Tomatoes, corn, eggplant — this list of summer’s bounty could go on, but we’ll leave it at that, invoking the journalist’s “rule of threes.” (Cite three examples and in our culture, at least, that stand in for everything.)
The summer growing season is coming to an end, as days grow shorter, nights get cooler, and daytime temps don’t soar. Tomatoes will soon have a thicker skin and less flavor. Corn won’t be as sweet. Eggplants will often have more of the dark seeds inside that cause bitterness.
Have you had your fill of what you love?
In my case, I somehow enjoyed less corn this year than normal. Eggplant? Forget it. Perhaps I bought it twice over the summer, and I can’t tell you why. I usually make that for company, and we had fewer friends over due to one thing or another.
Labor Day weekend is a good time to buy the local produce you really enjoy and perhaps have missed this summer. The three-day weekend offers some available time, and chances are that some guests or family will be under your roof, providing an excuse to exert yourself.
Let’s review how to shop smartly for some likely possibilities.
Heirloom tomatoes are cheaper late in the season. Buy them from a farmers’ market or farm stand, as the supermarkets’ distribution chain translates into second-rate heirlooms quite often. But you may see specials, featuring tomatoes from one of our area growers, in the produce department. Buy!
Heirloom tomatoes should be stored in the open, stem-end down — never in a refrigerator. A favorite way to capitalize on their color and summer taste is to arrange full slices on a platter, accompanied by slices of those small, fresh mozzarella balls that are sold in small containers in supermarkets. Perhaps shred fresh basil on top. It’s your call whether to drizzle lightly with extra virgin olive oil or balsamic vinegar, but do add a touch of salt.
Wanting another go at fresh corn? I do.
When buying, use your fingernail to slit down one to two inches on the husk to peek at the kernels. Ideally, the kernels are glistening like pearls. They seem to be bursting with moisture. Underdeveloped kernels seem like baby teeth. If kernels appear large, impacted, and dull, it’s probably past its prime.
Great corn is displayed with ice. Freshness, and a high sugar content, are of supreme importance. Look for husks that are vibrantly green; avoid corn with husks that appear a bit dry.
Surely you have your preferred method of cooking corn — boiling, steaming or grilling. One of life’s tiny frustrations is trying to butter corn with a pat of butter on a knife. If you’ve had your fill of that technique, put the pat of butter in a heel of fresh bread and slide the ear of corn back and forth.
Fresh eggplant is a real summer treat. If you prefer the long Japanese or Chinese version, the skin should be lustrous and a stiff texture is best. For the globe Italian eggplant, it’s almost always lustrous. Here you want one that feels surprisingly heavy and firm in your hand. The older and larger they are, the more likely they have a full array of seeds inside. I usually opt for medium-size eggplant.
Dishes like moussaka, ratatouille, and eggplant Parmesan are for other times of the year. They don’t fully capitalize on the freshness. Consider grilling, if you never have.
For the long variety, cut lengthwise into strips a third of an inch in width. For globe eggplant, use a peeler lengthwise to remove a strip, then leave a same-size strip of skin untouched, then strip again, all around. The eggplant will be striped at the end — pleasant to the eye. Salting is unnecessary.
Try grilling the slices over a rather low heat, with no olive oil beforehand. The strips will have be slightly leathery even as they become soft. Array on a platter and drizzle now with a bit of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or a favorite light dressing.
Surely you have other summer favorites you somehow missed or enjoyed just once or twice. In our house, for example, we like to buy red bell peppers this time of year — they’re naturally ripe and they’re inexpensive. We roast them, peel, and store in the fridge in a container with olive oil and Italian herbs, ready to use for a number of meals over a two-week span.
Apricots, asparagus, green garlic? Come and gone. But you’ll see fine melons, summer squash, and more that won’t be around forever. Enjoy yourself on the long weekend.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org