It's summertime and the produce is prime
July/Aug. 2007 California Country magazine
By Christine Souza
Produce pro Andy Powning quips that summer’s biggest challenge is deciding which farm candy to go for!
The world of produce is in the midst of a glorious summer.
"Everywhere you look, we are blessed with a vast array of full-flavored options. The biggest challenge is deciding which farm candy to go for!" said Andy Powning, produce specialist at GreenLeaf Produce in San Francisco and a reporter for "California Country," the California Farm Bureau Federation's weekly television program.
Powning's recommendations for this time of year include:
Melons: California is a leading producer of melons, including cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon. Local melons are prime now through November, with different varieties available throughout the season.
Melons don't get sweeter after harvest, Powning says, but they do mellow and ripen some. Ideally, unless they're already fully ripe, hold melons at room temperature out of direct sunlight for a few days before chilling and serving.
For a refreshing salsa to pair with pork or seafood, dice peeled melon of choice, add an equal amount of diced cucumber and toss with chopped cilantro and shallots. Dress with olive oil and lime juice or white balsamic vinegar, and season with salt and pepper.
Grapes: Of more than 8,000 grape varieties, only 50 or so are grown in significant numbers, and most are winegrapes. California ranks No. 1 in all grape production and our table grape season offers many flavor-packed choices.
"Jump on the grape bandwagon the moment it commences and be ready to trade out different varieties as they come and go quickly," Powning advised.
A can't-miss usage idea is his grape-studded focaccia. Once you've made the focaccia dough and it's in the pan, ready for baking, put a cupful of grapes on the surface along with some fresh rosemary sprigs, a drizzle of honey and a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Tomatoes: California is first in production of processing tomatoes and second to Florida in fresh tomato production. Local fresh harvests run May through autumn—with different varieties available throughout the season—then begin to wind down in mid-September.
"The best time to buy tomatoes is late summer when they are flavor-packed from many days of dedicated sunbathing," Powning said.
One of Powning's favorite recipes is to halve medium-size tomatoes and place them in an oiled muffin tin. Season with salt and pepper. Mix freshly grated hard cheese and bread crumbs in equal proportions and place two to three heaping tablespoons of this mixture on top of each tomato. Drizzle with olive oil and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Broil a few minutes to brown tops. Serve with fresh basil leaves on top, with a final bit of olive oil.
Cucumbers: California ranks third in fresh cucumber production, and while local cucumbers are in season through November, their prime is summer. Seek out interesting, locally grown varieties including the round, yellow lemon cucumber, the smaller Japanese and Persian types or the tender-skinned English cucumber.
"We're talking prime-season, locally grown cukes here—so no bitterness, just cool joy and crunchy pleasure," Powning said.
He suggests an herbed cucumber salad with thinly sliced cucumbers, mint, Italian parsley and chopped red onion. Dress with vinaigrette or a ranch or blue cheese dressing. "All the flavors combine in a pleasing explosion!"