The first few vegetables that come out of our garden at home hold a special meaning for me that is hard to replicate in a store or even a farmers' market. It was summer squash this year; a half dozen round green scaloppini and yellow sunburst varieties. These were small and still had the blossoms attached - barely enough for a side dish and all had that delicate layer of spiked fur that the plant produces to protect itself from insects. As I slice them for a sauté, I know I'll be swimming in squash in a month or so but this first small sample of the flavors of summer always comes with a simple but special kind of joy and pride at having provided for my family with my own two hands.
My garden - Aptos, CAPeas and beans are right around the corner in my part of the world but all over the country the vegetables of summer are starting to show up on produce stands and dinner tables - many produced at home (or very close to it). Squash, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, beans and, the embodiment of summertime, corn are all items we see almost every day in our produce department but what makes them special right now is the path this produce takes on its way to our homes and restaurants. Some still travel a long way but all over the country similar joy/pride moments are playing out in gardens and farms everywhere. The summer harvest season has begun.
Cucumber field - GeorgiaAt the Whole Foods Market produce buying office, managing the transition from single source, often large scale, long distance shipping to multiple sourced, often smaller regional/local, short haul isn't easy and rarely goes without a hiccup. The challenge is always around harvest timing and pinpointing when a growing district will start (and finish) producing. Commercial summer vegetable production is a lot like my own garden at home - first a trickle of availability, then a flood. Our job is to help match up demand with available supply and we do this by expanding displays and offering specials but mostly we try to make what is seasonally (and regionally) excellent as obvious as possible.
White Eggplant - Central Valley CaliforniaTaking over from the winter farms of Mexico and Florida are a community of large and small producers all over the U.S. Growers like Balakian, Wooley, Lady Moon and Watsonia Farms are separated by many miles but all share a common goal of bridging the supply gap between the winter farms of the south and our own back yard bounty.
Amber and Stella Balakian, Central Valley CaliforniaWhat is excellent seasonally in summer vegetables will vary depending on where you are (and when). If you live in the southern states, your summer vegetable season is well underway (in fact, in some places your season is almost over).
Summer harvest season starts later the further north you travel but even if you live in Boston, for example, your June corn will be tastier having traveled far fewer miles than the corn you bought in May.One of the other interesting aspects of this time of year is many of the summer varieties take on a regional flavor. The squash that grows best in my neighborhood, for example, would not do as well in the heat of the southeast or the humidity of the mid-Atlantic regions. Many varieties that for whatever reasons are not deemed commercially viable will get a second look as the miles to market shrinks and seasonal interest increases. Supporting these varieties (and the growers that produce them) are the best way to insure variety diversity in our food supply.
Baby squash w/ blossoms - North Carolina
Selection in summer vegetables is simple - the stem that connected the vegetable to the plant is your freshness guide. Breaks in the stem of most vegetables will oxidize as soon as the vegetable is removed from the plant and it is this area that will show the age of the product.
Squash, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers should all be firm and the crown around the stem should be green and free of visible decay. Corn shows its age in the same way- if the stem and silk are brown and dry-looking, the ears should be avoided. You can keep summer vegetables at room temperature or in the fridge but it is best not to get too far ahead of yourself when you buy it (particularly corn which gets progressively starchier the older it gets).My wife Erin likes to remind me that with all the work and money I spend getting my garden together every year, these first few morsels of squash cost us about $50 a bite. But as the summer progresses and the peas come off, followed by the green beans, then the potatoes,
tomatoes, shelling beans, and finally pumpkins and winter squashes, I know the economics of home gardening will balance out (or at least I think so). Beyond a measure in dollars though, my garden gives me a sense of peace and accomplishment - one I can share with growers all over the U.S.Many thanks to Peter Oszaczky, John Walker, David Haglund, Roger Zardo, and Dana Peters for contributing to this post.