As if we weren’t jazzed enough by the end of frigid temps and the beginning of al fresco dining, the promise of summertime produce is getting us even more excited. Not only do we come out of hiding when the warm weather arrives—so do the best fruits and vegetables. From juicy sweet heirloom tomatoes to run-down-your-mouth peaches and sugar-sweet corn, we’ve listed our favorite seasonal ingredients along with some go-to preparations.
Although tomatoes are available year round, it’s common knowledge that the sweetest and most flavorful ones are harvested in the summertime. Heirloom tomatoes, which come in myriad beautiful hues, like orange, yellow, and green, are larger than your average tomato, and have ridges on top. This gorgeous variety, which are commonly found at farmer’s markets, are named for their seeds, which, to qualify as “heirloom,” must either be 50 years old and pollinated naturally, with no outside assistance.
- Tip from Head Chef Elana: In July and August, when heirloom tomatoes are at their peak, I love eating them plain. Just add a sprinkle of salt and that’s really all they need. If you want to get a little more adventurous, cut them into thick slices (I like to mix up the colors), tear fresh mozzarella into chunks, and sprinkle it over the top. Then drizzle the whole plate with a bit of extra virgin olive oil, kosher salt, and fresh ground black pepper. Add a few basil leaves and you pretty much have the perfect summer dish.
These dainty stone fruits, which come in varied colors including bright red, dark maroon, and yellowish-orange, are grown throughout many parts of the world. Most edible varieties are either derived from the sweet (also known as wild) cherry or the sour cherry. While cherries are super satisfying eaten on their own, they are also terrific in pies, cakes, and other desserts, and stand up particularly well to baking, roasting, and grilling. Cut into segments, cherries add texture and sweetness to cocktails and summery sangria.
Generally, out of season peaches are not worth looking at, not even a little bit. When you’ve tasted sweet, juicy summer peaches with their slightly fuzzy skin and fragile flesh, you can’t ever go back. This stone fruit, which originated in China, has a subtle, fragrant flavor that lends itself to a range of preparations. Peaches are much-loved as the star of pies, tarts and compotes, but are equally tasty in salads, pizzas and sandwiches. We particularly love peaches hot and caramelized off the grill finished with a drizzle of balsamic.
- Tip from Test Kitchen Assistant Michelle: Peaches are great in sweet or savory preparations. For sweet, I like to stick with a classic dish—peach melba. It’s my mom’s favorite, and I just use fresh really ripe peaches, warm up some raspberry preserves on the stove, and top them with good vanilla ice cream (channeling Ina Garten here, of course). As for savory, peaches are great on the grill! Their natural sugars caramelize and char really nicely, and are classically used with pork dishes. We have one coming up on the menu inspired by the cookbook!
Few fruits signal the arrival of summer like a big, juicy watermelon, cut into wedges for easy eating. Comprised of more than 90% water, it’s no surprise that this green and pinky-red fruit is so refreshing on a hot day. Even though it’s most often eaten on its own, watermelon makes a great counterpoint to savory and/or acidic ingredients: pair it with red onion and feta for a killer salad, or whip it into a tangy margarita for added freshness.
Out of season strawberries are often not worth the trouble. With their anemic white flesh and utter lack of flavor, they’re hardly anything like the sweet, blood red varieties available in the summertime. Soft and flavorful, this season’s strawberries are best enjoyed by themselves, or perhaps with a dab of whipped or ice cream.
This fragrant herb has been cultivated for thousands of years and is used in a huge range of cuisines, from Italian to Thai to Taiwanese. Though we are most familiar with the Genovese variety frequently used in Italian cuisine, other varieties like holy basil, lemon basil, and purple basil are widely available, and feature different flavor profiles. As the flavor can frequently dissipate or change when exposed to heat, basil is most often used fresh in recipes and added at the end of cooking.
- Tip from Culinary Manager Suz: To me, fresh basil smells—and tastes—exactly like summer. For maximum basil flavor, there’s of course a classic pesto, which is one of the most perfect toppings for anything from steak to shrimp to pasta. Another of my favorite simple uses for basil is adding torn leaves into a salad; it adds an unexpected pop of flavor that’ll impress your fellow diners.
Also known as “rocket,” this spicy green leaf originated in the Mediterranean. The tender leaves are very low in calories and rich in folate, among other nutrients. Arugula is most commonly served raw, as a base for salads, but, unlike some other greens, it can stand up to some heat. Lightly wilted, arugula is a delicious addition to pasta and bruschetta, and is often scattered on top of just-baked pizza for a hit of refreshing flavor.
What’s summer if you don’t eat at least one corn on the cob outside? We love this hearty vegetable, which is as fun to prepare as it is to consume. This season delivers the absolute best corn, which is an excellent addition to salsas and salads, and supremely fantastic by itself.
- Tip from Head Chef Elana: Fresh corn is my second favorite vegetable of the summer season (after tomatoes), and there’s no better way to prepare them than on the grill. I love to get a dark char on corn when I grill it, so I shuck it ahead of time, then drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. I wrap it tightly in aluminum foil and throw on the grill for about 20 minutes. Not only does it become incredibly sweet and tender, but the clean up is so easy after dinner, since the mess of cleaning the ears of corn was done way before!
Even though zucchini is available at markets year round, it’s at peak deliciousness in the heat of summer. Whether you use it as a base for a vegetarian curry, or slice it into strips and grill it with a balsamic marinade, zucchini makes a light and flavorful side dish. Lately, we’ve been spiralizing it into noodles and serving it in place of pasta (well, sometimes, anyway.)
The name is a dead giveaway on the season for this squash variety. Summer squash have soft, thin skin, and, although they can be eaten raw and (very) thinly sliced, they’re most often prepared grilled, sautéed, or roasted. One of our favorite summer squash varieties is the adorable round pattypan squash which has a particularly mild flavor and is fabulous in pasta and pizza.
This refreshing, crunchy vegetable is a member of the same family as melons—not a surprise considering its high water content. In the summer, cucumbers really shine, and are a favorite for growing in the warm weather. Naturally low calorie, they are eaten almost exclusively raw, and shine in a number of cuisines from Greek to Pan-Asian to Eastern European. Served simply in slices with a vinegary dressing, or as part of an herby yogurt dip, cucumbers add freshness and texture to any meal or dish.
- Tip from Culinary Manager Suz: Cucumbers may not seem like a glamourpuss of the vegetable world, but I love them. They truly need very little to shine. In fact, my favorite preparation is simple: slice, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle liberally with Maldon salt for a very elegant snack. A quick pickle is great too; submerge in apple cider vinegar and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature or overnight in the fridge, then add to sandwiches.
Few farmer’s market sights are as beautiful as the array of colored bell peppers in the summertime. Equally delicious raw or cooked, peppers are a staple of our warm weather eating habits—particularly stuffed with everything from meat and rice to cheese and whole grain salads. Charred on the grill they make a perfect cookout dish, or as the base for romesco sauce or walnut-red pepper muhammara spread.
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About the author: Leah Bhabha is a cookbook co-author, recipe tester, and food writer who has written for numerous publications including Food & Wine, Marie-Claire, The Guardian, and Food52. She chronicles her cooking and eating experiences on her blog, OneHungryPickle.com.