Choosing produce harvested at its peak is your sure bet for flavor and freshness.
In early May, enthusiasts scramble for the first handfuls of sweet Burlat cherries, but aficionados are happiest when mid-season varieties like Bing, Brooks, Rainier, and Utah Giants hit the stands. The dark-red, heart-shaped Lambert cherries are a treat for all when they arrive at the end of the all-too-short cherry season.
Cherries come straight from field to farmstand, since they are a fruit that has to remain on the tree to ripen before harvest. Picked too soon, they will lack that unforgettable cherry flavor. Choose sweet cherries that are plump, shiny, dry, and quite firm with fresh green stems still attached.
The summer squash parade begins this month. During peak season, look for slender green and golden zucchini, scallop squash (like pattypan), crookneck, bitter melon, and opo. All are ready to slice, dice, and sauté or to serve raw as a snack or grate into salads.
Snap! The sound of a fresh bean when you break the end off. Green snap beans such as Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake remain some of the most popular varieties, but wide-podded Romanos or Italians, yellow wax, purple beans, haricots verts, and Chinese long beans are gaining ground in local fields. Enjoy them all—steamed, sautéed, or raw.
Eggplants and tomatoes start to show up about now. Both bruise easily, so handle with care. Eggplants store well in the refrigerator for a few days, but tomatoes need to be stored on the counter for optimum taste and texture. With barbecue season here, don’t miss your chance to stack grilled slices of eggplant with basil leaves and fresh tomato slices. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with crumbled feta, then place on a lightly oiled pan and pop into a 400° oven for 15 minutes. Fabulous!
Ears of plump corn are a big draw at the markets. Look for telltale golden-brown end silk and moist stem ends. White sweet corn still reigns supreme, but supersweet varieties of yellow, white, and bi-color maintain their sweetness longer after harvest since the normal conversion of sugar to starch is slower.
Crunchy cucumbers are now at their best. Slicer varieties are common, but seeds can be large, so cut the cuke in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds before slicing. The thin skin and small size of pickling cucumbers make them ideal for pickling, of course! Novelty cukes include English or greenhouse cucumbers, lemon cucumbers (named for their appearance and not their flavor), and slim Japanese cucumbers. Armenian cucumbers are actually a ribbed melon with a mild cucumber flavor.
Recipe by Barbara Kobsar • Artwork by Caroline H. Gould