Tomatoes and corn, the king and queen of summer produce, have made their royal entrance to the markets, and will hold court through mid-August.
Yes, both have a more extended season, but they’re optimal between mid-July and mid-August.
When you buy local tomatoes, consider your purpose. For example, mild heirloom tomatoes, chopped, can easily lose their flavor profile in a powerful homemade pasta sauce with garlic, onions, and anchovies. However, if you’re looking to impress guests, visually attractive slices of heirlooms are just the thing.
I’ve seen heirloom tomatoes ranging in price from $2.50 to $6 per pound locally. Shop wisely. Store in a cool, open space. Never refrigerate tomatoes, ripe or not. Large heirlooms should be kept with the stem end down; they last longer that way, according to recent research.
There are some fine local red tomatoes to be had for $3 or more per pound, but discriminate. One vendor at the Davis Farmers Market recently offered very large red tomatoes. However, the variety had a waxy finish, which made me suspect it was a variety for large-scale distribution. (There are varieties for big Ag, and varieties for local markets.) Samples were available. It was flavorless and watery. Flavorful varieties include Early Girl, which wins taste tests; Better Boy and Beefsteak; and exclusively for cooked sauces, Roma plum tomatoes, but only local ones.
As for local corn, it’s so much easier to find satisfying corn than a decade ago. We had six delightful ears from the Farmers Market this past week; the week before, we enjoyed great corn right from the normal produce shelving at Nugget, without any special display.
Buy corn that’s been kept cold, as far as you can tell. Its flavor will be superior. The husks should look a younger green and fresh. To peek, create a seam with your fingernail near the tip to examine the kernel size and determine moisture. Avoid kernels that look like impacted teeth, large and jammed together; likewise, tiny, small kernels mean you won’t get much for your money. Pass up corn that’s been partially shucked or had the tip whacked off. Corn should be refrigerated immediately, and strip the husks just before use.
In the old days, one boiled a gallon of water and dropped in the ears for 10 minutes or more. Today’s varieties need only two or three minutes of heat. We bring a pint of water to boil in a large sauté pan with a lid, add the corn, cover, and rotate once or twice, as the corn is partially steaming, partially boiling. It takes a fraction of the time.
Reviewing recipes from summers past, I resurrected two that deserve to be in the spotlight once again. They come after a new recipe from the new Davis Farmers Market Cookbook.
Watermelon, cucumber and heirloom cherry tomato salad
Georgeanne Brennan and Ann Evans feature this summary offering in their cookbook for the market. It’s so easy to make, I’ve condensed the directions slightly.
3 cups watermelon, cubed
2 cups cucumber, skinned and cubed
1 pint heirloom cherry tomatoes
Zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1 – 2 limes
Juice of 1 lemon
Half teaspoon of a quality chile powder, such as ancho or New Mexico
Half teaspoon of kosher or sea salt
Assembly: Mix the first six ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Add the next three, toss further, and then mix in the chile powder and salt, toss again. Refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours, and serve chilled.
The following recipe from Chef Cullen Newhoff at Seasons restaurant in downtown Davis was a hit in 2009. When you’re weary of corn on the cob, or have guests, invest the effort for an impressive dish.
Grilled corn panzanella salad
2 ears yellow corn
1 English cucumber, peeled and julienned (sliced like matchsticks)
Half cup fresh basil, sliced
Pint of heirloom cherry tomatoes
Half a baguette (a French bread, preferably day-old)
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
6 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Preparation: (1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice bread thinly, toss with 2 tbsp. of the olive oil in a bowl, add salt and pepper, bake until golden brown. Allow bread to cool. (2) Brush stripped ears of corn lightly with oil, char on medium grill, i.e., some kernels are blackened. Allow to cool; slice kernels from cob. (3) In separate bowl, mix honey and vinegar. Whisk constantly while slowly adding remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. (4) If cherry tomatoes are large, halve them.
Assembly: Mix corn, bread, cucumber, tomatoes, basil and generous amount of dressing. Toss gently. Let sit 5-10 minutes for bread to soak up dressing, then serve. (Option: top with more basil.)
The beauty of the following recipe, a favorite in our house, is that there is only one pot. It’s a classic Italian recipe. Flavorful red varieties are preferred. (Unless you’re using very brightly flavored heirlooms, such as Black Krim, heirlooms can disappear, tastewise.)
Leftovers are delicious if warmed gently. Best to drizzle the leftovers with olive oil before heating in the microwave.
Pasta with fresh tomatoes
One pound orecchiete (or penne)
Two cups fresh basil, shredded
Three pounds red tomatoes, rough chopped
Half cup of olive oil
Cup fresh mozzarella, diced, chilled
Salt to taste
Cook and immediately drain orecchiete. Fast assembly is important now. Return drained pasta to the still-hot, empty pot, over medium heat. Quickly add the olive oil and toss for 10 seconds. Add the chopped tomatoes and salt and gently toss. Within 30 seconds the tomatoes will warm. Tomato fragments should retain their shape, and skins should be only a little soft. Don’t overcook. Fold in the basil, and then the small cubes of firm mozzarella. (Cut the mozzarella ahead of time and keep cold until needed, as room-temp mozzarella may clot unappealingly in the pasta.) Plate and serve.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org