Summer is the season for farm-fresh, flavorful foods.
By Laurie Wertich
Behold the bounty of summer—ripe tomatoes, juicy watermelon, and growers’ markets ablaze in color. The height of summer means an abundant selection of fruits and vegetables, and the best news of all is that not only is this wonderfully fresh produce healthy, it’s packed with flavor.
’Tis the Season
“Food tastes best grown in its own season,” insists Amelia Saltsman, cooking teacher and author of The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories from the Market and Farm (Blenheim Press, 2007; $22.95). “Because of [the growing season in] California and our ability to transport, we’ve been able to manipulate the seasons, but nothing tastes as good as it does when it is grown in its own season.”
Amelia is passionate not just about food and cooking but also about the entire sensory experience associated with food. For her it’s simple: food should taste good. At the peak of maturity, food looks, smells, and tastes wonderful.
“When you taste what an apricot, tomato, or peach can really be like at the peak, it is eye-opening,” Amelia says—so eye-opening, in fact, that a January tomato will probably never satisfy again.
While each season has its own set of crops, summer is absolutely bursting with flavor and abundance. If you’re shopping with your taste buds, summer will not disappoint: you can choose from an array of fresh produce, including tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini, green beans, peppers, eggplant, corn, melons, peaches, apricots, berries, and so much more.
If you’re looking to incorporate more fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables into your diet, summer is an excellent time to experiment—and perhaps the best place to start is your local growers’ market.
To Market, to Market
There is nothing quite like the hustle and bustle of a busy growers’ market at the height of summer. Mountains of corn on the cob cover tables, stacks of watermelon fill the backs of pickup trucks, and crates and baskets overflow with a variety of fruits and vegetables, some familiar and some not. Shoppers line up for the first crop of peaches. Farmers hand out samples. The entire place is abuzz with a palpable energy.
Indeed the market is a special place. The colors, smells, tastes, and textures will invite you in—but it’s the sense of community that will keep you coming back week after week. At the market everyone talks: “Did you taste the cherry tomatoes at the booth on the end?” “What are you planning on making with all of those peppers?” “Do you have a good recipe for peach cobbler?” Farmers will gladly tell you how they grew a tomato that tastes so divine or give you advice about the best way to prepare summer squash.
The market inspires connection, creativity, community, and cooking. It’s a far cry from the sterile aisles of the superstore grocery chains to which most of us are accustomed. “When it comes to food, a lot of people experience a disconnect as a result of shrink-wrapped shopping,” Amelia explains. “They’re not tasting and smelling things.” The market changes all of that.
Eat Right for the Season
The growers’ market, in effect, forces you to eat seasonally. “Every couple of weeks there is an ever-unfolding set of ingredients, so there is always something to look forward to, and it is sort of self-limiting at the same time,” Amelia says. “If it’s in season, it will be right in front of you, and that makes life simpler.”
Amelia is a passionate champion of local, seasonal eating. She leads growers’ market tours, teaches cooking classes, and encourages people to experiment with new ingredients. She says less is more when it comes to preparing healthy, seasonal dishes. “These are ordinary ingredients with extraordinary flavor,” she gushes. “When your carrots, tomatoes, and peaches taste so delicious, there is very little you need to do to get dinner on the table.”
She insists that the high-quality, flavorful ingredients available at the market make it easy to get dinner on the table fast. With farm-fresh ingredients and simple cooking methods, Amelia says, you can have a healthy, delicious meal on the table in less than 30 minutes.
She also encourages people to get creative and break the rules. “There is no reason why the peach can’t replace the tomato in your salad,” she suggests. “This is about the pursuit of pleasure.”
The Benefits of Local Food
Because crops taste best when picked at the peak of maturity, farmers have a small window of time to get ripe crops from harvest to consumers. The growers’ market system is designed to maximize that process—because farmers can wait for that peak moment to harvest crops and then transport them a short distance to the local market. This is the beauty of the local food movement: not only is it more economical but the food actually tastes better.
“Flavor really changes in veggies when they’ve been sitting on a truck for a few weeks, making their way from California to wherever you are,” explains Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest. “Put simply, the food at a farmers’ market just tastes better.”
Taste is only the beginning. There are numerous benefits to shopping locally and seasonally, and Erin lists them without hesitation:
- The food tastes better.
- Evidence is mounting that the produce at a growers’ market has a higher nutrient content than the produce that has been trucked in from far away.
- The food stays fresher longer.
- The growers’ market keeps dollars in the local economy, which helps ensure availability and access to food—and the health of the community.
- The market sometimes provides an opportunity to save money.
“When you shop at the farmers’ market, you get to have a chat with the farmer and then you are inspired to cook,” Erin explains. “That’s where you save money—instead of eating out or buying expensive foods from the middle of the grocery store, you stay home and cook. It’s inspiring.”
Local Foods and the Environment
The argument that local foods are better for the environment has long been controversial. While shipping food across the country seems inefficient and costly, there really is no data to back these claims. The growing methods employed by small, organic farms, however, are indeed better for the environment, and these are often the farms that stock the local growers’ markets.
Organic food is grown without the use of biotechnology, irradiation, and chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic farming practices help promote soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Furthermore organic foods carry lower levels of toxins, such as pesticides.
Amelia mentions that small-scale, local farming carries the benefit of biodiversity. “Diversity is good for the planet. The more diverse our crops are, the more our growing environment is protected from pests that could obliterate our crops,” she explains.
Just Try It
If you’re a newbie to the fresh, local, seasonal food movement, it can seem overwhelming at first—but the best way to overcome that initial intimidation is to simply jump in and try it. “You can’t go wrong. This is just food,” Amelia insists.
If you don’t know where to start, she suggests starting with pleasure. What looks good? What tastes good? What smells good? Start there and you won’t be disappointed. “When we eat this way,” Amelia says, “we don’t just feed our body—we feed our soul.”
Get Your Greens
“Tomatoes, peaches, and berries are the stars of the market, but summer greens are so nutritious and so overlooked,” asserts Amelia Saltsman, cooking teacher and author of The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories from the Market and Farm.
Try adding these delicious summer greens to the menu:
- Bloomsdale spinach—a heavily savoyed (crinkled) sweet spinach
- Lambs-quarter—mild tasting like spinach and even more nutritious
- Purslane—extremely high in nutrients with a unique, peppery taste
- Watercress—mildly spicy taste similar to radishes
- Arugula—an aromatic, sometimes spicy salad green
For an easy summer dinner, Amelia suggests chopping Bloomsdale spinach, tossing it with olive oil and salt and pepper, and serving it as a salad base for grilled fish.
Farm-Fresh Animal Products
While most farmers’ markets are overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, some also offer an excellent selection of healthy meat and dairy products. Small, organic farms place a large emphasis on raising animals in healthy, natural conditions, with a focus on feeding livestock the foods they were designed to eat. Large factory farms, on the other hand, rely on unnatural diets as well as antibiotics and growth hormones. As a result, animal products from these factory operations are often higher in saturated fat and laden with toxic residue.
Choosing organic animal products can help reduce your exposure to antibiotics and growth hormones. Most organic beef is grass fed, which means the cows consume a diet of grass rather than grain. Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. This organic meat provides a healthier alternative to conventionally raised beef.
Shopping for meat and dairy products at a local market means you can talk with farmers about their farming practices and choose animal products that are healthier for you.
No Market in Sight
If you don’t have access to a growers’ market or community-supported agriculture cooperative (CSA), you can still reap the benefits of seasonal, farm-fresh food—with a little strategy at the grocery store. For many years most large grocery chains have relied on produce that is trucked in from far away, but the tide is turning as demand for locally grown foods increases. Whether you’re shopping in a large chain supermarket or a small, locally owned grocery store, you should be able to find seasonal produce at its peak freshness. Here’s how:
- Stick to the perimeter of the store, where the fresh food is stored.
- Look for locally grown produce, which is often displayed toward the front of the produce section.
- Choose organic whenever possible.
- Choose foods that are in season: strawberries, peaches, and tomatoes are fair game during the peak of summer.
- Befriend the produce manager—strike up a conversation, ask where specific items were grown, and express an interest in locally grown foods. The produce manager will gladly steer you in the right direction.
- Be a squeaky wheel: fill out comment cards or talk with managers and request that they make an effort to carry locally grown, organic produce.
Joining a CSA
If you want to add local, seasonal produce to your regimen, you may consider joining a community-supported agriculture cooperative. Many local farms offer a CSA program, which means you can buy a “farm share”—a weekly box of produce that is available for delivery or pickup. This is a fun and economical way to incorporate more seasonal produce into your diet. Most people are delighted with the variety that comes in their farm share, and they are often introduced to new fruits and vegetables they may not have otherwise tried.
Find a Growers’ Market or CSA Near You
LocalHarvest is an organic- and local-food website. Enter your ZIP code to find growers’ markets, CSAs, and other resources near you.
Summery Zucchini-Lemon Soup
Zucchini is paired subtly with Indian spices for a summer soup that is tasty cold or hot and can be made early in the day. Summer squash also marries well with other herbs and seasonings, so think of this easy soup as a master recipe and play with other flavor combinations, such as garlic, basil, and parsley, or hot Thai chilies, Thai basil, and lime.
2 pounds summer squash (zucchini, marrow squash, pattypan, scaloppini), cut into ½-inch-thick pieces
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro (optional), plus more for garnish
Kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon curry powder or ¼ teaspoon each ground coriander, cumin, ginger, and turmeric
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon canola or other mild cooking oil
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (if using canned, dilute with water to half-strength)
Juice of ½ to 1 lemon
Fresh regular chives or garlic chives, snipped, for garnish
In a deep, wide pot, sauté the squash, onion, cilantro, ½ teaspoon salt, curry powder, and turmeric in the oil over medium heat until the vegetables are golden, tender, and fragrant, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add 2 cups of the stock and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the remaining stock and continue to cook until the vegetables are very tender, about 5 minutes more.
Puree the soup with an immersion or stand blender. If the soup is too thick, add water (or ice cubes if serving it cold). Add the juice of a half lemon. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt as needed until the soup has a refreshing tang. Serve hot, or chill well and serve cold. Garnish each serving with chives and cilantro. Makes 6 servings
Seared White Nectarines and Burnt Honey
2 tablespoons full-flavored honey, warmed
2 tablespoons water or dessert wine such as Muscat
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
4 fresh bay leaves (optional)
4 ripe white nectarines or peaches, halved and pitted
Boysenberries, blackberries, or raspberries
In a small bowl, stir together the honey and the water. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Film the pan with 1 teaspoon of the butter and add the bay leaves. When the butter sizzles and the bay leaves start to blister, add half of the fruit, cut side down. Cook until the cut surface is browned, about 2 minutes. Transfer the fruit, cut side up, and the bay leaves to a platter. Repeat with remaining fruit and 1 teaspoon butter.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and pour the honey mixture into the pan. Stir, scraping up any brown bits, and then simmer until deep brown, about 2 minutes. To serve, divide the fruit among dessert plates, lightly drizzle the fruit with the honey, and then scatter the berries around the fruit. Makes 8 servings
Recipes used with permission from The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories from the Market and Farm by Amelia Saltsman (Blenheim Press, 2007).