Tomatoes are a lot like sex. With tomatoes, as with sex, there are a lot of cheap thrills out there. But with tomatoes, as with sex, you’ll get the most pleasure if you hold out for the best.
Just think of that last tomato and basil salad you had back in September: the fragrant juice and the firm, crimson flesh, the perfect flavor that lingered in your mouth and that lives on in your mind. Did you cheapen that tomato’s memory throughout the rest of the year with tawdry replacements that “did” just fine? I hope not, for your sake. If you were true to your conscience, if you were patient, eschewing those tempting-looking tomatoes and waiting for that special summertime love, your expectations are about to be fulfilled beyond your wildest dreams. Tomato season is just around the corner
I have a longer list of summertime “things worth waiting for.” Watermelon, lima beans and cantaloupe, to name just a trifling few of my favorite fruits and veggies, are really only good during their brief local seasons. For a few weeks each year, our beautiful, thoughtful, fertile land pours forth its precious, jewel-like gifts of tastiness and sustenance. They come to us still warm from the earth and bursting with a flavor so intense that they need to be enjoyed in brief encounters only. That way, with every summer season, we can greet them anew with a childlike sensibility of delight. Wouldn’t it be dreadful if eating watermelon were to become mundane?
We are approaching that magical time again. The air is positively fecund with the promise of earthly delights. I decided that this year I would select my produce with a little foreknowledge as to exactly what local items to expect, when to select them, and how to choose the perfect specimens.
To educate myself, I called my pal and co-worker Rory Hall. Having been produce manager at the Corner Market for the last several years, Rory gets more emotional about fruits and vegetables than I do. His borderline fanaticism, however, is not surprising. Rory shows up at 3 a.m. every day at the Farmer’s Market, seeking out the best available produce so that he can drive it over to West Nashville and lovingly arrange it all like so many works of art.
Rory shared some of his summertime wisdom with me. I’ve attempted to arrange his suggestions chronologically, so that you can know what to expect as the season progresses.
Late May will bring us whatever Tennessee strawberries may be available this year. Unfortunately, the deep February freeze that was a big annoyance to most of us was a big disaster to the Portland strawberry crop. Don’t expect much this year. We should see a few shipments from West Tennessee within the next two weeks. They won’t exactly be local berries, but they’ll be as close as we’ll get this year.
When selecting your berries, remember that size isn’t everything. On the contrary, the smallest berries are frequently the sweetest. If any stem is remaining on the berries, be sure that it doesn’t appear to be twisted or torn. This would indicate that the berries had been picked unripe. My all-time favorite way to enjoy strawberries is in strawberry shortcake. My family used to devour an entire cake for lunch on Sunday afternoons. To be a bit more up-to-date, try tossing them on top of a green salad.
Tomatoes are looking good this year, and the first local soil-grown (not hydroponic) tomatoes will start showing up this very week. Traditional tomato time around here is late June, but farmers have been using all available technology to get their crops market-ready as soon as possible.
A really good tomato will smell like a tomato before you slice it. Be careful that you don’t select tomatoes that are getting too soft. These are on their way out. Please, do not put your tomatoes in the refrigerator. This actually causes chemical changes that drastically affect the taste.
My grandfather always said that the best way to eat a tomato was to put the salt shaker in your back pocket and go out to the garden. Pick a tomato and wipe it off on your shirt. Remove the salt shaker from your pocket, sprinkle a little on your tomato and eat it like an apple, sprinkling a bit more salt as need be. I don’t know how to improve on that.
Early June brings my father’s favorite crops, all of the sweet peasblack eyes, crowders, butter beans and limas. Buy them unshelled if you have a little time on your hands or an old buddy with whom you need to catch up. Shelling peas on the porch is a sacred Southern tradition. If you’re a bit short on time and elect to buy your peas already shelled, look for ones that are taut in their skin and a bit glossy. Peas that have been shelled for too long develop an unpleasant slime.
No matter how good your peas are, you’ll need to sort and rinse them before cooking. It’s hard to beat Southern peas that are slow-cooked with butter or a little ham hock, but if you want to branch out, try cooking them until they’re just tender and then make them into a cold salad with fresh onion, peppers and vinaigrette.
Late June should bring us some tart green local apples, but, like all flowering fruit, apples were badly damaged by the late spring freezes. Local apples are small and have a somewhat mottled surface. Don’t let this throw you off. If you find any local apples, make a quick cobbler or some tangy-sweet applesauce.
Cantaloupe also begin to arrive in late June. Melons should be heavy for their size and should smell positively ripe. You can smell them best at the stem end. It’s hard to improve on a cantaloupe half, eaten with a spoon, but they’re also delicious cubed and paired with grilled shrimp.
During the first week of July, we really hit pay dirt (pardon the pun) when it comes to local crops. The Fourth of July is perfectly timed for us lucky Tennesseans.
One of the great moments of the summer is that moment when silver queen corn is ripe for the picking. Silver queen is the reigning cob around here, so sweet you barely have to cook it. However, there are occasions that call for a tougher field corn, such as when you’re making fried corn, which isn’t really fried at allmore precisely, it’s stewed, with butter, salt, black pepper and perhaps a bit of milk to ease the process along. For any type of corn, always look for uniform rows of glossy, plump kernels, and watch out for critters.
Squashyellow summer squash and zucchini toowill hit the market at about the same time. Always buy the smallest squash you can find; make sure it’s firm and unblemished. Casseroles and cold soups are both great local specialties, but when the squash is really good, you can’t beat just steaming it and tossing it with a little lemon and fresh herbs. Add butter or olive oil if you want to be decadent.
July’s also the time to find the first okra. Here again, smaller is better. The larger pods get tough and fibrous. I will never deny the greatness of fried okra, but for tender sweet okra, try stewing it for just a while with some onion (look for the small local onion, usually sold with a bit of green top) and tomato and seasoning it with lemon juice.
Eggplant and peppers should be available by Independence Day as well. Eggplant should be shiny and firm, and it should feel weighty in your hand. If a twisted stem remains, it’s probably been picked too early, and that means it may be bitter. Look for peppers with glossy, tight skins. Eggplant and peppers are marvelous grilled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Green beans and pole beans both come on strong in July. They should be firm and so tasty you could eat them raw. Contrary to local tradition, the better the bean, the less you need to cook it.
Of ultimate importance to your Fourth of July weekend is the arrival of local watermelon. Thumping a watermelon is actually a good way to test its ripeness. It should make a resonant sound, like a drum. It should smell sweet too. Avoid any with a twisted or torn stem. You know how to eat watermelon.
Tennessee blueberries and blackberries both arrive in July. Blueberries should have a whitish, dull sheen to them. Blackberries are almost always better small. The large ones usually are almost all hull. Try tossing both berries together for a beautiful and tasty cobbler.
Peaches are a sad story this year. They were really devastated by the late freeze. We probably won’t see any coming from Tennessee this year, and those we do find will be accordingly pricey. Small consolation to the farmers, but just think how much you’ll appreciate them next year.
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