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40 best summer recipes of 2021 — from salads to dessert

These healthy dinners, crisp salads, light pastas and refreshing desserts will make your summer meals memorable.
/ Source: TODAY

After spending a long time out in the hot summer sun, a certain kind of meal — something comforting yet refreshing — can turn a regular day into a memorable one.

Some dishes are best served at room temp for those lazy, hot afternoons, while others should be served hot off the grill with a fresh salad and summery pasta. Top it all off with one of those wonderful summer desserts — you know: ice pops, no-bake cakes or homemade ice cream.

Here are a few of TODAY Food's best summer recipes for when you're craving something light, bright and filling.

Summer salad recipes

Roasted Tomatoes with Strawberries

Roasted tomatoes and … strawberries?! This unexpected duo is a match made in sweet, vibrant heaven. You can roast the tomatoes in advance and assemble the dish just before serving, and use strawberries that are slightly under-ripe for this so the "green" flavor complements the sweetness of the tomatoes.

Grilled Vegetable Salad

Jet Tila loves this recipe because it's an easy way to get delicious vegetables into your repertoire. Grilling is the fastest and tastiest way to cook vegetables.

Burrata Caprese Salad

Valerie Bertinelli's go-to recipe for warm-weather entertaining, this recipe no-cook, full of flavor, only requires a few ingredients. All the elements pair so well together and make for an easy and impressive starter or side dish.

No need to boil water to prep this no-cook couscous salad! Couscous, which is a type of very tiny semolina pasta, really just needs to be rehydrated before serving. For this salad, you'll combine the couscous with a few staple pantry ingredients, then let it soak in the dressing for a couple hours (or even overnight if you'd like to prep it in advance). Serve it chilled or room temperature — no heat required!

This recipe is as seasonal as it gets! Tomatoes are at their peak right now, and so is sweet and juicy corn. It couldn't be a better time to throw all these seasonal vegetables together to make a delicious salad. ANd grilled halloumi adds a little Middle Eastern flair to it.

This dish reminds Laura Vitale of some of her best summer days on the Amalfi coast. It's so light, bright and flavorful — not to mention quick to prepare!

"I like to add a bunch of textural elements to my kale salads because the sturdiness of kale can hold up to all kinds of toppings," Samah Dada says about this hearty vegan salad. "Here, I layer on the crunch factor with homemade croutons and sunflower seeds. For creaminess, I add in buttery avocados and white beans."

Celery Salad with Cilantro and Sesame

Something magical happens when you combine a little heat from fresh chiles with the mild, crunchy celery. It wakes up your senses. Serve this healthful salad alongside your typical barbecue fare to liven things up.

If you want the robust flavor of a great steak but don't want all the heavy sides that usually accompany it, this Southwestern-inspired salad invites the garden to the party for a light, yet meaty, dish.

This refreshing salad tastes like summer on a plate. The bright citrus, sweet watermelon and grilled shrimp really showcase the light and fresh flavors of the season.

Light pastas

It's true — everything is better with bacon! In this recipe, the beloved BLT sandwich is transformed into pasta perfection. It's a unique and versatile dish that can be a side at barbecues or an entrée all on its own.

The avocado cream sauce is both light and refreshing — qualities rarely found in creamy sauces. This sauce also maintains an amazing brightness with the addition of fresh basil and lemon and is extremely versatile.

This recipe couldn't be easier. Just toss cooked pasta with fresh tomatoes, cubed mozzarella, garlic and basil. The heat from the pasta will lightly warm the ingredients and melt the cheese.

Grilled Vegetable Pasta Salad

When Matt Abdoo was growing up, in the summer, his mom would make a huge batch of pasta salad to keep in the refrigerator and pull it out for as many dinners or lunches as possible.

Summer is the best time to perfect your zoodles when zucchini is ripe and plentiful! This vegan, super healthy dish hits the spot like dough-based linguini but is full of nutrient-dense ingredients like cashews, garlic and spinach.

Juicy shrimp, ripe tomatoes and fresh zucchini make this the ultimate summer pasta. A splash of white wine and a sprinkle of Parmesan add a touch of richness to the light flavors of this dish.

Pasta alla Norma

This traditional Sicilian dish is one of Catherine De Orio's favorites. The traditional way of making it is to fry the eggplant, but she likes to roast it to keep the dish a bit lighter.

Ginger-Miso Pasta Salad

This Japanese-inspired pasta salad is filled with edamame, carrots and bell peppers, and its dressing is made with miso, ginger, soy and sesame — yup, no mayo! It gets better as it sits, which means it's perfect for picnics.

Chilled Crawfish Pasta

A chilled pasta dish can be a really nice solution when you're craving some tender noodles without having to turn on the stove. This flavorful dish shines with any kind of shellfish or seafood, but the crawfish tails are worth trying.

Icebox Pasta Salad

This recipe uses everything in the icebox. If you have red onion, a little piece of squash or zucchini, leftover chicken, berries, peaches, apples or one random tomato, throw it in there. This is also amazing for lunchboxes the next day and delicious at room temperature.

Bright, nourishing entrées

Grilled Za'atar Chicken with Garlic Yogurt and Cilantro

This spicy, herby chicken is full of bright, zesty flavors and is very easy to make. The yogurt tenderizes the chicken as it marinates, making the meat very tender. It goes with everything — but is especially nice with pita or other flatbread bread and a big cucumber-tomato salad.

Salmon on the grill with a caramel-hued tamarind sauce and crispy, sweet shallots is a family recipe from Dzung Lewis. Aside from being absolutely delicious, it also only takes 30 minutes to make from start to finish.

Cooking with a Peruvian-style adobo sauce can turn plain chicken thighs into something extraordinary. This recipe features the unexpected sweetness of rice vinegar along with West African palm sugar, which JJ Johnson loves for its rich, caramel flavor.

Grilled Vegetable Paella

Here’s a plant-based paella bursting with bright, Spanish flavors. The chickpeas provide the protein. Tradition calls for cooking the veggies right in the paella pan, not directly on the grill, but live fire intensifies their color and flavor.

Nothing says summer by the beach like a classic New England lobster roll. It's refreshing and satisfying and, for Will Gilson, always brings back memories of summertime with his family. Buttery, toasty buns filled with creamy lobster salad make the perfect lunch for a day spent lounging by the ocean.

Whether you're planning to entertain all summer long or are craving some spice in your life, these wings will be there to make you feel as if you're on a much-needed tropical vacation. Just be prepared to eat a lot of them — they're addicting.

Frogmore stew is a one-pot mix — a "boil" — of the low country's peak summer offerings. You don't need to do much more than find the best ingredients and make them sing.

Zucchini and Summer Squash Gratin

Make optimal use of summer squashes with Siri Daly's hearty, not overly heavily casserole. It only takes 10 minutes to prep and comes together into a creamy, garlicky dish for the whole family.

Grilled Salmon with Roasted Green Tomatoes

Alex Guarnaschelli says you can serve this delicious recipe hot off the grill or cook it in advance and serve chilled. The tomatoes can also be roasted on the grill tomatoes in some foil so there's no need to turn on the oven.

This sheet-pan dinner is a great way to eat a ton of vegetables, either as a main course or side dish. Eggplants have a high moisture content, so this recipe blasts them under direct heat from the broiler so that the liquid cooks off, then adds in the oil so that they soak them up like a sponge without leaving you with that rubbery texture that can happen with eggplants.

Sweet summer desserts

Strawberry and Vanilla Ice Cream Cookie Cake

Pre-made cookies and store-bought ice cream make a lovely and easy dessert. Assemble it ahead of time and let it chill in the freezer until you're ready to dig in. Topped with some fresh strawberries, everyone will think you've become a gourmet pastry chef (we won't tell if you don't!).

Summer Fruit Crumble

Enjoy summer's bounty of seasonal fruit with this crumble oozing with natural sweetness. It's versatile in that you can use one fruit that looks great at the market or a mixture what you have on hand. Peaches, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries all work beautifully.

Ice box cakes are incredibly easy and make a great summer dessert. Ree Drummond's cold and creamy recipe is made with layers of pound cake, blackberries and sweet whipped cream.

Cornbread Sweet Potato Cobbler

"Cornbread and sweet potatoes were two things that could consistently be found at my dinner table growing up. These two dishes were a crucial staple on the plates of my ancestors — and this dish reimagines them by combining them," Will Coleman says about his cobbler, which starts with warm spices, maple syrup, sweet potatoes, plums and blackberries and ends with a cornbread crumble.

Strawberry Ice Cream Pie

"I love baking a fresh pie crust and then just filling it with fresh fruit and ice cream. It's simple and really takes me back to my childhood," Alex Guarnaschelli says of her summery recipe. "I think strawberry ice cream works best with a drizzle of aged or reduced balsamic vinegar for some grown-up acidity. If you want to get even more into summer, top the berries with some fresh basil or mint leaves."

No-Churn Blueberry Cheesecake Ice Cream

You don't need an ice cream machine to make this decadent blueberry cheesecake ice cream. This is definitely a project anyone can take on. To develop a deeper flavor in her no-churn ice cream, Jocelyn Delk Adams first cooks the blueberries.

This easy-peasy icebox cake is rich and flavorful but still light. Also, it only has five ingredients, takes 15 minutes to prepare and lasts for months in the freezer … unless it all gets eaten first!

Chocolate-Dipped Vegan Ice Cream Sandwiches

Ice cream sandwiches are great, but when you dip them in chocolate and roll them through toppings, well,they're even better. Despite how casual these might seem, they can actually look quite sleek and trendy lined up on a nice platter, making them work nicely in a dinner party setting.

Pink Lemonade Ice Pops

These four-ingredient pops are made with fresh ingredients like pink coconut water, lemons, agave nectar and a pinch of salt to balance out the acidity. You may never use lemonade from concentrate again.

These gorgeous ice cream sandwiches, Aarti Sequeira's sweet ode to Bedouin culture, are rich with cardamom-scented coffee, dates and pistachios swirled into a creamy, slightly crunchy confection.