Garden to Table
July 31, 2007
Here come the lazy days of summer. Time to lounge out on the sand, wade through the surf, and savor the… succotash? Yes, summer vegetables are definitely in season. From corn to tomatoes, peppers to squash, summer vegetables are ripe, ready and primed for picnics.
But what does being “in season” actually mean? Although classic summer vegetables are typically most abundant in the hottest months, these days, a walk through any grocery store in winter might suggest otherwise. Why? Modern, world-wide food distribution and processing makes most fresh fruit and vegetable items available year-round.
This is a good thing, in theory. Customers get what they want when they want it; grocers provide reliability and consistency. However, recent concern about the environmental costs of transporting food around the globe is breathing new life into the seasonal eating movement, which encourages eating items that are produced both seasonally and regionally.
One clear benefit of seasonal eating is the bridging of the gap between consumer and farmer. In fact, many farms are now offering produce “subscriptions,” where participants can receive monthly deliveries of fresh produce. These farms, known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, encourage a relationship with the farm, and provide a direct link between production and consumption of food.
Andrea Chesman, vegetable guru and author of Serving Up the Harvest and The Classic Zucchini Cookbook, says that as fuel prices rise – and with it the cost of fresh vegetables – the movement to eat only what’s in season is going to become even more popular. Eating seasonally has the potential, says Chesman, to decrease the each consumer’s carbon footprint. Also, it has some noticeable taste advantages.
“Having tasted an aromatic, red, vine-ripened tomato at its peak, I’ve just decided to avoid the harder, pinker tomatoes available in winter. I’d rather used canned tomatoes, says Chesman. “And seasonal summer squashes, like zucchini and yellow crookneck squash are far more succulent and tender when freshly harvested. The longer the squash travels, the more time it is had to convert its sugars to bland-tasting starches.”
One of Chesman’s favorite summer dishes is vegetable and goat cheese pasta, which combines small yellow summer squash and zucchini with red bell pepper and cherry tomatoes. The marriage of these popular summer vegetables with goat cheese is divine, gracefully highlighting the sweetness of seasonal produce. A second dish, Chesman’s twist on the timeless Greek salad, celebrates the freshness that seasonal eating affords.
“If you pick up a tomato and smell the sweet aroma, chances are it will taste great, and that experience only happens when the tomato is harvested ripe,” she says. “Seasonal eating broadens your appreciation of agricultural cycles, and introduces your palate to diverse tastes and textures.”
Because of their incredible diversity, harvest methods for summer vegetables vary. Summer squashes, like zucchini and yellow crookneck are harvested young and immature, with tender skins and before the seeds have developed, lending them their mild, sweet taste and texture. Tomatoes can be harvested completely ripe. Some supersweet corn varieties remain sweet even days after harvest, though Chesman prefers older, heirloom varieties, harvested within a day of eating it.
“Older varieties, harvested fresh, are great because you can really taste the corn’s ‘corniness’. Select squash that are shiny, firm and heavy for their size, and tomatoes that are bright, plump and yield to light pressure.”
Perfect for traditional dishes like ratatouille, summer vegetables are also excellent steamed, grilled, sautéed, or stewed. In particular, tomatoes and peppers can shine raw. When possible, Chesman says, veggies intended for raw consumption should come from a local supplier, or at least one that is extremely reputable, to reduce the risk of field contamination.
“Food safety issues come up when vegetables that are meant to be consumed, like greens, are grown in irrigated fields where the water supply is polluted. I buy my foods locally in Vermont, where irrigation is rarely required,” she says.
No longer just a barbeque side dish, summer vegetables are the main course when it comes to valuable health benefits. Zucchini, for its part, may help lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart attacks and prevent colon cancer. Corn may help fight macular eye degeneration
Chesman adds, “It’s common knowledge that vegetables provide a host of needed vitamins and minerals. Five servings a day is a good nutritional aim, and with delicious summer vegetables, that’s an easily attained goal.”
A traditional vegetable and feta salad, dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon juice, Santorini Salad sparkles with fresh flavors. Add a crusty loaf of bread, a well-chilled white wine, and, perhaps, some grilled shrimp, and you will have a very fine summer meal. Serves 4.
2 teaspoons finely minced lemon zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 sweet onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber (peeled and seeded, if desired), diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup fresh cooked or canned or frozen and defrosted artichoke hearts
1 cup Kalamata olives
6 to 8 ounces feta, crumbled
Combine the zest, juice, onion, olive oil, and oregano in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Toss well and let stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes. Combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, green and red bell peppers, artichokes, and olives in a large bowl. Add the onion mixture and toss well. Add the cheese and toss again. Serve immediately.
PASTA WITH GRILLED SUMMER VEGETABLES AND GOAT CHEESE
Goat cheese makes an instant creamy sauce when tossed with hot pasta, but if you aren’t a fan, you can substitute ricotta cheese. This is a recipe for an easy, lazy, delicious summer meal. Make sure you add good bread and a bottle of wine. Serves 4 to 6.
1 small yellow summer squash, diced
1 small zucchini, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 fennel bulb, cored and diced, or 1 cup green beans cut in 1-inch lengths
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound rotini or other short pasta
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup loosely packed chopped fresh basil
2 garlic cloves, minced
6 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
Prepare a medium-hot fire in the grill with a lightly oiled vegetable grill rack in place. Begin heating a large pot of salted water for the pasta. Combine the summer squash, zucchini, bell pepper, and fennel in a large bowl. Add the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste, and toss to coat. Grill the vegetables, tossing frequently until tender and lightly charred, about 5 minutes. Set aside and keep warm. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until just al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water and drain. Return the pasta to the pot. Add the tomatoes, basil, garlic, and goat cheese. Pour in half the reserved cooking water and toss to form a creamy sauce. Add more water if necessary. Season generously with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the pasta and sauce to a serving bowl. Top with the grilled vegetables and toss lightly. Serve at once.
-- all recipes from “From Serving Up the Harvest,” by Andrea Chesman. Published by Storey Publishing. Copyright 2005, 2007. Used by permission of the author.