The bounty of summer has arrived; a quick look at any farmers market or produce section of a supermarket confirms it. Beets and eggplants and summer squash -- oh, my! But if you're not used to using these ingredients, it can be intimidating to try to incorporate them into your culinary repertoire. Don't be afraid, and don't miss out on what's fresh and healthy.
First, why should you even care what's in season? And why bother shopping at a farmers market?
Shopping at a farmers market means that you're keeping your money in your community and directly supporting locally grown foods. Because the fruits and veggies don't have to travel across time zones and hemispheres, they are picked at the peak of ripeness, which means they are at their tastiest and healthiest.
Beets are a wonderful root vegetable with lots of nutrients and dietary fiber. When you think of beets, you probably envision the bright reddish-purple ones, but beets also come in a golden color, and Chioggia beets reveal red and white stripes when cut on the bias. Even the greens are edible. Beets are typically in season from June to October and can be prepared like other, more familiar root veggies, such as potatoes -- roasted, mashed, au gratin.
Additionally, beets are excellent in salads. You can grate raw beets over a salad for crunch and color, or you could add cold roasted beets. The roasted beets pair nicely with citrusy vinaigrette and creamy goat cheese. Beets also can be pickled; they're so versatile! The greens are tastiest when they're sauteed lightly in olive oil with garlic and salt and pepper to taste.
Speaking of greens, there are tons of different types of greens available during warmer months. Liberate yourself from iceberg and romaine salads; stop with the spinach. It's time to branch out! Rainbow chard not only comes in beautiful reds, yellows and maroons but also is delicious and can be used raw as a salad base or sauteed. Kale is another vitamin-packed dark green. Try making kale chips in the oven; they're a crispy, healthy alternative to potato chips. Other greens to be on the lookout for: tangy mustard greens and sharp, bitter dandelion greens.
But don't just be content to use the greens for salads and sautes. You also can make a killer veggie lasagna with various greens and eggplant. Add mixed greens to an omelet for an added nutritional boost in the morning. Blend them with berries and yogurt for an antioxidant-packed smoothie.
Think squash is only good in the fall and as decoration? Think again. Summer squash is tender, sweet and perfect for barbecues. Either cut it into chunks and skewer it or slice it in half and drizzle it with olive oil, salt and pepper to grill it. While you're at it, throw some fresh corn on the cob on there, as well.
Now that you've stocked up on veggies, it's time to get the fruit. Nothing says summer like fresh, juicy fruits. Load up on berries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, melons and plums. Eat and enjoy, but consider using them in other ways, too. Add some fresh berries to a mixed green salad; make a marinade from peaches and peppers. Melons and mint go well together and can be added to iced tea or lemonade for a refreshing drink on a hot day.
Summer is also the perfect time of year to use fresh herbs in your cooking. Never had a marinara sauce made from ripe tomatoes and just-picked basil? Now is the time to remedy that. Fresh chives, cilantro, rosemary and sage are all readily available in the summertime. It can be hard to go back to dried spices after tasting the depth of flavor you get using fresh ones.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of shopping at a farmers market is meeting the people who grow the food. And if someone takes the time and care to grow something, he knows how to use it. So if you see something unique and want to try it, don't be shy; ask the farmer how it should be prepared. You probably will get a plethora of ideas and new recipes.