Mark Salter, executive chef at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Md., looks forward to spring and summer when he can visit the local farmers markets on Maryland's Eastern Shore and buy fresh produce such as locally grown asparagus, wild watercress, mixed salad leaves, sweet white corn, vine-ripened tomatoes, and ripe peaches.
"When you can buy produce that has just been picked, it tastes so much better," says Salter, who changes his menu seasonally to take advantage of the freshest ingredients. "That's one reason so many chefs like to have their own garden ... you get to use the produce at its best."
Salter also likes buying at farmers markets because he knows that the produce is grown "as naturally" as possible. "There's someone there to vouch for the quality," he says.
Seasonal Produce Available to All
You don't have to be a professional chef, however, to enjoy the fruits -- literally and figuratively -- of the season. And if there are no farmers markets near you, not to worry, says Claudia Gonzalez, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Most of the produce we get in the United States is good," she says. "Of course, the fresher the better, but if you have to go to the grocery store and not a produce stand or farmers market, that's not a problem."
What's in season varies with location and weather, but in general, the following fruits and vegetables are at their peak during the spring and summer.
- Garlic greens
- Bok choy
- Mustard greens
- Tat soi
- Peas -- snap and snow
- Green beans
- Onions -- red and yellow
- Peppers -- hot and sweet
- Potatoes -- new
- Summer squash
- Sweet corn
Stone Fruits of Summer
Then there are those fruits knows as stone fruits. These fruits include those from the fruit trees within the genus of Prunus. Peaches, plums, cherries, apricots are just a few and are at their best in the summer. To select these fruits at their peak, Whole Foods Market, a national retail supermarket that specializes in organic produce, offers these tips:
- Look for peaches with skins that have a background color of yellow or warm cream. Avoid rock-hard peaches and choose those that yield slightly to pressure along the "seam." These peaches will soften in a few days if kept at room temperature. Avoid dark-colored, mushy, or bruised peaches.
- Plums should be plump and well-colored for their variety. The fruit is ready to eat when it yields to gentle pressure. Plums ripen well off the tree at room temperature.
- Cherries should be glossy, plump, hard, and dark-colored for their variety. Pack loosely to minimize bruising.
- Apricots should be plump and orange-colored and should yield to gentle pressure. Avoid those that have shriveled skin or bruises or those tinged with green.
Stone fruits are delicious as is, or prepared in cobblers and crisps, pies and tarts, or preserves. For simple preparation, poaching is an easy and quick method to preserve ripe fruit; eat alone or serve over ice cream or frozen yogurt, or on pancakes. Grilled fruits are also a good addition to a meal. Fruits cook quickly on the grill, usually taking only a few minutes to soften slightly. Eat as is or serve over ice cream.
By adding a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits to your diet, you'll not only be livening up your meals with tasty ingredients, but also boost your nutrient quotient. Cucumbers, for example, may be 95% water (which makes them a good natural diuretic), but they're rich in vitamin E; tomatoes are packed with vitamins A and C, potassium, and phosphorus; and sweet corn is a good source of vitamin C as well.
Fruits are no less nutritious, apricots, for example, are a good source of beta carotene, vitamin C, iron, and potassium; blueberries and blackberries are rich in fiber; melons provide much needed vitamin C; and peaches are a good source of vitamins A and C themselves.
In general, the best way to eat the season's produce is "fresh and raw," says Gonzalez. Wash the produce first ("fruits and vegetables go through many hands before going home"), eat as is (unpeeled, if possible), or add to salads or other dishes.
For ingredients that need cooking, Chef Salter recommends steaming, which will keep in as many of the nutrients as possible.
But wherever you choose to buy your produce, and however you choose to eat it, the point is, says Gonzalez, "You need to eat it!"