers and hot dogs for July 4?

You're in luck. On Tuesday's Fresh Air, Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster from America's Test Kitchen join Terry Gross to highlight some of their favorite grilling techniques and summer recipes — everything from meats to vegetables to, yes, even desserts.

Bishop and Lancaster have been grilling for years. They love the technique because it concentrates flavors and makes food taste really, really good.

"You're basically creating this charred surface," says Lancaster. "And the smoky char on the food just about makes anything better — maybe not pie, but just about everything else."

Grilling Basics

Lancaster calls herself an "equal-opportunity griller" — meaning she'll cook on either charcoal or gas, depending on what's for dinner.

"I use a gas grill more often, and that's because it's super convenient," she says. "Charcoal is a little more of a project. You have to light the coals and build the fire. But charcoal grills, in my opinion, are one of the best ways to barbecue or smoke foods."

Bishop agrees.

"I have both a gas grill and a charcoal grill," he admits. "And when I want smoke flavor, I'll go through the extra work of using a charcoal grill and adding wood chunks. But I grill everything. I grill bread in the summer, and I'm not going to build a fire to grill four slices of bruschetta."

Below, some of Lancaster and Bishop's tried and trusty techniques for some of their favorite summer recipes:

On chilled tomato soup: It's a beautiful thing to have a cold vegetable soup on a warm summer day. Lancaster suggests starting with regular garden-variety tomatoes. Roast them briefly in the oven with some tomato paste, paprika, shallots and garlic, to concentrate their flavors. And then toss them into a food processor with some olive oil. "You end up with this luxurious, silky, rich tomato soup, and it's beautiful — lovely with a nice bread," she says.

On corn on the cob: Have trouble getting corn out of the husk? Use a microwave to help, says Bishop. "You lop off the first row of kernels from the stalk end — the part that was attached to the plant — and then throw the whole thing into the microwave, and 30 seconds later, you can slide both the husk and the silk [off]."

He also recommends boiling corn for no longer than a minute or two, if you're going to go the non-grilling route. "The corn we eat now bears almost no resemblance to the corn we ate a long time ago," he says. "Using an old recipe, it might say to cook it for 8 to 10 minutes, but that is way too long."

And remember to save the cobs for making stock. "You can use it to make rice dishes, summer soup — and it's great for bean dishes, too," says Bishop.

On short ribs: Short ribs aren't typically cooked on a grill because they're a tougher cut of meat full of connective tissue, which takes a really long time to break down. But Lancaster says there's an alternate approach: Cover your short ribs in foil and pop them in an oven at a low temperature for a couple of hours. That helps the tough connective tissue break down into gelatin, which gives meat a silky texture.

"We start them in the oven, and we coat them with this spice rub and steam them with a little bit of vinegar," she says. "By the time they get to the grill, we baste them with a tart mustard and brown sugar sauce, and they are amazing. They melt in your mouth."

On hamburger patties: Lancaster says she's a purist — she loves 85 percent lean ground beef — but notes grinding your own cuts can lead to more flavorful hamburgers. "You can choose short rib meat, brisket and steak tips, and create a beef patty that way," she says.

On turkey burgers: Forget the dry hockey pucks you might have consumed in the past, says Lancaster. Use turkey thigh meat and add lots of savory flavorings, like mushrooms and soy sauce, to keep the meat moist. "We also add gelatin bloomed in a little bit of chicken stock, which gives [turkey burgers] the silky texture of a beef burger," says Lancaster. "And we also coat them with a bit of baking soda. The baking soda is an alkali, so it raises the pH level and tenderizes the meat, so you end up with a turkey burger that is succulent, meaty and juicy."

On grilling veggies: Vegetables need to be cut into large shapes so they don't fall through a grill onto the coals. Bishop's favorites include red onions, zucchini and sweet potatoes, which he cuts into half-inch thick circles before placing them on the grill. "They need a really, really cool fire, so you can't put them directly over the coals," he says. "They'll take about 20 minutes or so. And what happens on the grill is that it brings out the natural sugars, and it caramelizes and just has so much more flavor than any other way you can cook those vegetables."

On fish: The biggest complaint received by the Test Kitchen about grilling fish? It sticks to the grates. But there's an easy fix: Take a wad of paper towels dipped in vegetable oil, and use tongs to rub them all over your grill grates several times. "This forms a temporary nonstick surface on the grill grate," says Bishop. "And then you put the fish down diagonal to the grill grates, which keeps it from falling through, and makes it a little easier to get a spatula underneath when it's time to flip the fish."

On easy summer desserts: Think fruit gratin. It's easy, delicious and seasonal, says Lancaster, who recommends rounding up summer berries. Throw them into the bottom of a pie dish and then make a simple topping of cubed bread tossed with butter, cinnamon and sugar. "Put that right over the berries, and put that in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees," she says. "It's absolutely amazing. You scoop that out with some ice cream. It's probably my favorite summer dessert."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back from my vacation. I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting while I was gone. Since tomorrow is July 4th, which for many people means throwing something on the grill, we thought this was a perfect time to talk about summer cooking, not just grilling, but also nice cold salads and desserts.

I have two guests. Bridget Lancaster is the onscreen test cook for the PBS shows "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country." Jack Bishop is a cast member of both those shows and is the editorial director "America's Test Kitchen." She specializes in meat dishes. he specializes in vegetable dishes. So whichever you prefer, I think we've got you covered.

Bridget Lancaster, Jack Bishop, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Since it's summer, and since we're heading to July 4th, I thought that I would ask you each to choose a favorite food to grill. And Bridget, since your specialty is meat, and you say even when you cook a vegetarian dish, there's meat in it, I'm going to ask you to choose a favorite meat to barbecue, and tell us how you do it.

BRIDGET LANCASTER: Well, that's like picking my favorite child. I'm not sure how to do that.

(LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: But I'd say I have a new favorite these days. One of them is short ribs, which traditionally we haven't grilled short ribs because they have a lot of fat, they have a lot of connective tissue, and they take forever to break down on the grill. But we came up with this method where we start them in the oven, and we coat them with a spice rub and steam them with a little bit of vinegar, and it starts to break down the ribs.

And by the time they get to the grill, we baste them with a really, kind of a tart mustard and brown sugar sauce. They are amazing. They melt in your mouth. They have this beautiful crust on the outside. I think that might be my new favorite.

GROSS: So you start in the oven before you actually grill it. Can you explain why, and do you do that with other meats, too?

LANCASTER: Sure, well, that's a really effective method for tough cuts of meat, things like Boston butt, a pork shoulder, giant pork ribs or beef ribs, anything that's really tough on its own. It contains a lot of connective tissue, and it also contains a lot of collagen, and that collagen needs to convert into gelatin, and that's what - if you have pulled pork, that's what gives it that really silky texture and super-moist.

So the most effective way, or one of the most effective ways of converting the collagen into gelatin is a moist, low-heat cooking method. So often we'll start off with these tough cuts, and we'll cover them with foil, and we'll put them in a relatively low oven for a couple of hours, up to a certain point where they really start to tenderize.

And another advantage of that is the fact that you don't have to babysit the grill. So you're not wasting charcoal or propane gas or anything like that. It's all done in the oven, and then just finishing them on the grill with enough smoke to really get some of that flavor in is - it's kind of like magic.

GROSS: To me it's almost like you're doubling the work...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...because there's a time in the oven and a time on the grill and the transition in between. Yeah.

LANCASTER: Well, think about the time in the oven gives you opportunity to maybe work on some of your other dishes, too.

GROSS: And while we're on the subject of meat, what's your favorite kind of hamburger patty for grilling? Like how do you do that, since a lot of people are going to be grilling hamburgers?

LANCASTER: Right, well, I am a purist. I like a really good, about 85 percent lean beef patty. But we've been getting into the habit of grinding our own meat. So that way, you can actually choose really flavorful cuts. You can choose short rib meat, you can choose brisket. I'm trying to think of, what are those, steak tips. Steak tips are great for grinding up in your food processor. And you can create a beef patty that way.

But there's been kind of a schism in the test kitchen, and they've introduced me to turkey burgers, which I have to say I was a really big critic of turkey burgers. I don't know why anyone would ever want to do that. I mean, they're dry. They're like a hockey puck. They don't taste like anything.

(LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: You know, if you're trying to compare it to a beef burger, it pretty much always loses, but the test kitchen, they're maniacs in there. They've actually turned the turkey burger into something that I want to eat. You know, we grind our own turkey, but we use turkey thigh meat instead of the breast meat. So you're already starting off with a much more flavorful cut.

And then we are introducing lots of savory flavors. Mushrooms go in there, soy sauce goes in there. We keep it nice and moist by adding gelatin, actually just plain old gelatin bloomed in a little bit of chicken stock. It really makes them - gives them that silky texture of a beef burger.

And then on the other side of it, something that we've been doing quite often now - especially with lean cuts of meat - we soak them, or we coat them with a little bit of baking soda. And the baking soda is an alkali, and what that does is it raises the pH level, and it tenderizes the meat. So you end up with this turkey burger that is no longer not dry, not tough, inedible, but is actually succulent, meaty and juicy.

GROSS: Oh, that sounds good.

LANCASTER: Yeah.

GROSS: So OK, on to Jack Bishop. Jack, you're largely into vegetable cooking. I mean, you're still not quite a vegetarian, right?

JACK BISHOP: I am not a vegetarian, but the nickname in my household that my two teenage daughters have given me is number one veg.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: I'm not sure that's a good thing, but yeah, I am the vegetable guy.

GROSS: OK. So let's start with something really basic here. How do you cut the vegetables so that they don't fall through the cracks on the grill?

BISHOP: They need to be cut large, and so if you're dealing with something like zucchini, for instance, cut it lengthwise into planks rather than crosswise into little circles. You know, the worst thing that can happen to your vegetables besides catching on fire and becoming like charcoal is that they fall onto the coals.

And so if you cut anything into large, thick pieces, they are going to take longer to cook so that that gets more flavor into them, and they're much less likely to fall through the grate onto the coals.

GROSS: So what are a couple of the vegetables that are your favorites for grilling?

BISHOP: My absolute favorite is red onion. Every time the grill is on...

GROSS: God, I was not expecting that to be the answer.

BISHOP: You were not expecting that?

GROSS: No.

BISHOP: Did I disappoint you?

GROSS: No, no, no, I'm just surprised.

BISHOP: I love red onions, and every single time I've got my grill on, I am grilling red onions. So I cut the onion into about half-inch-thick circles and throw them onto the grill, sort of the medium fire; don't put them on the hottest part of the grill because they will incinerate and flip them once. It's a little tricky to flip them.

If I'm really being particular, I might skewer the circles of onions so that I can then turn the skewer, but frankly more often than not, I'm just being careful and just turn the once.

And I do a couple things with them. One is I'll just serve them as is. I think grilled onions are great as a side dish with almost any of the summer foods. I mean, put them on top of a burger rather than raw onions or serve them with a steak or chicken. But I will also use them as a component in a lot of summer salads.

So if I'm making a summer grain salad, for instance, or a summer pasta salad, I'll then take those grilled onions, chop them up, add them with the grain, add some vinegar, some olive oil, some fresh herbs from my garden, and I've got a really super-simple, super-flavorful summer salad.

GROSS: So another favorite vegetable to grill?

BISHOP: I love sweet potatoes on the grill. I will cut those into again about half-inch-thick circles, and they need a really, really cool fire. So you can't put them directly over the coals. So if I'm using a gas grill, I'll put them over low or medium-law, and if I'm using charcoal, I'll leave part of the grill empty, and the coals are all banked on half of the grill, and the other side is empty.

And they'll take about 20 minutes or so, and I just think again, onions and sweet potato, what happens on the grill is it brings out the natural sugars, and they caramelize, and they just have so much more flavor than any other way that you can cook those vegetables.

GROSS: So you're suggesting, if I hear you correctly, that a sweet potato grilled is going to be tastier than the one that's microwaved?

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: A lot tastier. And if you want to make it even better, you take those half-inch-thick rounds of grilled sweet potato, and then you can make a salad with them, so make a summer grilled sweet potato salad and then toss that with a little bit of mustard, some olive oil, some fresh tarragon or some fresh dill, and it's an interesting twist on a classic summer potato salad, but it's with grilled sweet potatoes.

GROSS: Oh, it sounds so good. So Jack specializes in cooking and writing about vegetables, Bridget in cooking and writing about meat. So who wants to do fish?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Who wants to take that?

LANCASTER: Fish is the gateway food, right, between the meat and the vegetables?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Because I want to talk about grilling fish.

LANCASTER: Oh, let's see what Jack knows about this.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: I'm happy to take the fish. The number one complaint that we get from people who watch our TV shows and read our magazines...

GROSS: Let me guess: It falls through the cracks of the grate? No?

BISHOP: No, it sticks to the grates.

LANCASTER: It solders itself to the grates.

BISHOP: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the biggest problem is that you can't get the fish off, or what you get off looks like cat food, not like dinner.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: And so the number one problem that you want to solve is how to deal with your grate and that, you think about cooking fish indoors, and today, of course, you would cook in a nonstick skillet. I would never cook fish indoors in anything other than nonstick because you have to use so much fat, and even if you use all that fat, it still can stick to a traditional pan.

So we've developed a method in the test kitchen to basically turn the cooking grate into a nonstick surface. And what you do is you take a wad of paper towels, dip them in vegetable oil and then grab the paper towels with some long-handled tongs, and basically you're rubbing the oil back and forth over the grill grate.

And you can actually see the grill grate kind of changes. What's happening is that oil is bonding to the surface of the metal and forming a temporary non-stick surface on your grill grate. Now, you need to rub the oil on at least a half-dozen times and really look for the grates to get blacker, and they look like they're nonstick.

And then you put the fish down, always putting the fish down diagonal to the grill grates. That will keep it from falling through the grill grates. It also makes it a little easier, I think, to get a spatula underneath when it comes time to flip the fish.

So that's the number one thing, and then, you know, with fish is to keep it simple. I mean, you really...

GROSS: Wait, I have to stop you and ask you just an obvious question: You're doing this while the grill is hot, you're putting the oil on?

BISHOP: Yes, so you want to preheat the grill like you normally do, you know, 15 minutes, gets really hot. Use your grill brush to get all the gunk off. Despite what your father might have told you, at least my father always told me that that was always seasoning the food.

GROSS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: That gunk is just disgusting. You would not cook in a dirty skillet, so why would you cook on a dirty grill grate?

GROSS: No, no, you'd cook in the dirty skillet for the same reason, that people always just say the cast iron frying pan with all the gunk on it, it seasons the pot. That's like really good.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: Yeah, it's not really good. It's just kind of...

LANCASTER: Carbon.

BISHOP: Yeah, it's rancid, gross or just carbon. And so once you've gotten all the gunk off, then you've got this hot - what it looks like is a very clean surface, and it is clean, but now you need to make that hot grill grate nonstick. And so you're going to be doing that by rubbing the oil-soaked paper towels over the grill grates until they turn a little black, and it really does work.

You've got to do it every time you grill. I mean, by the time you're done cooking, the oil has cooked off, and your grill grate is back to its regular stick condition rather than nonstick.

GROSS: So is salmon the best fish, like the easiest, safest fish to cook?

LANCASTER: On the grill?

GROSS: Yeah.

LANCASTER: I would say it's a pretty sturdy fish, so it makes it easier to grill, but you can get by with haddock, you can get by with tuna. Tuna's great on the grill. Steak-type fish are great for the grill, too, but things like cod, flakey fish, more delicate whitefish can be problematic. If you're just starting to grill fish, I would start off with salmon, something like that.

BISHOP: Yeah, and I think the other advantage of salmon is it has so much fat that it's a little harder to overcook than other fish and that as a beginner fish, I recommend salmon just because if you overcook it slightly, it's still pretty good. If you over cook tuna, for instance, it's not very good.

GROSS: So what happens if your fish does fall through the cracks of - you know, the openings of the grate? Is there any way of salvaging it, or have you just, you know, made a sacrifice to - like is just totally sacrificed?

LANCASTER: Do you have a cat?

(LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: Because that cat's going to eat well. You're pretty much done at that point. You've sacrificed the fish to the charcoal gods.

GROSS: So why is food so often much tastier when it's grilled?

LANCASTER: I think the grill is an excellent way of really concentrating flavors. You're basically creating this charred surface. I mean, I think some of it is environmental, you're outside, maybe you have a nice cold beverage in your hand while you're grilling, and kind of the environment sets the pace. But I think the grill does an amazing job of really concentrating flavors, getting that smoky char on the food, which just about makes anything better, maybe not, you know, pie. But just about everything else, it makes it so much better.

GROSS: Like, what's it doing to - Jack, what's it doing to the food itself?

BISHOP: Well, the number one way food becomes more flavorful through cooking is by getting brown and that especially if you're talking about proteins; so meat, fish, chicken. There's an enzymatic reaction called the Mallard Reaction, which is the proteins and the natural sugars in the food combining and creating tremendous amounts of flavor compounds. And so you can start out with a raw piece of food that doesn't have a whole lot of flavor, and by browning it, you get a tremendous increase in flavor compounds.

Now, of course, you can brown something in a skillet, but, you know, it's much trickier in the oven or on the stovetop. You really have to work hard to cook food on a grill and not get it brown. I think you really, you know, it's almost impossible to not get it brown. And so I think that's one of the reasons why the food tastes so much better.

You know, I think for a lot of food that's got fat in it, that it gets some of the fat rendered, and rather than sort of sitting in its own fat or sitting in its own juices and steaming, all that drips away, you know, goes down onto the fire. The fire shoots up more heat, which causes more browning, and it just gets that whole process accelerating much faster, and so you get much more browning on a chicken breast or on a piece of fish on the grill than you do in a skillet or in the oven.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about grilling and about summer foods. My guests are Bridget Lancaster and Jack Bishop. Bridget is the onscreen test cook for "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country," two public television TV shows. And Jack Bishop is the editorial director at "America's Test Kitchen," and he's a cast member of those two shows. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about summer food and grilling. My guests are Bridget Lancaster and Jack Bishop. Bridget Lancaster is the onscreen test cook for "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country," and Jack Bishop is the editorial director at "America's Test Kitchen" and a cast member of the two TV shows that they have on public television.

So we're talking about grilling. What kind of grills do you prefer? Do you prefer charcoal or gas, or does that depend on where you are?

LANCASTER: Well, I'm an equal-opportunity griller. I don't really want to choose between both of them. But I use a gas grill probably more often than I do a charcoal grill, and that's because it's super-convenient. If I just want to throw a couple burgers on the grill or a chicken breast, something quick-cooking, vegetables are great, you know, it's kind of a brainless operation.

You turn on the heat, you throw them on - done - and then you turn it off. Charcoal is a little bit more of a project. You've got to light the coals and build the fire the right way. But charcoal grills, in my opinion, are, you know, one of the best ways to barbecue or smoke foods.

You can get those hardwood chunks or chips, and you put them down in there on top of the coals, and it starts to smoke, and the kettle grill forms this beautiful, smoky oven environment for beef or pork or even vegetables if you want to smoke those, too. So I think they both have their use.

GROSS: Jack, what about you?

BISHOP: This is one of those things that Bridget and I are in complete agreement about. At home, I have both a gas grill and a charcoal grill. And as Bridget said, when I want smoke flavor, I will go through the extra work of using a charcoal grill and adding wood chunks and get that smoke flavor.

If I'm just really grilling some vegetables - I grill everything. I mean, I grill bread in the summer, and I'm not going to build a charcoal fire to grill four slices of bruschetta, for instance, but I will be totally happy to turn the gas grill on to grill four slices of bread.

GROSS: How often do you clean your grills, and how do you clean them?

LANCASTER: Are you talking about the grate surface?

GROSS: Yeah, the grates.

LANCASTER: The grates I clean before every time I use them. So I heat up the grill, both with charcoal or gas, heat it up and get it really super-hot because the food is released much easier if the grates are hot. And then you just scrape it with a grill brush.

And then as Jack mention, you want to go back over it and season the grill with the oil and the paper towel method. But it's really best to scrape that grill grate every single time.

BISHOP: Yeah, and there's some longer-term maintenance that you'd probably want to do on occasion. Most gas grills have a drip tray underneath, and fat will collect down there, and once every couple of months, you want to take that drip tray out, clean it out.

I learned this the hard way. When I first started using a gas grill, I didn't realize that that drip tray had to be emptied, and at some point there was so much fat in there that it caught on fire, and it was not good. The neighbors came running because then the grill caught on fire. So you really do want to empty that drip tray every couple of months. I think it had been a couple of years when this fire happened.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: So I learned the hard way, and when you're dealing with a charcoal grill, you want to get rid of those spent coals that if you grilled on a Tuesday night, and you come back on Friday night, and there's sort of some charcoal down in there, just clean it out because what it's going to do is clog up the air vents and prevents that next fire from really catching properly.

So if there's a lot of charcoal - if it's just a little dust, that's fine, but if there are a lot of sort of half-charred coals down there, you really want to get rid of them before you build the next fire.

GROSS: So speaking of fire and flames, I know you like to keep a squirt bottle of water near the grill in case there's a flame-up. But isn't water bad for a fat fire?

LANCASTER: That's a very good point. In this case, it's such a small - you're basically misting the fire right directly at the flame that it's not an issue. If your grill was engulfed in flames, at that point, you know, move the food if you can, and if you can't, cover the grill. I wouldn't go at a completely engulfed grill with a squirt bottle. You might have to get your extinguisher at that point.

But yeah, just you know those little flames that lick up, especially if you go to turn food, and it's a little bit fatty, and you get that flare-up, it's OK to go ahead and spray that in there.

GROSS: Bridget Lancaster and Jack Bishop will talk more about summer cooking in the second half of the show. She's the onscreen test cook for the PBS shows "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country." He's a cast member of both shows and is the editorial director of "America's Test Kitchen." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about summer cooking with Bridget Lancaster and Jack Bishop. She's the on-screen test cook for the PBS shows "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country." He's a cast member of both shows and is the editorial director of "America's Test Kitchen."

Let's talk about corn on the cob. It's - a wonderful thing about summer is getting fresh corn on the cob. And Jack, you've written a lot about corn on the cob. First of all, what's the easiest way of getting the corn out of the husk?

BISHOP: Well, there's no really easy way of getting it out of the husk, except children. That's an easy way of doing it. They seem to love that task.

LANCASTER: Yeah. You have the cheap labor method.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: That's the cheap labor method. We actually, though, in seriousness, found in the "Test Kitchen," that you can use the microwave, believe it or not. You lop off the first row of kernels from the stock end, the part that was attached to the plant, and then throw the whole ear into the microwave. You can do five at a time. And then 30 seconds later, it comes out of the microwave. Let it cool little bit, and you can just basically...

GROSS: You have the microwave on full power?

BISHOP: Yes. And, you know, depending on the number of ears of corn and the strength of your microwave, that time can vary. But start out with 30 seconds, and then you can just let it cool little bit and slide both the husk and the silk - you know, the hair-like material that's between the husk and the kernels, which frankly is the bigger problem, as far as I'm concerned. The husk is not that hard to get rid of, but that silk can really kind of drive you crazy. And the microwave sort of separates that silk, along with the husk. And so that comes off in one piece, and you're left with nice, clean ears of corn.

And then, of course, you can go ahead and grill them, or you could throw them in a pot of boiling water and you've got corn on the cob.

GROSS: So weren't you suggesting, too, that if you put them in boiling water, you could just leave it in for like a minute?

BISHOP: Most people overcook corn terribly. I think the problem is that most cooks haven't accounted for the fact that the corn that we now eat bears no resemblance to the corn that we ate 30, 40 years ago. There's so much more sugar in those varieties that are now being grown by most farmers, that almost, you could eat it raw. I mean...

LANCASTER: It's true.

BISHOP: You barely need to cook it. And so if you are using your mother's recipe or you're using an older cookbook, it might say, you know, cook the corn six, eight, 10 minutes. It's way too long. It's very, very mushy. You know, corn used to be much starchier and much tougher. And now...

LANCASTER: Well, it was raised for horses.

BISHOP: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: It was horse feed.

BISHOP: And now it's just so much more tender and so much sweeter, that I think a quick dunk, a minute or two is really quite enough for most corn that you buy today at the supermarket.

GROSS: Was it bred to be sweeter because we like sweet things?

LANCASTER: We do like sweet things. That's exactly right. And, you know, the thing about corn is the moment that it's picked, it's full of sugars, but they convert to starch. So by the time we get them, sometimes, too, the inside is so starchy. The outside's still nice and sweet, but the inside's starchy. This method that Jack was talking about just, you know, basically, a nice dunk in the hot water is going to soften the starch on the inside just enough, but keep that nice, sweet flavor of the corn.

GROSS: Jack, you had a great recipe for corn griddle cakes with parmesan?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, while we're talking about corn, you want to tell us how to do that? You say it's really easy, 10 minutes?

BISHOP: It is great. So you start with good, fresh corn, and then you grate the ears. So you're taking the husk and the silk off, and then you're grating the ears against the holes of - large holes on a box grater, and you're basically creating a corn pulp. You're supplementing that with a little bit of flour and egg, and then you're basically making - you know, it's kind of like a pancake, but it's a savory corn cake. I will add, sometimes, fresh chives, fresh basil, fresh tarragon in there. You could add a little garlic if you want, and it is really nice sort of summer accompaniment to a grilled steak, grilled chicken. Something about, you know, corn griddle cakes, sliced summer tomatoes and a, you know, an old-fashioned grilled steak seems like it's a perfect summer meal to me.

GROSS: Sounds great. Let's move on to salads for the summer. Bridget, you want to share with us one of your favorite easy salad summer recipes?

LANCASTER: I recently came across - I'm usually a big bean salad person. I love being salad. So you have the different kinds of beans in there. You have a nice vinaigrette. And I tend to go with the vinaigrette-based salads more than the creamy salads. But we just recently did this lentil salad, and it's kind of a game-changer for me. The lentils are brined for about 30 minutes, and the brine softens the outside of the lentil. It keeps the interior of the lentil nice and creamy. So you end up with lentils that don't get burst open and mushy and hard. And then after cooking them with some chicken stock, then you drain them and toss them with a vinaigrette and lots of mint or feta and nice summery flavors, it's beautiful.

GROSS: Jack, you have a really tasting-sounding potato salad with Indian flavored potatoes and chickpeas for protein. Would you describe your recipe?

BISHOP: Sure. You know, I like hardier vegetable salads in the summer. And I don't really - you know, Bridget's going to laugh. I don't like your classic mayonnaise-based American salad.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: It's a bit of a joke around the office, like, don't bring me anything that has too much mayonnaise in it.

LANCASTER: It's the egg thing.

BISHOP: Yeah, it's the egg thing. And so I want my...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. What's the egg thing?

BISHOP: I don't really like eggs. I know I shouldn't really say that because, you know, my life is food and I basically will eat pretty much anything, except for undercooked eggs. And mayonnaise falls into the undercooked egg category, as far as I'm concerned - but back to the recipe that we talked about. So I like potatoes because they're a great vessel for soaking up flavors, and love to go with more intense flavors. And Indian food is perfect. You know, I'm not sure they do room temperature potato salads in India, but using mustard seeds, using those big flavors, you can use the ground spices, cumin, coriander, certainly have some garlic, and some onions in there.

Sometimes I'll add greens to it. So in addition to the chickpeas, I will, at the last minute, when the potatoes are have been cooked and drained and are still just a little bit warm, add some arugula, add some watercress, some spinach. It'll wilt a little bit. If you don't like the greens, you can leave them out. And what you're really trying to do is the most important thing - even if you're making a classic, mayonnaise-based potato salad - is to season the potatoes while they are warm with - if you're using vinegar, spices, garlic - get all that stuff in. And then if you are making a classic, American-style potato salad, add the mayonnaise once it's cooled. But when those potatoes are still warm, they will soak up all those flavors so much better. So whatever it is that you're dressing your salad with, do it while the potatoes are warm.

GROSS: Well, Jack, you said you don't like mayonnaise, because you don't like eggs, you don't like undercooked eggs, let alone raw eggs.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But you've passed on a recipe for egg-free mayonnaise. Tell us how to make it, and does it taste anything like mayonnaise?

BISHOP: It tastes better than mayonnaise, Terry.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: Even people who like homemade mayonnaise - which is made with raw eggs - in our "Test Kitchen" love this recipe. It's really milk mayonnaise, and what you're doing is you're whipping the milk and getting the air bubbles into the milk to sort of create that light texture. And you need an immersion blender.

So you're going to use a sort of tall, but narrow container - it could be a measuring cup - and you're going to be using an immersion blender. And you are going to start out with about a third of a cup of milk, add a teaspoon of mustard, Dijon, any kind that you want. Add another teaspoon of lemon juice. Add some minced garlic - just, you know, it's raw, so a small clove is going to be more than enough - a pinch of salt and a little bit of sugar.

Put all that in a container. Add three quarters of a cup of vegetable oil, and then put the immersion blender at the very bottom of the container. Turn it on, and then sort of raise the immersion blender through this mixture, and you're going to see it transformed into this light, billowy substance that looks like mayonnaise, has a somewhat lighter taste than regular homemade mayonnaise because it doesn't have the egg in there. But you can slather it on sandwiches. You can use it in salads. You can serve it as an accompaniment for a piece of grilled fish. It is my favorite mayonnaise.

GROSS: My guests are Bridget Lancaster - the onscreen test cook for the PBS shows "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country" - and Jack Bishop, a cast member of both shows and the editorial director of "America's Test Kitchen."

We'll talk more about summer food after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about summer food. And my guests are Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster. She's an onscreen test cook for "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country." And Jack Bishop is the editorial director at "America's Test Kitchen." And he's a cast member of both of those TV shows.

So, Bridget, do you have a suggestion for a good, cold summer soup?

LANCASTER: A good, cold summer soup. Anything but beet.

(LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: Like Jack to eggs, beets are like...

GROSS: You don't like borscht? No?

LANCASTER: Beets are my kryptonite, I have to say.

(LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: I become weak when I'm around them. But we did a really nice chilled tomato soup recently. It's beautiful. It's nice. It's cold. You get to use those tomatoes from the garden. They get roasted just briefly, again, to concentrate their flavors. But speaking of mayonnaise, we put them in the food processor, and then we drizzle a little bit of oil into the soup, and it creates an emulsion like a mayonnaise. So you end up with this really luxurious, silky, rich tomato soup, and it's beautiful - lovely with a nice bread and meat.

GROSS: So you're roasting tomatoes, but you're never actually, like, cooking them, you know, over the stove?

LANCASTER: Just roast them in the oven just briefly - with a little bit of shallot, I believe, goes in there, as well. And it's so simple. It's great with - we did these little frico, the toasted cheese that you put in a skillet. You can crumble that on top. Serve it with some bread, and it's lovely.

GROSS: Jack, do you have a favorite cold summer soup?

BISHOP: I love cucumber avocado. And the best part about a cucumber avocado soup is that you don't even need to turn on the oven or use the stove. You're really just having the cucumbers lengthwise, getting rid of the seeds. In this case, cucumber seeds - unlike tomato seeds - have no real flavor, and they are just going to detract from the texture, and throwing those seeded cucumbers in the blender with some avocado, which will add body. And then that's really kind of a canvas.

And you can add herbs. You can add garlic. You can add a little bit of yogurt to it if you want to make it a little creamier. You could go a Mexican route with something like that and add cilantro and chilies. You could go a sort of more refined French route and add, you know, tarragon to it. And so...

LANCASTER: That would be nice.

BISHOP: Yeah. It's a really - it's a nice, simple - it seems like it shouldn't be soup. And if your cucumbers are cold - I mean, the avocados really belong on the counter, so they're not going to be cold. But if the cucumbers are cold, it's a soup that will chill in 20 minutes in the refrigerator afterwards, and it's kind of like an emergency summer soup when you haven't planned ahead.

GROSS: Time for dessert. So, Bridget, you want to suggest a nice summer dessert that's easy to fix?

LANCASTER: A summer dessert that's easy to fix. One of my favorites is a fruit gratin. It uses raspberries, blackberries, blueberries. If you want to put strawberries in there, you can, as well. And they just go into the bottom of a little pie dish. And then you make a very simple topping of cubed bread - just a nice, hardy white bread - and you toss it with just a little bit of butter and cinnamon and sugar. Put that right over the top of the berries, and put that in the oven for 15, 20 minutes, really just until the berries pop their juices and the top gets nice and brown. And it's absolutely amazing. You scoop that out with some ice cream. It's probably my favorite summer dessert.

GROSS: What temperature is the oven?

LANCASTER: Three-fifty, 375. I wouldn't want to go too much higher than that because of the sugar in the topping. You might burn the topping. But it's perfect. And just digging into ice cream.

GROSS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Jack, your turn.

BISHOP: I love blueberry cobbler. And I also like things a little on the sweet side. So, my favorite cobbler has got a cookie dough topping. And so you put the food into, you know, an eight inch - or they want to make a large batch of nine-by-13-inch glass or ceramic dish. With fruit, you don't - really want to stay away from the metal, because you can get it reacting with the acidity in the fruit. And then I cover it with - it's like a sugar cookie dough. It's got a lot of butter, has a lot of sugar, has a little bit of flour and a little bit of egg, and it's very rich. And I just sort of break that off with my fingers or with two spoons into kind of one-inch chunks and sort of dot that over the top of the fruit, and then throw that into a 375, 400-degree oven. And basically, that cookie dough kind of melts and forms a cohesive topping with bits of blueberry popping through.

GROSS: Mm.

BISHOP: And you need vanilla. You know, it's a sugar cookie dough that has a fair amount of vanilla extract in it, as well. And it's just - with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it's just heaven.

GROSS: Oh, that sounds so good. So, before we have to end, tell us a surprise recently from the "Test Kitchen" that taught you something you didn't know about a food or a cooking technique.

BISHOP: Well, I have one about tomatoes. I like to think that Bridget and I are the sane people who work at "America's Test Kitchen."

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: And that there a bunch of really crazy people that we spend our days with.

LANCASTER: That's sad if you're calling me sane.

BISHOP: Well, everything is relative.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: But they did this great test about the best way to store tomatoes and whether they should be scar side up or scar side down. Now, where the stem - where the plant was attached to the stem, where the fruit was attached to the stem is the scar. And I wouldn't think that it would make a difference, but they ran two series of tests.

The first is they took a box of tomatoes and divided them in half and put half upside down with the stem end, the scar, facing down and the other half facing up. And lo and behold, all of the tomatoes that had the scar facing up turned mushy and moldy much faster than the ones with the scar facing down.

They then repeated the test with all of the tomatoes facing up but they bandaged half of the tomatoes with masking tape to prove that what they are - was happening was that moisture was going through the scar and that air was getting in there and basically (technical difficulties) you know, like a scar on your body might, that it was getting infected, and that if you just kept the tomatoes scar side down, you don't need to do the bandages, but just wanted to prove that that was what was really going on. But they'll last three or four days longer than if you keep them scar side up.

GROSS: Wow. I would never in my life...

BISHOP: I know.

GROSS: ...have dreamed of conducting an experiment like that. That's really...

BISHOP: As I said, we work with some very crazy people.

(LAUGHTER)

BISHOP: We're the sane ones.

GROSS: Bridget, do you have one?

LANCASTER: Well, I would say mine's probably a little less dramatic than that. The thing that I've been amazed by the most is we have somebody hanging prosciutto in our walk-in right now, doing all these tests on homemade prosciutto - homemade cured meat.

So you go into the walk-in in the test kitchen and it looks like you're in, you know, an old butchery. There's all these giant cuts of meat hanging in front of your face. It could look like a horror story to most people. I find it very attractive myself. But some of our tests are going on for months and months and months and you walk in there and there's all this mold growing on these giant cuts of meat - on purpose.

Because that's what makes prosciutto. And you know, they're taking out a ruler and measuring how thick the coat of mold is. That's what we do in the test kitchen.

GROSS: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, thank you both so much for joining us and for talking with us about summer food. Much appreciated. And have a great summer.

LANCASTER: You too, Terry.

BISHOP: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Bridget Lancaster is the onscreen test cook for the PBS shows "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cooks Country." Jack Bishop is a cast member of both shows and is the editorial director of "America's Test Kitchen." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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