CLEARWATER — On a recent steamy afternoon at a job site in the new Renaissance Oaks housing development, a group of construction workers and roofers guzzled jugs of water, ate succulent watermelons and nibbled other fruits from chilled tubs. Not exactly the food you'd expect a group of burly workmen to be eating, but they, like others who work outside in Florida's summer swelter, know the importance of hydrating. "I like any kind of melon," said weather-weary carpenter Dave Stock of New Port Richey. "They're cold, refreshing and not heavy on the belly." Even though most of us toil in air conditioning in the summer, we still crave foods that refresh when the temperature and humidity meet at about 95. We want foods that boost energy and quench our thirst. And, oh yeah, we don't want to spend a lot of time in a hot kitchen.
Nan Jensen, a registered dietitian with Pinellas County Cooperative Extension and also a member of the St. Petersburg Times' tasting panel (see Taster's Choice, Page 2E), says fruits and vegetables top the list of refreshing foods because they are loaded with water, fiber and nutrition. Those three characteristics combine to boost both spirits and body.
Jensen suggests keeping an assortment of cut-up fruit in the refrigerator to tempt grazing snackers. How easy it is to grab ice-cold cherries and melon if they are ready to eat.
Some of Jensen's other ideas for refreshing treats and snacks:
• Frozen grapes and bananas. Even when the banana skins turn black, the fruit itself still tastes wonderful skewered on a wooden stick or blended into a smoothie. Frozen grapes are a worthy substitute for candy. Sort of.
• Snow cones. Make them from chipped ice, juice concentrate and a small amount of water.
• Fruit juices. Mix full-flavor juices with seltzer water as a healthy alternative to soda.
• Iced lattes. Combine brewed coffee, low-fat milk or unsweetened nondairy beverages made with soy or almonds that come in vanilla and chocolate flavors. Serve over ice.
• Individual salad-in-a-bag. Combine lettuce, cucumber, celery, cherry tomatoes, carrots, zucchini. Add hard-boiled eggs, nuts or seeds and portion salads in small plastic bags. Supply low-fat ranch dressing and a fork; let youngsters shake up the salad and dressing.
• Refreshing and green. Instead of offering water in environmentally unfriendly plastic bottles, serve iced tap or filtered water with slices of citrus in colorful glasses.
One of my favorite dishes when it's hot is Shrimp Pasta Salad made by my stepmother, Carol Dixon, who lives in Odessa and often cooks for family gatherings, which include 10 young grandchildren. With a hint of curry and a punch of dill, it's refreshing and also unique.
"Make it ahead of time and chill overnight," she says. "The longer it sets, the better the flavor."
It's perfect for a light meal.
Another idea, especially easy to prepare, comes from Christine Perez of Palm Harbor. For a recent birthday celebration at Philippe Park in Safety Harbor for dozens of people, she filled two giant party buckets with her Summer Dump Salad. She kept the salad cold by surrounding it with sealable plastic bags filled with ice.
"There's no wrong way to make this salad and everyone loves it — even the kids," she said.
She mixed romaine lettuce, baby spinach, slaw mixture, bean salad, cherry tomatoes, marinated feta cheese, celery and olives, then "dumped" all the ingredients together with chopped heart of palm, pecans and raisins.
"The key is keeping everything cold and mixing it on-site so it doesn't get soggy," she says. "It makes its own dressing from the marinades and juices."
Cold soups, prepared in advance, have recuperative powers during hot sunny days. Think vichyssoise and gazpacho.
Cucumber Gazpacho, from The Summertime Anytime Cookbook by Dana Slatkin, is a light alternative to the chunky tomato version. Serve it in salted glasses with dill sprigs.
When it comes to refreshing flavors, mint tops the list, says Krystina Castella, author of Pops!, a compendium of more than 100 recipes for fancy takes on the traditional Popsicle, including blueberry cheesecake, carrot and wheatgrass, and tiramisu pops.
In her recipe for Mint Tea Pops, she combines mint with green tea, honey and almonds for a crunchy, icy, sweet refresher.
If you're adventuresome, you can dream up your own concoction. Castella recommends yogurt, pudding, smoothies, ice cream and juices for the bases (the core of the pop).
"Add candy or fruit, pour into a mold and freeze," she says. "Dip them in chocolate, or sprinkle them with spices or seeds.
"Since they are cold and take a while to eat, (pops) are refreshing because you have to relax. You really can't do anything else while you're eating them."
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.