Eat Good Food

In Season: Summer Produce

Summer is a glorious time of year to be a cook.

Farmers’ markets and home gardens are bursting with gorgeous fruits and vegetables at their peak: juicy ripe tomatoes, just-picked sweet corn, jewel-like berries, fragrant peaches, and many more. In fact, summer meals are often more about careful shopping or timely harvesting, than choosing a recipe and sticking to it — and they require far less cooking.

In our guide to summer produce, we offer tips for buying, storing, and preparing the best of the season, plus suggestions for how to use them.

BEANS
Beans — both snap and shell — come from the same plant species (Phaseolus vulgaris) but from different varieties within that species. Snap beans are whole immature pods, still very tender, while shell beans are the seeds inside more mature pods. Any snap bean variety will produce seeds that can be shelled, but the pods of most shell bean varieties are too tough to be eaten.

Both snap and shell beans give substance and texture to summer dishes. Blanched snap beans tossed with shallots and tomatoes or with pasta and pesto make colorful, tasty dishes. A fresh shell bean gratin cooked with tomatoes and greens makes a light, satisfying main dish. And snap beans and shell beans together are essential ingredients for soupe au pistou, the Provencal version of minestrone served with pesto (“pistou” in Provence).

You’ll find good snap beans from early summer until frost. The peak season for shell beans is midsummer into fall.

Snap Beans
Snap greens can be green, yellow, or purple. The slender French green beans known as haricots verts are worth seeking out. Small enough to use without snapping in half, they’re beautiful in salads or as side dishes.

Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake beans are heirloom varieties with a crisp-tender texture. Romano beans and other flat, wide snap beans are especially good in soups, where long cooking coaxes out their sweet, nutty flavor.

Yellow beans are perfect for pickling, as they’ll retain their color in vinegar. They’re also pretty when mixed with green or purple beans.

How to Buy
Look for crisp, firm snap beans that feel heavy and plump. They should break with a good, clean snap when bent. Avoid beans that are dull or limp.

How to Store
Snap beans will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Store them in a paper bag or wrapped in a towel.

How to Prepare
To prepare beans for cooking, check to see if they are stringy. If they are, snap off the top and tail of each, pulling down to peel the strings. If not, the tops and tails can be cut off. To cook snap beans, boil them quickly in a large pot of salty water until crisp-tender.

• Shelling Beans
Fresh shelling beans are one of the great treats of summer eating. Shell them and cook them in soups or simply braised as a side dish — they have an extra creamy texture and wonderful fresh earthy flavor. Some favorites include flageolets, black-eyed peas, Cranberry beans, cannellini, and lima beans.

How to Buy
Shell beans are at their best when the pods are full and slightly soft, indicating the beans inside are mature but not dry. Avoid pods that are withered or have brown spots.

How to Store
Keep shell beans at room temperature for a few days, or up to a week in the refrigerator in a paper bag to allow for a little air circulation.

How to Prepare
Shelling beans are very easy to shell. Ripe beans should be plump enough so that the pod pops right open with a light squeeze. You can then “zip” the beans out by running your finger down the inside of the pod.

Shelling beans are great in soups and stews. Unlike their dried counterparts, there is no need to soak them before using. Most fresh shelling beans require 20 to 30 minutes to cook, so add them to recipes accordingly. Fresh shelling beans are also delicious braised. If you have pesto, it is a wonderful seasoning stirred into these beans. 


BERRIES
One of the season’s most anticipated delights, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are in season from late spring through the end of summer. Strawberries arrive first, with a season that lasts from April through September, depending on the part of the country; blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries show up at the markets after, with golden and black raspberries usually appearing last.

Versatile and sweet, berries make a bright addition to cakes, cobblers, crisps, pies, sauces, and other cooked dishes, but when berries are truly at their peak, their flavor is perhaps best enjoyed simply eaten out of hand.

How to Buy
Choose brightly colored, plump berries that smell fragrant; avoid soft, shriveled, mushy, or moldy fruit.  Look for strawberries that are deeply red without traces of white.

How to Store
All berries are fragile and highly perishable, especially when perfectly ripe. Store unwashed berries in the refrigerator in a towel lined basket or bowl.

Some hardier berries, like blueberries, will keep for up to five days; more delicate varieties, like raspberries and strawberries, deteriorate fairly quickly after harvest — the culprit primarily being mold, and are best used within two or three days.

How to Prepare
Most berries don’t need washing, but if dusty, rinse them quickly in cold water and gently pat dry with kitchen towels just before using.


CORN
Native to the Americas and brought back to Europe from the New World, corn has played and still continues to play a vital role in the livelihood of many native cultures. It has been utilized for not only sustenance but shelter, fuel, and more.

In the kitchen, corn’s enduring appeal lies in its sweetness — some varieties have nearly 40 percent sugar — and its versatility. We associate fresh corn with the height of summer, as it peaks from mid-summer to early fall.

Corn is delicious in a myriad of preparations: soup, soufflés, salads, or simply grilled and eaten with a smear of butter and a sprinkle of salt. The two most popular varieties are yellow — which tends to have larger, fuller-flavored kernels —  and white, which is smaller and sweeter.

How to Buy
Buy corn that’s as fresh as possible; as soon as it’s been picked the sugars begin converting to starch, which diminishes its sweetness. Freshly picked ears will have a moist stem end where they were cut, and will look full and vibrant, with plump kernels and bright green, tightly closed husks.

How to Store
If you cannot serve immediately, corn should be stored in the refrigerator, unhusked and wrapped in a damp towel.

How to Prepare
Corn should be shucked at the last minute as exposed kernels are prone to drying out. Remove the husks and pull any wispy corn silks away from the bare ears; if the silks are difficult to remove, rub the ears with a soft towel or a small vegetable brush. If serving on the cob, boil no more than two minutes in unsalted water. If a recipe calls for fresh corn kernels, cut off the stem end, rest it firmly on a board, and slice the kernels off the cob with a sharp knife.


EGGPLANT
Eggplant (Solanum melongena), also known as aubergine, is a species of nightshade grown for its edible and highly versatile fruit. The plants, compact with grey-green leaves and small purple flowers, are beautiful at all stages of growth.

Besides the large, dark purple globe variety, eggplants come in a range of sizes, shapes, and colors, from smaller Italian eggplants to slender, mild Asian varieties to meaty, dense white-skinned eggplants and more.

Eggplants are versatile, and can be grilled, roasted, stuffed and baked, sautéed, or fried. The smaller Italian varieties are especially good sliced and grilled, served at room temp with olive oil and basil. The larger globe types can be baked and scooped out for dips or soups.

All eggplants share an affinity for strong Mediterranean flavors, and pair well with garlic, tomatoes, peppers, and basil — all ingredients essential to one of the most well-known eggplant dishes, ratatouille.

How to Buy
Ripe eggplants are shiny and firm. They should feel heavy for their size, with the fuzzy green cap tightly attached.

How to Store
Keep eggplants in a cool, dry place and use them within a day or two. You can store them in the crisper drawer for a few days if needed, but these subtropical fruits don’t generally fare well in cold storage.

How to Prepare
Peel older eggplants; on younger, smaller eggplants, the skin is edible. Rinse them, trim the cap, and cut them just before using — they tend to discolor quickly. Salting them won’t “draw out” their bitterness, but it will help mask the slightly bitter taste of older/larger eggplants, and the salted slices will absorb less oil.


MELONS
Summer produces many different types of delicious, succulent melons, a cool and welcome sight on hot days. Here in Northern California, where our local farmers grow rare and heirloom varieties until perfectly ripe, the sweet and subtle tastes of melons can be savored all summer into early fall. Bursting with juice and flavor, these stars of summer are dead-ripe and delicate, nothing like the bland, hard melons found off-season in supermarkets.

Melons are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which makes them relatives of squashes and cucumbers. Although often grouped together, most sweet melons fall into two broad categories: Citrillus lanatus, or watermelons, and Cucumus melo, which include muskmelon, cantaloupes, and honeydews. Many of the melons with sweet orange flesh and netted skin sold as “cantaloupes” are actually muskmelons. Real cantaloupes, not widely grown in North America, are smaller and more spherical than muskmelons, and have a harder skin.

How to Buy
Melons need heat to turn sweet, so mid-to-late summer and early fall are their prime seasons. Seek out symmetrical melons with a “filled-out” look. Weight offers hints about taste: a melon that feels heavy for its size holds lots of juicy flesh. Melons don’t become sweeter after harvesting, but the texture and aroma can continue to improve.

For netted (reticulatus) melons like muskmelons that have rinds covered with a netlike tissue, choose ones that are fragrant and give slightly to pressure. Uniformly distributed netting and a musky aroma are signs of ripeness.

Smooth-skinned melons such as honeydew do not give off their aroma until they’ve been cut open. Look for ones that are heavy for their size and feel for a bit of give at the end opposite the stem.

Ripe watermelons have skin with a waxy bloom, dull not shiny skin, and the lighter colored part of the rind, where the melon rested on the ground, should be yellow or creamy, not green or white. Look for smooth, symmetrical melons with no flat sides, bruises, cuts, or dents. A dull, hollow sound when you tap the melon signals that it’s ripe.

How to Store
Store whole melons in a cool spot. If cut, place slices in lidded container and refrigerate up to four days.

How to Prepare
For melons, slice in half and scoop out the seeds with a large spoon. Cut as desired, and serve with or without the tough outer skin. Slice watermelons into quarters and cut the flesh as desired, with or without the rind. Melons can be served very simply, sliced and draped with thin slices of prosciutto, added to salads, or halved and filled with a sweet Muscat wine such as Beaumes-de-Venise. Watermelon makes a refreshing drink called agua fresca when the flesh is blended with ice and a bit of sugar, and the leftover rind can be turned into a sweet pickle.


OKRA
Okra originated in Africa, but is a staple in cuisines across the globe, from the Middle East to the Southeastern U.S., where its seeds were carried to North America on slave ships over three centuries ago. Known in many English-speaking countries as ladies’ fingers, ochro or gumbo, okra is a flowering plant in the mallow family. The vegetable is prized for its edible green seed pods which, when cooked, release a gelatinous substance that serves as a thickener for soups and stews such as gumbo. Okra is also commonly braised, roasted, and — especially in our southern states — fried. It is wonderful pickled and has a flavor that works well when stewed with other summer favorites like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

How to Buy
Choose firm, springy pods the size of your pinkie, no larger than your index finger, about 3-5 inches (larger pods can have a woody texture), with a rich green color and a fine coat of sticky white hairs.

How to Store
Okra is very perishable and should be refrigerated in a brown paper bag and used within a few days.

How to Prepare
Before cooking, wash the pods and cut off the stem ends.


PEACHES AND PLUMS  

Stone fruits, members of the genus
Prunus, consist of flowering trees bearing fleshy, pitted fruits. Nothing says summer quite like the sweet, juicy flavors of stone fruits, and peaches and plums are among our favorites as they flourish here in Northern California. At their peak of ripeness, peaches and plums are delicious simply eaten as is, but they also can be baked into pies and crisps, made into jams, added to salads, and roasted, poached or sautéed for both savory and sweet dishes.

How to Buy
Peaches and plums are at their peak during July and August, and are best picked at the peak of ripeness. Select fruit that yields to the touch and has a fragrant aroma. If the fruit is rock-hard, don’t buy it. Stone fruits will continue to ripen after they are picked, but peaches that are picked too green will never ripen properly.

How to Store
If your fruit is not quite ready to eat, store on the kitchen counter where they’ll continue to ripen off-tree. Perfectly ripe fruit is best eaten as soon as possible, but you can refrigerate for two to three days to slow down the ripening process. Always allow fruits to come to room temperature before eating.

How to Prepare
To pit, cut along the seam in a full circle around the pit; then twist in opposite directions to separate the halves. Remove the pit with the tip of your knife. To remove the skins  from peaches, blanch for 30 seconds in boiling water, plunge into ice bath, and peel skin.


PEPPERS
Peppers are warm season vegetables that belong to the species Capsicum annum, and come in a wide range of shapes, colors, sizes, and heat intensity. Peppers can be divided into two groups, the sweet peppers and the chili peppers. Both of these types are at their peak from midsummer through the fall.

The most well-known sweet peppers are large, thick-fleshed, and mild tasting bell peppers, all of which start out green. As they reach maturity they eventually turn red, orange, black, or yellow, according to the variety, and grow sweeter — the longer a pepper stays on the vine before being picked, the sweeter it is. Besides the common bell pepper, there are small, round, red cherry peppers; heart-shaped pimento peppers; and slender Lipstick peppers, among others.

Peppers can be enjoyed raw in a salad with onions and tomatoes, used as toppings for pizza, or cooked kabob-style on the grill. They pair well with tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. Roasting them over fire enhances their sweetness and adds a wonderful, smoky flavor, especially delicious when marinated with olive oil, garlic, and basil.

Chilies, or hot peppers, are usually smaller than sweet peppers, and less meaty. There are many different chilies, some of the most common being jalapeños, anaheims, and serranos. Whether red or green, these chilies have a clean, hot flavor that tastes good with sweet vegetables such as carrots or corn.

How to Buy
Whether selecting sweet peppers or chili peppers, look for peppers that have smooth, glossy, skin, with no brown or wrinkled spots. Choose peppers that are firm and weighty for their size. Always favor ripe, colorful peppers over the immature green peppers.

How to Store
Unwaxed peppers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Be sure they are completely dry before storing as moisture will hasten deterioration.

How to Prepare
Wash the peppers. If you’re not roasting them whole, first remove their ribs and seeds, then mince, chop, or slice as needed. To roast peppers, place them as close to the heat source as possible, and turn frequently so the skins blacken evenly. Once charred, place in a container to steam and help loosen the skin, which should slip off easily when the peppers are cooled.

Be careful handling chili peppers as the oil from the membranes, skin, and seeds can be extremely irritating.


ZUCCHINI AND SUMMER SQUASH
The name summer squash distinguishes the more delicate varieties of the Cucurbita (or gourd) family from their heartier and longer-lasting relatives, the winter squash. The entire vegetable, including the seeds and skin, is edible and the soft flesh has a sweet, buttery flavor. While zucchini is perhaps the most common variety, crookneck and straightneck squash, globe squash, and pattypan squashes are just as delicious.

Summer squashes are well known for their abundance in backyard gardens and farmers’ markets. If you grow your own, be sure to harvest the edible blossoms —  they make a wonderful appetizer when stuffed with mozzarella and herbs and lightly fried. Summer squash can be eaten raw as well as roasted, grilled, steamed, pan-fried, and baked into breads and cakes.

How to Buy
Thin-skinned summer squash varieties are harvested when their seeds are small and their skin tender. When buying summer squash, choose small to medium summer squash that are heavy for their size with firm, unblemished rinds with bright color. Large specimens can be woody, bitter, and lack flavor.

How to Store
Yellow squash is more fragile than zucchini, so cook it as soon as possible after buying. In the meantime, store squashes covered in the refrigerator.

How to Prepare
When ready to use squash, rinse and dry with a towel.. Trim the stem and flowering end, but do not peel.

 Learn more with our post: Stocking the Summer Pantry.

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