Summer is the year’s fruit and vegetable smorgasbord. But if you ask most people to name three produce items they associate with summertime eating, the odds are good that most would mention corn (roasted or boiled, brushed with butter), tomatoes (bright red with rich, deep flavor) and melons (cold, sweet and delicious).
As with any foodstuffs, a little knowledge can help you get the most out of these summer favorites.
Corn. Top-quality corn peaks from mid-July to mid-September. It’s full of carbohydrates and food energy, but rapidly loses sugar after harvesting, especially in high temperatures. Ideally, it shouldn’t be stored longer than three to five days after harvest — and should be kept on ice to retain as much of its sugar as possible.
Sweet corn is divided into three main groups, by sweetness, with yellow and white varieties in all three. Standard varieties, including the favorite Silver Queen, are meant to be picked and eaten within a relatively short time. Sugar extenders have more sugar and also sport the greatest number of varieties in both the yellow and white hybrids. Super sweet has the most sugar but has a crispy, tough-skinned texture.
Tomatoes. One of the most common garden growables, second in consumption only to the potato among Americans. Although actually a fruit, the tomato was declared a vegetable by the Supreme Court in 1893 for the purpose of levying a tariff. Tomatoes are low in sodium and cholesterol, and can provide over half an adult’s daily requirement of vitamin C. They’re also a good source of vitamin E and fiber.
Tomatoes allowed to ripen on the vine can be susceptible to sun scald and skin cracking, so you may want to consider picking them a bit early and then letting them fully ripen off the plant. Unlike corn, tomatoes taste best when they’re not refrigerated.
Tomatoes are available year round, but commercial tomatoes, which often come to your store from great distances, are picked when still firm and green to minimize shipping damage, usually a good two weeks before optimum ripe stage, and then held in cold storage up to a month before they reach your market. Ethylene gas chambers are used to artificially induce color and ripeness. The best tomatoes are the ones you grow yourself — and they’re easy to grow.
Melons. The two summer biggies are watermelon and cantaloupe.
Watermelon is a good source of potassium and vitamins A and C. Good-quality watermelon will be firm, evenly shaped, heavy for its size and have a deep-pitched tone when slapped with an open palm. Watermelons do not ripen any further once they are cut from the vine. Seedless watermelons actually have small white seeds that are edible.
Good-quality cantaloupe will have large webbing or netting on the skin and yellow/orange coloring, and will be slightly soft on the stem end and firm elsewhere. A strong cantaloupe smell on the stem end and seeds that rattle inside when the melon is shaken are indications of a ripe, tasty cantaloupe. They’re super high in vitamins A and C and potassium, delivering more than 100 percent of daily requirements.
A few other summer produce favorites:
Blueberries. The trick to freezing them while retaining their full flavor is to spread them on a cookie tray and flash-freeze them for about 30 minutes before putting them in a container for long term freezer storage.
Green beans. Sixty percent of all commercially raised beans in the world are grown in the U.S. They’re an excellent source of antioxidants as well as a source of cholesterol-fighting omega-3 fats.
Peaches. A fruit that can truly ripen after picking. A peach will taste just like it smells. When fully ripened, it should give slightly under light pressure. If it feels like a tennis ball, it’s an excellent candidate to ripen on your kitchen counter for a while longer.
Summertime is king when it comes to fresh, locally grown produce. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Bob Thomas is director of the Navy Wellness Center in Pensacola, Fla. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.