Recipes: Shrimp and watermelon salad plus a orzo salad with spinach, feta, mint and olives

Haven’t turned on that oven much lately, eh? No surprise.

But despite the heat one scorching, sunny afternoon during a trip to Morocco some months ago, I was offered hot mint tea so that I could “cool off a bit.” What gave?

It turns out that certain foods and beverages, even though consumed at high temperatures, have a cooling effect on our bodies — or seem to do so.

While hot tea, for example, does raise the body’s core temperature (and iced tea lowers it), we humans regulate that core temperature in order to keep it a steady 98.6 degrees. In order to cool down the body’s heat, we just perspire more. And when that perspiration evaporates, we feel chill.

This heat swap is especially efficient in our dry, high desert plain or mountain air (like that in much of Morocco). Don’t try this trick in Southern or Midwestern midsummer humidity, but count your geographic blessings while here.

As for the mint in that Moroccan tea, it is super-chill. Going down the hatch, the organic compound menthol (redolent in the leaves of mint) triggers the same protein sensory receptors in the mouth as does cold temperature, say, while eating ice cream. In the case of both mint and cold that protein is TRPM8 (pronounced “trip M 8”). When we consume mint, it tricks our body into feeling cold although it isn’t. That’s why chocolate mint ice cream is a double powerhouse come August.

All plants related to mint do this, so come the dog days, heed the cooling effect of basil, tarragon, oregano, sage and thyme, all members of lamiaceae, or the mint family.

The reverse, in a manner of thinking, occurs with another protein sensory receptor that we have, TRPV1 (“trip V 1”). In this case, both capsaicin, the oil in chiles that makes them “hot,” and hot temperature trigger TRPV1. A bowl of green makes you perspire for two reasons, then, and, just like hot mint tea, is another way to cool off, oddly enough.

Other foods that cool are those that hydrate well. Athletes and their trainers long have known that certain fruits and vegetables, due to their extraordinarily high water content, reintroduce both that water as well as minerals and nutrients back into the body that have been lost during exercise. They are, in a sense, “better than” plain water at both hydration and cooling down.

So to chill, eat them also. Watermelon (aptly named) is a gimme at 92 percent water, but so are lettuce and the cucumber at about 96 percent water each. Most other melons also contain upwards of 90 percent water, while stone fruits such as peaches and apricots clock in at around 88 percent.

Ninety-four percent of a tomato’s weight is water; other vegetables in the above-90-percent club are cabbage, peppers and spinach. The rawer, the higher.

I brought these recipes with me when I moved back here to my hometown from Chicago four years ago. They’ll cool you off even better in our dry climate than they did me during 14 years of humid and stultifying summers there.

A third recipe idea isn’t given here except in a broad stroke. That is to use stale bread that was baked in hotter kitchen times some days later at cooler or room temperature. This is the recipe for Italian panzanella, a bread salad full of the cooling vegetables tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, red onion and basil, all slathered in a crisping, vibrant vinaigrette.

You even could add some mint.

Shrimp and watermelon salad with creamy pepper-citrus dressing

Makes 4 servings as a main dish, 8 as a side dish.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup low-fat or regular mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 9- to 10-ounce bag mixed salad greens
  • 16 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1 green bell pepper, sliced
  • 3 green onions, white and light green parts, diced
  • 16 large shrimp, cooked
  • 2 cups rindless watermelon, in 1-inch chunks

Directions

  1. Whisk together the mayonnaise, orange and lime juices, honey and vinegar in a small bowl until well blended. Add the tarragon, salt and peppers to taste.
  2. Combine the lettuce, tomatoes, bell pepper and green onions in large salad bowl. Top with the shrimp and watermelon. Toss with the dressing.

Orzo salad with spinach, feta, mint and olives

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound orzo, cooked and drained
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
  • 1 10-ounce package baby spinach
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • 8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped roughly or in chiffonade
  • 1 4-ounce package sun-dried tomatoes, in oil, drained, cut into strips

Directions

  1. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the garlic in the olive oil until aromatic, about 1 minute.
  2. Add the spinach; cook until wilted, about 2 minutes.
  3. Remove to a colander; drain, squeezing out any excess water. Place in a large serving bowl.
  4. Add the olives, feta cheese, mint and sun-dried tomatoes; mix well.
  5. To the bowl, add the orzo; toss with the vegetable-cheese mixture.

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