While the weather might be cooling off a little, it's still too hot to ignite the oven, stove and maybe even the barbecue. But it's never too warm for a nice meal. Especially when it's served with a cold beer. The trick is to make a satisfying, colorful and appetizing dish without cranking the heat, to assemble a feast with just some slicing, whisking, can-opening and yeah, maybe just a wee bit of toasting.

A can of sardines, packed in olive oil and served with crackers, a squeeze of lemon and Sriracha sauce is one of my go-to foods when I'm just too cooked-out to cook. I know when some folks think of sardines, they think of old men in undershirts who drink cheap beer and smelly sardine oil directly from the can, but when treated deftly, sardines can become the omega-3-packed centerpiece of a dinner that's damn near fancy.

Made with some exotic, yet attainable pantry staples, here is a salad that can you make quickly while staying cool. The sardines are hidden within deep red piquillo peppers (piquillo means “little beak” in Spanish) that are sweet and flavorful, pulled straight from a can or jar. Hidden is the key word here, as you could serve this to a sardine-hater without detection or complaint. The stuffed peppers are accented with some chopped preserved lemon (homemade or purchased), capers and oregano, and sit atop crisp greens and rings of sweet onions. Whole-wheat croutons round out the meal, but you could skip these if you can't face the heat of the toaster oven and replace them instead with good quality bakery croutons or a good loaf of bread.

Yeah, you could escape the heat by going out, but most of us have even small patches of outdoors where the summer evenings are just too pleasant and relieving to consider sitting in a restaurant.

Sardine-Stuffed Piquillo Peppers with Lemony Greens and Whole-Wheat Croutons

From: Jeanne Kelley

Note: I make my own preserved lemons, but you can purchase those jarred as well.

Makes: 2 servings

2 (3.75-ounce) tin boneless, skinless sardines in olive oil, drained

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped preserved lemon (below), divided

2 teaspoons minced fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried, crumbled

10 piquillo peppers from a can or jar, drained

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 garlic clove, pressed

½ teaspoon kosher salt

6 cups mixed greens, such as arugula and romaine

¼ cup very thinly sliced sweet onion, such as Vidalia

1 tablespoon capers, drained

Whole-Wheat Croutons (below)

1. In a small bowl, gently stir the sardines 1 tablespoon preserved lemon, and the oregano to blend, breaking the sardines into smaller pieces. Season the sardine mixture with freshly ground black pepper. Hold the peppers with the opening facing upward and stuff with the sardine mixture, dividing evenly.

2. In another small bowl, whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and the remaining ½ tablespoon preserved lemon to blend. In a medium bowl, toss the greens and onion slices with 1 tablespoon of the dressing. Divide the salad between 2 salad plates. Top the salads with the stuffed peppers and sprinkle with capers, dividing evenly. Season the salads with freshly ground black pepper and top with the croutons. Drizzle the remaining dressing over the salads and serve.

Preserved Lemons

Note: Meyer lemons have thin skin with highly perfumed essential oils. They are super juicy and are less acidic than Eureka lemons, which are the familiar firm, supermarket variety. While Meyer lemons are preferred for preserving, if you have a Eureaka lemon tree, you can use those lemons. Four or six jars (a double or triple recipe) usually lasts throughout the year, until the following crop of lemons is ripe. After removing the desired amount of preserved lemons from the jar, be sure that the remaining lemons are completely covered with olive oil — you may need to add a touch more.

Makes: two 8-ounce jars

3 or 4 Meyer lemons

4 tablespoons (about) kosher salt

Extra virgin olive oil

1. Wash and dry the lemons and cut lengthwise into quarters. Place 1 lemon quarter into each of two 8-ounce jars. Sprinkle the lemon with salt. Repeat, nestling enough lemon quarters into each jar to fill it completely, pressing gently on the lemons and sprinkling with salt between each addition.

2. Pour enough olive oil over the top of the lemons to cover them by ½ inch. Seal the jars and refrigerate at least one week before using. (Preserved lemons can be made several months ahead. Keep lemons refrigerated, making sure lemons are completely submerged in lemon juice and olive oil.)

Whole-Wheat Croutons

Note: Be sure to use a sugar-free whole-wheat or whole grain bread for the best taste.

Makes: about 4 cups

¼ cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves, pressed

6 ounces (about 4 slices) whole-wheat bread, such as pain au levain or sprouted 7-grain bread, cut into ½- to 3/4-inch cubes (about 4 cups)

1. Preheat the oven or toaster oven to 400ºF. In a medium bowl, combine the olive oil and garlic. Add the bread cubes and toss to coat. Spread the cubes out on a heavy large baking sheet. Season with salt and bake until lightly toasted, about 10 minutes. (Croutons can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cool and store in an airtight container.)

As an added bonus, here's a link to a video where I demonstrate making this salad (and four others) in a minute-twenty.

You can find piquillo peppers at Nicole's in South Pasadena, Surfas in Culver City and La Espanola Meats on line and in Harbor City.

Jeanne Kelley is a Los Angeles cook and cookbook author, who also writes at Jeanne Kelley Kitchen. Follow her on Twitter @jeannek232. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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