Summer Eats: Choosing and preparing seasonal produce
By Randy Graham
Summer is an exciting time of year to be a cook. Markets and gardens are bursting with gorgeous fruits and vegetables in their prime. The weather is perfect for getting outdoors and enjoying the sunshine. Farmers markets offer ripe fruits and vegetables and provide an opportunity for you to meet friends and perhaps make new ones.
The recipes that follow are selected to share with family and friends. Make a double batch of grilled peach, avocado, and jalapeño salsa and then take some to the neighbors. Wow your family with a late Sunday brunch of tasty and filling croissant breakfast sandwiches.
My easy chicken stir fry is a complete dinner in a skillet and goes from prep to table in 30 minutes. Dust off your picnic basket and, among other goodies, include a healthy potato salad. My version is made with Yukon Gold potatoes and boasts a dressing of white wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, and Dijon mustard. No mayonnaise!
Include my fresh summer salad with your next barbecue. It features avocados, garden-fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil. Also, try my punch that is not too sweet and has just enough fizz to quench your thirst.
Grilled Peach, Avocado, and Jalapeño Salsa
This is a fresh salsa with a taste of summer grilling. What could be better? I think I’ll serve it once with roasted jalapeños and then again with the firm, fresh jalapeños sliced super thin. The smokiness of the grilling process plus the combination of the sweet peaches and the spicy jalapeños goes nicely with taco filling. I’ve even used it as a condiment with crispy beer-battered fried avocado tacos. Give it a try!
2 ripe avocados
2 ripe peaches
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (divided)
1/4 cup shallots (chopped fine)
2 garlic cloves (minced)
2 jalapeños (seeds removed and sliced thin)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat grill on medium-high heat (400 to 450 degrees).
While the grill is heating, slice the avocados and peaches in half lengthwise and remove the pits. Brush a mixture of one tablespoon olive oil plus one tablespoon lime juice on the flat sides of each half. Make sure they’re coated generously to avoid sticking to the grill.
Once the grill is hot, add the avocado and peach halves, cut side down, and close the lid. Grill for four minutes. Use grill tongs to carefully remove the peach and avocado halves to a plate. While the peaches are still hot, they can be easily peeled. Allow them to cool before dicing. Use a large spoon to scoop the avocado flesh away from the peel.
In a large bowl combine the remaining lime juice, shallots, garlic, jalapeños, and salt. Dice the avocados and peaches into small pieces and fold into the salsa. Cover and chill before serving.
Fresh Mozzarella Summer Salad
Mozzarella cheese became widespread throughout Italy in the eighteenth century, before which it had only been produced in small quantities. I’m glad it is available on California’s Central Coast. There is nothing better than a fresh tomato-based salad with fresh mozzarella cheese.
Fresh mozzarella is a soft, mild white cheese that originated in Southern Italy’s Campania region. I use Galbani Mozzarella Fresca (Ciliegine). With the addition of a couple of ripe California avocados, you’ve got a flavor combination that can’t be beat. With ripe red tomatoes, you’ve got a colorful salad that not only looks impressive but tastes wonderful as well.
2 ripe avocados (peeled, pitted,
3 medium tomatoes (cut into wedges the same size as avocado cubes)
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese balls (cherry size)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons fresh basil (chopped)
Gently add avocados, tomatoes, and mozzarella to a salad bowl. Set aside.
Mix together olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Pour over avocado mixture and toss lightly. Garnish with fresh chopped basil and serve at room temperature for best flavor.
Croissant Breakfast Sandwich
Looking for a new, quick, and tasty breakfast treat this summer? Look no further. This sandwich has it all: fluffy scrambled eggs, sharp cheddar cheese, fresh avocado, and spicy Peppadew pepper slices. It is better than fast food drive-thru sandwiches and far more nutritious too!
6 large eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup extra sharp cheddar (grated)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 croissants (split in half and lightly toasted)
1/4 cup Vegenaise (or sub mayonnaise)
1 avocado (sliced)
2 ounces Peppadew peppers (drained and sliced thin)
Whisk eggs and milk in a medium bowl. Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Cook eggs, stirring, until mostly set but still runny in parts, about four to five minutes. Remove from heat and mix in cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and
To make sandwiches, spread a tablespoon of Vegenaise on the bottom half of each croissant. Layer avocado slices on top of the Vegenaise and then layer the peppers on top of that. Place one quarter of the scrambled eggs on each sandwich and top with the other half of the croissant.
I like to serve this with fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Healthy Potato Salad
I remember mom making potato salad at the first hint of summer. The kitchen was steamy and hot with boiling potatoes. How she peeled them while still hot I’ll never understand. She was amazing. I can still taste her salad to this day.
My recipe uses roasted potatoes which add an interesting flavor and texture. My spicy, no-mayonnaise dressing gives this recipe a healthier profile than the salad I enjoyed as a kid. It is the perfect salad for your summer picnic. Make this the night before and keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to pack up and go.
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 small Yukon Gold potatoes
8 small purple potatoes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground sea salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons shallots (chopped for garnish)
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley (chopped for garnish)
Dressing Directions: Whisk vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, and sugar. Slowly drizzle in olive oil and continue whisking until dressing is smooth and creamy. Set aside until potatoes are cooked.
Salad Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash potatoes and pat dry. Cut all potatoes into bite-sized pieces. Place potatoes in a large bowl and toss with olive oil and salt. Place potatoes in a single layer on a baking sheet with shallow sides. Roast in the center of the oven until tender, about 30 minutes.
Combine all potatoes into one large bowl after roasting. Cool for about 20 minutes, then add dressing and toss gently. Sprinkle with additional salt and pepper, if desired. Garnish with shallots and parsley before serving.
Old School Fruit Punch
Here’s an old school summer cooler that is sure to wet your whistle on a hot summer day. I’ve been making it and serving it to kids of all ages for over 40 years. It is a great thirst quencher and a superb addition to your traditional beverages at your next barbecue or picnic.
6 ounce can frozen orange juice concentrate (thawed)
6 ounce can frozen lemonade (thawed)
1 quart chilled apple juice (or cider)
2 quarts chilled ginger ale
Combine the all ingredients in a large (about one gallon) punch bowl. Stir to combine and chill until ready to serve.
Easy Chicken Stir Fry
Here’s an easy to prepare dish that goes from prep to table in less than 30 minutes. It has an abundance of flavor, and perhaps best of all, it is low in calories. I especially like the Asian-flavored brown sauce.
Stir fry ingredients:
1 pound boneless chicken breast (cut into 1-inch cubes)
3 tablespoons oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound broccoli (florets only)
8 ounces mushrooms (sliced thick)
Brown sauce ingredients:
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1 tablespoon ginger (minced)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/3 cup tamari sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 1/3 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds (for garnish)
In a large pan, on medium-high heat, add one tablespoon of oil. When the oil is hot, add the chicken and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until cooked through and browned. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
In the same pan, add one tablespoon of oil and all the mushrooms. When the mushrooms start to soften, add broccoli florets and stir-fry until the broccoli is tender. Remove cooked mushrooms and broccoli from the pan and set aside.
For the sauce, add the last tablespoon of oil to the pan and sauté the garlic and ginger until fragrant. Add the remaining sauce ingredients (sesame oil through flour) and whisk until smooth. Return the chicken and vegetables to the pan and stir until thoroughly heated.
I serve this over noodles but it is just as fresh and tasty all by itself.
How to choose fresh summer produce
Most of us know instinctively to avoid bruised or blemished produce, but there is much more involved in the art of choosing fruits and vegetables. These general tips will give you the basic skills you need to hold your own at your favorite farmers market.
After you’ve checked for bruises, blemishes, and pests, look for fruits and vegetables with the brightest, most inviting colors. The tastiest, vine-ripened produce should be vibrant, with its skin entirely saturated with color. If the item has a dull color or whitish sheen, that means it is either not fully ripe or was deprived of sun or nutrients.
Generally, you want to pick produce that is the heaviest relative to the rest of your options. Light weight produce is more likely to be dry and mealy, but heavier produce will be juicy and crisp. The best way to tell is to pick up two similarly sized fruits, one with each hand. After you’ve tried a few, it will be obvious that certain fruits are much heavier than the rest, and those are your best bets.
Because the best produce is moist and juicy, it should also be perfectly plump. This means that it will be firm to the touch—think crisp and succulent—but not hard, squishy, or limp.
While the perfect amount of firmness will vary for each type of produce, comparing
within the batch can be very informative.
For soft fruits, gently picking a piece up should tell you if it’s too soft or hard. For vegetables with stalks like carrots and broccoli, be sure the ends don’t give too much when you try to bend them (but don’t try too hard or they might snap).
Probably the most telling test of the quality of fruit is how it smells. Unripe fruits smell like nothing, or at best, the cardboard it was packed in. But ripe produce almost always smells faintly of how it is supposed to taste.
Hold the part of the fruit that was attached to the stem close to your nose and breathe deeply. Compare a few of your options. The strongest smelling fruit will be the ripest and ready to eat immediately. If you’d like your fruit to last for a few days, it is continued on next page best to go with a piece that still smells good but has a less overwhelming scent.
Here are more specific tips for some of my favorite summer-fresh veggies and fruit.
Choose globes that have tight leaves and feel heavy for their size. The leaves should squeak when pressed against each other.
Choose avocados that feel slightly soft to the touch. Firmer avocados may be ripened at home but avoid rock-hard ones. Also, avoid avocados with cracks or dents.
Choose corn with bright green husks and moist, but not slimy, silk. Peel back the husk to ensure the kernels are plump and not dry (or rotten).
Choose eggplants that have smooth, naturally shiny skin and feel heavy for their size. When gently pressed, flesh that gives slightly and then bounces back indicates ripeness. Unripe flesh will not give, while overripe flesh will remain indented. Also, smaller eggplants tend to have fewer seeds and are less bitter.
Choose firm leeks with tightly-rolled tops. Slender leeks tend to be younger and more tender, while larger ones with rounded bulbs tend to be older and woodier.
Generally, the tastiest orange—whatever the variety—will be firm, full-colored, smooth, and thin-skinned. As you would with most fruits and veggies, steer clear of those that are too soft, show even the smallest signs of mold, or feel as though they have bruises.
When a peach gives off a sweet aroma, it’s a good sign that it’s ready to be enjoyed. No smell usually means no taste for many varieties. On a warm, sunny day, you should be able to smell the fruit just by standing near it. The scent can be impossible to resist! If the peach is firm to the touch, it’s not ready. Wait until there is some “give” when it is gently squeezed.
Choose tomatoes that are fragrant, smell earthy at the stem end, and feel heavy for their size. Avoid tomatoes with wrinkled skins.
A sweet and ripe watermelon should feel heavy for its size. This usually means that it’s full of water and, therefore, juicier. If you turn a watermelon upside down, you should find a yellow spot, which is also known as the field or ground spot. A large, yellow spot indicates that it spent more time ripening on the vine and should be sweeter. A whiter spot suggests that it was picked too soon and didn’t reach peak ripeness.
Randy Graham has been a vegetarian since August 1975. He eats local and organic grain, fresh fruit, and vegetables as much as possible. He enjoys cooking for friends and family using ingredients from his backyard vegetable and herb gardens. He teaches at the Ojai Culinary School, and his Chef Randy column can be found in various Central Coast newspapers. He has written and published six cookbooks and is working on a seventh, the Ojai Valley Instant Pot cookbook.
See his recipes and cookbooks at valley-vegetarian.com.