Summer is finally here! Whether you get your fruits and veggies from your garden or your local market, you’ll want to make the most of them. With these tips, you’ll have a better idea of how enjoy some top summer favorites…and enjoy your gardening more, too. Nothing is more satisfying than growing your own food!
- Tomatoes are one of summer’s star crops, and they’re easy to grow in garden beds or large pots. Small varieties like cherry tomatoes develop more quickly than larger varieties like beefsteak tomatoes, but generally speaking, tomatoes are less prone to problems than other plants with a giant exception: tomato leaves can be susceptible to powdery mildew and other forms of fungus. If you’re a fresh-tomato fanatic, you might not want to grow squash in your garden, because squash’s big, cup-shaped leaves are likely to attract fungus and spread it to your tomato plants. (Fungus loves warm, damp conditions.) In terms of flavor, keep in mind that the umami quality of tomatoes—that deep savoriness that makes you want to keep eating them—is a naturally occurring form of glutamate that’s found in the sacs surrounding the seeds. Translation: no matter the variety, de-seeded tomatoes will be less flavorful than tomatoes with seeds!
- Beans are another productive crop to grow. One crucial thing to know: are they bush beans or pole beans? Bush bean plants will hug the ground; pole bean plants need a framework to vine their way up on. Pole beans are easier to harvest than bush beans—they’re higher off the ground and are more visible—but bush beans are easier to control since they stay in one low-growing spot. Either way, for snapping-fresh beans, simmer them for a bare 3 minutes before plunging them into cold water to stop the cooking process. That way, they’ll retain their fresh, slightly crunchy texture.
- Peppers can be fun to grow, particularly the smaller varieties that will mature within a month or so. In comparison, bell peppers are much slower to reach maturity, but the beauty of bell peppers is that you can pick them at any time: when they’re green, yellow, orange, or red. Yes, it’s the same plant! The riper they are, the sweeter they are. That’s handy to know whether you’re growing your own peppers or shopping for them. If you decide to grow spicy hot peppers, wear gloves when harvesting them as well as when prepping them. And remember: capsicum is what makes peppers hot, and it’s mostly found in the ribs and seeds. How much you use/discard is up to your taste buds!
- Strawberries are tricky to grow (they’re so close to the ground that they’re easy prey for insects), but blackberries, raspberries, and any kind of vining berries are virtually maintenance-free and fun to harvest, as are blueberries (they grow on bushes). If you have a mulberry tree, you’re even luckier—mulberries are so fragile that you can’t buy them at markets. All berries have a low glycemic index despite their sweet nature, making them a perfect choice for summer desserts (just add some freshly whipped cream or whole-milk plain Greek yogurt with a drizzle of maple syrup), plus they contain high levels of antioxidant pigments. Berries don’t last long once they’ve been picked, so if you have more berries than you think you can eat within two or three days, do what the food industry does and individually quick-freeze them: rinse the berries, dry them well, spread them out on a cutting board or baking sheet, and freeze until solid. Once they’re completely frozen, gather them into a freezer bag and seal them securely. Voilà! Non-clumped frozen berries.
- Eggplants are versatile in the kitchen, and the smaller varieties won’t take all summer to reach maturity. From egg-shaped to completely round, from deep amethyst to green speckled with white, you’ll know an eggplant is fresh when its skin is firm, shiny, and smooth. Fresh eggplants typically contain fewer seeds and have a creamy, mild flavor that makes them welcome in almost any dish. The skin on fresh eggplant is so thin that you won’t notice it, so there’s no need to peel it off. In fact, it’s best to leave the skin on, because pigments = antioxidants. Blueberries aren’t the only food to contain those “superfood” anthocyanins—eggplants with deep purple skins do, too! But eggplants do quickly turn brown when cut, so be ready to use them (sauté, roast, braise, etc.) as soon as you prep them.