by Ben Becker, Newsletter Writer
A chilled glass of lemonade, the first pitch of a baseball game, or a weekend road trip to your favorite music festival just wouldn’t be the same without the lingering heat and the long sunlit hours we enjoy this time of year. Most of us have an event that marks the official start of summer; that brings us out of doors to mingle and soak up some rays. For gardeners, CSA members, or just food enthusiasts at-large, one way to mark the season includes the availability of local produce offerings that were absent in the cold winter months. As we bite into the bursting flesh of our favorite heirloom tomato, we are reminded that these summer vegetables have been carefully developed over many generations of human selection to bring about powerful flavors enclosed in beautiful shapes and colors. This season presents an opportunity to get to know our warm weather bounty, to explore its diversity, to experiment with its preparations, and to look back on its histories.
Beginning our tour of summer produce is a vegetable which can only be enjoyed at the start of summer, as its window of availability closes quickly. This vegetable makes for an excellent grilling companion to your bean burgers and brats. While this veggie is delicious, its shorter season of availability makes it a bit of a novelty, and many garden enthusiasts may not be familiar with this item.
So what exactly is a scape? Resembling a grass or wild onions, the garlic scape is a thin shoot which emerges from the top of the garlic plant in late spring. While in many ways the scape resembles the closely related green onion, both in appearance and flavor, it takes on a more rounded shape, almost like a curlicue. This circular tendril sometimes includes a slight bulge at the point where the plant’s unopened flower is located. This section can either be eaten or discarded, depending on your culinary inclinations.
As farmers or gardeners tend to their garlic crop, they often remove the scape to allow more nutrients to focus on the bulb itself. Like so many other vegetables of the season, garlic scapes are most tender and most enjoyable when they are harvested young. The resulting flavor is something similar to shallots or chives in its mildness. Grilled scapes are excellent with just a fork or knife or perhaps as an ingredient in your summer salad. Slightly browning them over a hot grill produces a sweet roasted onion flavor and leaves a slightly chewy texture. Others may enjoy them sautéed, as they make a nice stand-in when asparagus is not in supply. Tossing a pile of scapes into a pan with some oil is all it takes, with just salt and pepper for seasoning.
Those who are more experimental may even make a scape pesto, as the plant can substitute for both basil and garlic. The process of pesto-making is much the same, as you can combine scape with pine nuts in the food processor while gradually integrating oil.
Those who employ the garlic scape within their diet will be benefited with the same boons the garlic cloves would supply including protein, vitamin C and calcium in addition to garlic’s anti-inflammatory properties and the heart-healthy nutrients which boost the immune system while also preventing high cholesterol and cancer.
While the slender shape of the garlic scape might be unfairly overlooked, it is impossible to ignore an often plump and purple produce favorite—the eggplant. This traditional symbol of the Willy Street Co-op makes for more than just a great bumper sticker. The eggplant, which is also known as aubergine and sometimes brinage, not only shines in its royal purple appearance, but boasts a rich history in the world’s food cultures. Eggplant is from the Solanacea, or sun family, which seems appropriate when you consider that this heat-loving vegetable traces its origins to tropical India and southern Asia. Twenty native species of eggplant can be found in India alone, and from there their cultivation spread into China by as early as the fifth century B.C., advancing from Asia through the Middle East into Northern Africa. Eggplants would eventually reach Europe when Arabs transported them across the Mediterreanean and the strait of Gibraltor onto Spanish shores. As aubergine dispersed throughout continents, it was selectively bred to local and regional preferences. This resulted not only in a range of shades, colors and shapes from the slender Japanese varietals to the rounder breeds of the Medittereanean, but also led to the development of some aubergine which could grow well in different climates.
Globe eggplants can be found at Willy Street Co-op in August and September, with different varietals to choose from. You may encounter the “De Barbentane” variety, which developed in France and is preferable when making ratatouille. The dark purple of the “Imperial Black Beauty” is a common market variety which you may prepare in the Parmigiana style to be served with pasta. For other traditional recipes from around the world, you may want to select the varietal specific to a region or recipe, which may mean trading the well-known purple eggplant for one sporting a green, white or striped appearance.
Sharing the eggplant’s love of sunshine is a vegetable few of us could live without. Although technically a fruit, this colorful produce has a deserved notoriety among cooks, gardeners and lovers of fresh food as one of the most popular plants. Only a few other vegetables are used so universally throughout every geographical region and cultural tradition. Nor are there many rivals to the tomato when it comes to versatility. Yet for a product so beloved and so foundational in modern diets throughout the world, the tomato once had a surprisingly unflattering reputation.
The world-wide love affair with the tomato is still surprisingly young. For most of its existence, tomatoes were only available to Pre-Columbian inhabitants of South America. Like teosinte, the revered ancestor to corn, the tomato is derived from a wild native species known as Lycopersicon esculentum. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Aztecs managed to domesticate the tomato plant both for use as a food and for its hallucinogenic properties. Through the far reach of the Aztec Empire, tomatoes spread throughout the South American continent and as far as modern day Mexico and Costa Rica. Europeans first encountered tomatoes through the Columbian Exchange, but they were not an instant hit.
Tomatoes were successfully integrated into the cuisines of Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Italy during the sixteenth century after their seeds were brought over as spoils from Cortes’ sacking of Tenochtitlan. Northern European residents long saw the tomato as a purely ornamental plant, believing it to be poisonous to humans.
As selective breeding altered the tomato throughout the 18th and 19th century, it became increasingly more popular throughout Europe and North America, and eventually made its way into Syria, Iran, China and other parts of Asia. The gradual evolution of the plant through generations of breeding has resulted in a multitude of edible and delectible varieties, boasting nutritious properties such as Vitamin A, C, and E and various antioxidants.
We often think of the tomato through a narrow scope, associating it with those round and reddish varieties like the beefsteak or the shelf-stable slicer breed. While these common varieties are valued for their size and uniformity, there is a rainbow of alternatives boasting their own distinct flavors and epicurean options. More petite forms such as grape or cherry tomatoes fit in well with salads or shish kabobs. Cherry cultivars can grow in abundance, but they vary in color and flavor from the sweet “Gardener’s Delight” to the more unique shape of the golden “Yellow Pear.” As they become more available on store shelves through August and September, a number of common tomato heirloom varieties can be enjoyed. Many tomato lovers have encountered the popular “Brandywine” heirloom variety, but the more adventurous might give the richly striped “Zebra” a taste. Different flavors and textures of heirloom tomatoes make select varieties appropriate to different kinds of recipes. While a specific heirloom may provide a nice twist on your traditional sauce or salsa recipes, others are ideal for grilling or when breaded and fried.
Those inspired by the many faces of the common tomato will be equally pleased to explore how squash cultivars can offer their own varied pantheon of sun-soaked satisfaction. Juxtaposed with its hardier relatives which emerge in the autumn and early winter, the apt moniker of summer squash really says it all. The softly fleshed green and yellow vegetables are not only quick to take over the garden, but are ideal for summer preparations, such as on the grill. The summer squash comes in a variety of unique shapes, particularly the scallop-edged patty pan. The less tender summer variety, the “spaghetti” squash, bears its pasta namesake because of its ability to break up into starchy strands when cooked. The most well-known group of summer squash varieties is that fast-growing greenie we call zucchini, or courgette.
Those wishing for an alternative to the commonly available green varieties can enjoy a nice change of pace with the “Golden” cultivar. As any gardener who has ever raised zucchini knows, this plant grows rapidly, and if it is not quickly harvested it will lose much of its appeal, as the flavor and textures becomes less desirable once the squash grows larger than six inches long. However, should a rogue zucchini go unnoticed as it gains in girth, resourceful bakers and gardeners will find it is still suitable for bread when ground up, provided you remove its now mature seeds. Those who grow summer squash also have access to a rare delicacy. If you are vigilant enough to harvest a zucchini flower before they have finished their cycle of bloom and fertilization, you will be in for a rare treat after frying or sautéeing the tender foliage with a bit of garlic and salt.
For those willing to appreciate flowers for not only their aesthetic property but for their epicurean value as well, there is more than the bloom of the summer squash to keep an eye on. The nasturtium, also known as Indian cress offers not only the beauty of its petals but also a piquant and peppery taste similar to that of watercress. This flavor makes it a great additive to sandwiches, or a garnish in salads. As the spring and summer mixes line the shelves of the Co-op Produce departments, keep your eye out for local brands such as Harmony Valley which add a bit of color to their greens through the inclusion of this spicy flower.
Embrace your sense of adventure
If you are looking to try some tasty flavors fresh from the garden this summer, then the list above should barely scratch the surface of your many options. Whether you crave the crunch of boiled sweetcorn or the freshness of dandelion greens, summer vegetable varieties mark a special time of year to connect with our local farmers and producers. As these veggies have evolved through history, their travel through parts of the world has allowed for a diversity of cultivars and recipes reflecting the uniqueness of each time, place and culture they have encountered. By embracing a sense of adventure when it comes to eating local produce, we can not only preserve a rich legacy of what those before us carefully cultivated, but we can ensure that the future will continue to bring new exciting opportunities with veggies of every shape, size and flavor.