What to Eat Now: August
Farmers' markets are bursting at the seams with summertime favorites like figs, corn, cucumbers, summer squash, watermelon, and peppers. Here's how to make the most of the bounty.
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With some of summer's most popular foods hitting their stride this month, the farmers' market keeps churning out hits like corn, cucumbers, summer squash, and watermelon. But don't stop there! Take a tip from savvy gourmets: Keep your eyes peeled for figs and shishito peppers and catch them while you can.
Here's what to look for — and the most delicious ways to use your market-fresh finds.
Originating in the Mediterranean, fig production flourishes in Turkey, Spain, and Greece, as well as areas of the Middle East and North Africa. Back stateside, the delicate fruit comes almost exclusively from California, where figs are typically harvested in two crops: the first (known as the "breba" crop) running from June to July, and the main crop of smaller, more flavorful figs running from August into November.
Varieties of Figs
There are several mainstream fig varieties, all of which have their own unique features. Blue-skinned Black Mission figs and squat green Calimyrnas are plentiful and frequently dried to extend their short life. While still delicious, dried figs have a nutty caramel flavor that's quite different from their fresh counterparts, and lack the punch of Vitamin C you'd find in a fresh fig. Quick tip: Outside of the US, Calimyrnas are known as Smyrnas: the "Cali" in Calimyrna simply indicates that this is the California cultivar of the Smyrna fig.
Juicy Brown Turkey figs are another heavy hitter in the market, with an admittedly less-tantalizing brown outside offset by light pink flesh and a versatile mild flavor. Two other green-skinned varieties are sweet, thin-skinned Adriatic figs and thicker-skinned Kadotas (which makes an excellent jam). While the variations of color are a feast for the eyes, fig skins don't have much flavor in and of themselves: the best flavors come from the juicy insides.
Choosing and Storing Figs
Figs should be soft and fully ripe when bought, as they don't continue to ripen once picked. Look for drops of sugar water around the stem and skins that are ready to burst at the seams. Like an avocado, figs go from unripe to overripe in a blink of an eye — so when you buy those perfectly ripe fruits, you'll want to eat them within 1-2 days of purchase. Figs keep best at room temperature, but can also be stored in the fridge in a paper bag. Dried figs, of course, have a much longer shelf life, and are typically good for about 4 months.
How to Eat Figs
You really can't beat eating a perfectly ripe fig out of hand or slicing it into quarters to decorate a salad or cheese board. If you want to branch out from there, try grilling them: sweet and juicy varieties will develop wonderful caramelization and depth of flavor over the flame. To keep the flavor around in the off-season, try making fig jam to serve with cheese year round, or poach dried figs to make a decadent sauce.
Regardless of how they're prepared, figs have a natural affinity for meats such as prosciutto, pork, and duck; other summer fruits including peaches, pears, and raspberries; tangy dairy products like blue cheese, goat cheese, and yogurt; and sweet drizzles of honey, port wine, or balsamic vinegar.
Whether grilled in its husk, flavoring a Low Country Boil, or bobbing in a bowl of New England corn chowder, corn is a staple summer treat. But there's more to America's #1 crop than meets the eye. Consider some of these curious facts:
- Corn is actually a grass, and the cobs are the seed head of the plant.
- An ear of corn always has an even number of rows, and can have between 600-1200 kernels on a single ear!
- And that "baby corn" typically seen in stir-fry dishes? Nope, it's not a unique variety; it's just immature corn picked while still very small.
Fresh Corn is the Best Corn
The corn harvest in the States spans the months of June to October, with peak season occurring in August and September. For the very best corn, buy it the same day it was picked from a local farmers market or roadside stand. Once picked, the corn has to fight with the summer heat, a natural enemy that hastens the production of starch and makes the kernels less sweet. The moral of the story? Buy it fresh, keep it cool, and eat within 1-2 days of purchase.
But how can you tell if it's fresh? To start, stop peeling back the leaves to look at the kernels (your farmers will thank you for knocking this off) and just look at the stems! If the stems are still damp and green, you'll know they've been freshly picked; if the stems seem dry, fibrous, or show signs of browning, they're not so fresh. Once you've found the perfect specimens, keep the ears refrigerated in a plastic bag with the husks still on until ready to cook.
How to Prepare Corn
Unless roasting corn on the cob in their husks, you'll want to start by shucking the corn: simply peel the husks from the cob, remove as much of the fine silk strands as you can from inside, and snap off the stems with your hands. To remove kernels from the cob, hold an ear of corn vertically with the stem anchored in the bottom of a bowl (this helps catch the cut kernels rather than letting them bounce all over your cutting board), then use a sharp chef's knife to slice the kernels from the cob.
A basic preparation for corn on the cob is to simply boil it in a pot of water — just don't add any salt to the water as it can make the corn tough. Roasting corn brings out a greater depth of flavor and is an easy alternative to boiling. To extract as much corn flavor as possible in soups and chowders, rub shucked ears of corn with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roast in the oven before removing the kernels. Throw the bare cobs into your soup to flavor the broth, then remove the cobs and stir in the roasted kernels right before serving.
Corn pairs well with a wide variety of flavors from sweet to savory, and stands up well to flavorful additions such as bacon, seafood, cayenne pepper, cheese, limes, and onions. While a fresh ear picked that day may not need anything but butter and salt, I'd be hard-pressed to find a more pleasing recipe than the cheese-slathered Elote below.
Ever hear that up to 60% of the human body is made up of water? Well, we've got nothing on the good old fashioned cucumber with its whopping 96% water content! As you might guess, that doesn't leave a lot of room for things like vitamins and minerals, but when you can make things like spicy dill pickles, crunchy salads, and creamy tzatziki...who cares?
There are several kinds of cucumbers to choose from; here are four types you should know:
- Mediterranean-style cucumbers: Also frequently called Persian cucumbers, these small cukes are seedless and typically remain under 5" long. The skin is thin enough to eat, while still providing a pleasant snap when you take a bite.
- Pickling cucumbers (Gherkins): These short, small cucumbers are favored to pickle whole, not only due to their size but because their thin skins allow them to better absorb pickling brine. Young gherkins may be used to make the classic French pickles known as cornichons, a favorite accompaniment to charcuterie and cheese plates. But don't let the name fool you; pickling cucumbers are perfectly tasty eaten raw as well.
- American Slicers: These fat, dark-green cucumbers are the ones that come to mind when you think of your average mass-produced supermarket cucumbers. Their thick skin is often waxed to retain moisture and improve their shelf life, so you'll want to wash it well or peel it before eating.
- English or European Greenhouse cucumbers: The English cucumber, easily distinguishable by it's long, skinny shape, is typically found wrapped in plastic and is over a foot in length. Like Persian cucumbers, the English cucumber is seedless with a thin, snappy skin, making it an excellent candidate for use in salads.
Choosing your Cukes
You'll find the best cucumbers during their peak season in the late summer and early fall. Because they're susceptible to infestation by aptly named cucumber beetles, cucumbers are often heavily sprayed with pesticides — so you may wish to choose from an organic source. Regardless of the type of cucumber you choose, it should be firm, heavy for its size, and vibrant green when fresh.
Get Ready to Eat
With the exception of older American slicers, you don't need to peel cucumbers, so preparation is as simple as trimming off the ends and chopping as needed for your recipe. A word of caution, however: Don't pre-slice cucumbers for later use, as they'll quickly lose their moisture once cut. For seeded varieties, you only need to worry about removing the seeds if it's a rather large, overgrown cucumber. In that case, slice the cucumber in half lengthwise, then use a spoon or melon baller to remove the tough seeds in the center. All set? Get started with one of these summery recipes:
Zucchini & Yellow Squash
Along with late summer comes a veritable glut of squash in markets, stands, and backyards across the country. Summer squash has a way of taking over gardens, leaving a bounty so vast, you can't give them all away. During my childhood, my home town had an annual Zucchini Fest in which zucchini were carved, used in athletic competitions, and, yes, eaten … anything the town could think of to use the darn things up. Fortunately, today we've got over 50,000 zucchini recipes on Yummly to help save zucchini from being used as sculpture material.
What to Look For
While there are several kinds of summer squash, the two most common are zucchini and yellow crookneck squash. While considered (and eaten) as a vegetable, squash is technically a fruit. When choosing your squash, look for smaller ones between 6 and 8 inches long — they'll taste better than the larger, more mature squashes. They should be firm, heavy for their size, and have unblemished skin. They're delicate with a thin skin, so handle with care to avoid scrapes that can lead to decay. Store them in the crisper drawer for up to 5 days.
Bringing Zucchini Fest Home
In the kitchen, summer squash is as flexible as it is tasty. It's well-suited to grilling, particularly when cut on the diagonal to create thick steaks that won't fall through the grate. They're also quick to saute and dead-easy to roast; and while, yes, you could boil them … please don't.
A little creative slicing opens up even more options: Grate extra-large ones for use in baked goods or fried cakes. Or hop on the spiralizer trend to make some veggie zoodles. When sliced lengthwise on a mandoline, they make beautiful ribbons for low-carb lasagna-making or the gorgeous tartines below.
Of all the items spilling out of the market now, I can't think of a better symbol for summer than a cooling slice of watermelon. And there's plenty to choose from this time of year; whether large or small, solid or striped, red- or yellow-fleshed, seeded or seedless, you're sure to find a favorite. The small melons, weighing in around 5-15 pounds, are also called Icebox Melons, and include such favorites as the Tiger Baby and extra-sweet Sugar Baby. The iconic large, oblong melons are known as Picnic Melons, including the classic Charleston Gray and related hybrids such as the Crimson Sweet. Picnic melons range anywhere from 16 to 45 pounds and are great for carving.
Like figs, watermelons won't ripen any further once picked, so you'll want to pick one that's good and ripe. It shouldn't have any soft spots and should be evenly shaped with bright green skin. Use your other senses as well. Take a sniff: It should smell sweet. Take a listen: Hold the melon up to your ear and give it a whap. It should sound hollow, not dull. Once you've located the best watermelon, store it in a cool place for up to a week. Once cut, cover tightly with plastic and refrigerate for up to 4 days.
How to Cut A Watermelon
To cut a whole watermelon, start by trimming the ends and cutting it in half lengthwise with a sharp chef's knife. Cut each half lengthwise again to make four long triangular quarters. From there, simply cut into 1-inch slices and serve for summertime eating at its best.
But don't stop there: Watermelon is a delicious foil for salty feta cheese, soft avocados, tart lemons and limes, and fresh mint or basil. It can be jammed, pickled, blended, frozen, and even grilled. Try one of the recipes below to find a new favorite way to serve up summer.
Japanese shishito peppers have become quite trendy in recent years, appearing on restaurant menus, in supermarkets, and showing up in weekly farm boxes from August to November. If you can't find them in any of these places, your local Asian market is another likely source. Even better, consider growing your own! Shishitos plants are easy to grow and can be planted in pots for balcony gardeners.
Shishitos are long, skinny peppers with distinctive vertical folds and bright green skin that turns red with age. When picking any type of fresh pepper, look for firm, shiny, and well-shaped specimens, and avoid spots or cracks. It's recommended to store shishitos in a cool place, but avoid the fridge and keep the peppers out of plastic.
Shishitos are relatively mild — comparable to an anaheim or poblano pepper — and become sweeter as they ripen. This is no bell pepper, however: You'll find the flavor quite distinctive. Considered a "frying pepper," shishitos are at their best prepared by simply charring them over an open flame. To take charred shishitos up a notch, sprinkle with some furikake before serving or whip up a quick aioli or sriracha-mayo sauce for dipping. They pair well with other summertime grilling favorites, including corn, beef, onions, and mild crumbly cheeses. If you're looking for a substitute (and don't mind some heat), Padron peppers make a fine spicy alternative to use in the recipes below.
Hungry for more?
Check out other articles in our monthly fresh produce series.