For cooks, food lovers and avid gardeners, summer is all about produce. We wait anxiously for those first spring onions, squash flowers, tomatoes, eggplants and melons. We plan weeks ahead the dishes we'll make for our friends and families. We fantasize about the backyard dinners and patio parties.
For me, the first true sign that summer has arrived is the sight of squash flowers at my local farmers market in early June. As a child (and to this day), whenever we visited Mexico, my mother would pounce on anything made with the coveted harbinger of the many beautiful summer squash to come. In Mexico, squash blossoms are used in a variety of ways — to fill quesadillas, stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried like the Italians do — but no dish showcases the flavors better than my family recipe for sopa de flor de calabaza (squash flower soup). Serve it as a glorious welcome to the season to come.
As spring turns to summer, onions change their tune from subtle to bold. The dwindling bits of green garlic give way to long chives crowned with fat purple blossoms that are as attractive to the tongue as they are to the eye. Sometime in midsummer (around June), bags of red onions start popping up at local farmers markets. After you've used them as a base for sauces, consider making them into a show-stopping pickle that you'll want to put on everything from grilled steak tacos to your morning scrambled eggs.
Late June and July bring an abundance of the king of all summer produce: tomatoes. People line up at the market greedily eyeing exactly which ones they'll pluck from the pile. Pints of small red and yellow tomatoes, fat irregularly shaped deep purple Cherokees, and every shade of the yellow to red spectrum grace each farmer's table for as far as the eye can see. Eat them right away like an apple, top it with funky blue cheese and chive flowers, use it as the base of a spicy salsa for your next Mexican-themed cookout or just make a good old Southern tomato sandwich on some white bread with mayo.
Eggplants also arrive en masse around the same time as tomatoes. Use them in ratatouille, slice them and fry them quickly to get the bitterness out before baking them in the oven topped with some fresh mozzarella and oregano. Or use them as the star of an Asian dish — I sauté the eggplant with ground pork and cubes of tofu with loads of fresh ginger, garlic, soy sauce and scallions for a hearty but still summery dish.
Although you don't see nearly enough of them, green beans are another summer favorite that can be used in as many ways as tomatoes. Stewing them with tomatoes and okra can be a nice main dinner dish with some Carolina gold rice. But my favorite way to prepare them is with equally abundant potatoes and basil pesto in a classic Italian pasta with a few twists.
At the end of July, melons in all shapes and sizes start to appear at the market. After that initial pop of excitement of biting into a farm-fresh watermelon cracked on a hot day, explore some other ways to use this quintessential summer treat. Watermelons offer a crisp and cool base for a salad when mixed with hunks of briny feta cheese and fresh sprigs of mint. My favorite way to enjoy it, however, is in a cold refreshing glass of agua fresca. You can even add a little vodka if you're feeling naughty. Cheers to summer!
• 1/2 pound of flor de calabaza or zucchini flowers, coarsely chopped
• 1/4 cup of cream• 3 cups chicken stock
• 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 1/2 an onion, finely chopped
• 2 tomatoes, seeded and skinned
• 2-3 jalapeño or serrano peppers, seeded and chopped
• 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil
• The juice of 1/2 a lime
• Salt and pepper
Instructions: Combine tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers, olive oil and salt in a dutch oven or small stockpot. Sauté until translucent. Add flowers and sauté just until wilted. Add chicken stock and cream and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer for five minutes. Using an immersion blender or a blender, purée soup until it reaches a smooth consistency. Mix in the lime juice and season to taste.
• 2-3 red onions, thinly sliced
• 1 cup white vinegar
• 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 tablespoon kosher salt
• Optional: 1-2 jalapeño peppers, slivered
Instructions: Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer for one minute and then take off heat. Allow it to come to room temperature and then place in a sterilized glass jar or Tupperware container. Chill for at least an hour before serving. Keeps for about a week in the fridge.
• 1 pound of cavatappi pasta or another short pasta such penne, ziti, etc.
• 1/2 pound small potatoes
• 3/4 pound green beans
• A large bunch of basil
• 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
• 1 garlic clove
• 1/2 cup of Parmesan, plus more for sprinkling
• Olive oil
Instructions: Prepare pesto. In a Cuisinart or mortar and pestle, grind pine nuts, garlic and basil together. Add a steady stream of olive oil until it all comes together into a smooth consistency. Fold in Parmesan cheese. Cover with a thin layer of olive oil and refrigerate if you don't plant to use it immediately. Peel and quarter potatoes. Bring to a boil in salted boiling water and drain. Set aside. Trim green beans and blanch. Set aside. Boil pasta and drain, reserving a little pasta water. Combine pasta with pesto, potatoes and green beans in a large serving bowl. Thin out with a little pasta water if needed.
• The flesh of one seedless watermelon, cut up
• 2 limes, juiced
• 1/2 cup water
• Handful of fresh mint or basil, finely shredded
Instructions: Purée all of the ingredients except the mint/basil in a blender in batches, Strain through a fine-mesh colander into a large pitcher and chill for at least an hour. Serve in short glasses with a little of the fresh herbs.Summer's bounty of produce offers so much that needs so little to be exceptional. However, like everything good, the season only last a few months — maybe a little longer if we get what are becoming almost regular Indian summers — before fall brings its own treasures. To find a local farmers market near you, visit LocalHarvest.org.
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