On the Stalk and from the Vine
Tomatoes, corn, asparagus, peas, peppers, cucumbers, green beans, and chiles: these assorted vegetables are so familiar in the kitchen that few cooks need an introduction. And most grow easily in a garden plot with enough room to accommodate their spreading vines and leafing stalks.
Seeds and edible pods—from green beans to corn on the cob—are sweet when young and best if cooked straight from the garden or field. In the market, avoid any that look wrinkled or yellowing, which means they are old.
The summertime favorites—tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, and chiles—are basically available year round, but as any cook knows, their flavors reach their peak in the warm summer months. At home, most work well in a variety of recipes, making them ready nutrient sources.
The heirloom tomato from the heritage varieties of yesteryear is the superstar of the tomato crop. Often asymmetrical and vividly colored— think purple, black, white, or yellow-striped green for a start—heirloom tomatoes often have intense tomatoey flavors that outshine the pallid supermarket types. If your market does not carry any, head to the nearest farmers’ market in summertime, and take your pick!
Perhaps one of the world’s most popular vegetable—a gift to the kitchen from the fields of New World farmers—the tomato is not a vegetable at all but is really a fruit, a member of the nightshade family. Yet the tomato in its almost infinite number of sizes, shapes, and colors complements savory ingredients. It’s also one of summertime’s biggest hits, and although flavorful tomatoes are occasionally available throughout the year, their peak essence comes in mid- to late summer.
Tomatoes are a very rich source of the phytochemical lycopene, which research shows is a powerful antioxidant that may help protect against cancer. Tomatoes also contain ample amounts of vitamin C and assorted other nutrients, such as potassium and niacin.
The sweet bell peppers have long been kitchen favorites, and probably thanks to the proliferation of Mexican and Asian foods, with their reliance on chili heat, the hot chiles have come into their own. At either end of the heat spectrum, the pepper makes a meal come alive: large peppers are easy to stuff, easy to roast and peel, easy to chop fresh in salads, and easy to sauté with one or many other ingredients. All you need do is watch for your favorite variety at the market, or as summertime wanes, explore the numerous kinds on sale at your farmers’ market.
Hot peppers—the beloved chiles that perk up bland foods—are more readily available in a variety of fresh and canned forms. Perhaps the most familiar is Mexico’s heat-bearing jalapeño and its red, smoked (or oven-dried) form, the chipotle, but increasingly you can locate the incendiary habanero and, from Thailand and Korea, the long and short chiles that cause their own sting. Just remember when handling hot chiles, wear rubber gloves and rinse your hands well after slicing them. If not, and you touch your skin or eyes, you will feel the burn.
But the best news is this: peppers are very easy to grow, even in small gardens. When the crop comes in, you’ll have plentiful peppers, just for the picking. Note that many Asians enjoy eating the leaves of the hot peppers, stir-frying them with other greens or as a garnish for rice.