For cooks, food lovers and avid gardeners, summer is all about produce. We wait anxiously for those first spring onions, squash flowers, tomatoes, eggplants and melons. We plan weeks ahead the dishes we'll make for our friends and families. We fantasize about the backyard dinners and patio parties.
For me, the first true sign that summer has arrived is the sight of squash flowers at my local farmers market in early June. As a child (and to this day), whenever we visited Mexico, my mother would pounce on anything made with the coveted harbinger of the many beautiful summer squash to come. In Mexico, squash blossoms are used in a variety of ways — to fill quesadillas, stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried like the Italians do — but no dish showcases the flavors better than my family recipe for sopa de flor de calabaza (squash flower soup). Serve it as a glorious welcome to the season to come.
As spring turns to summer, onions change their tune from subtle to bold. The dwindling bits of green garlic give way to long chives crowned with fat purple blossoms that are as attractive to the tongue as they are to the eye. Sometime in midsummer (around June), bags of red onions start popping up at local farmers markets. After you've used them as a base for sauces, consider making them into a show-stopping pickle that you'll want to put on everything from grilled steak tacos to your morning scrambled eggs.
Late June and July bring an abundance of the king of all summer produce: tomatoes. People line up at the market greedily eyeing exactly which ones they'll pluck from the pile. Pints of small red and yellow tomatoes, fat irregularly shaped deep purple Cherokees, and every shade of the yellow to red spectrum grace each farmer's table for as far as the eye can see. Eat them right away like an apple, top it with funky blue cheese and chive flowers, use it as the base of a spicy salsa for your next Mexican-themed cookout or just make a good old Southern tomato sandwich on some white bread with mayo.
Eggplants also arrive en masse around the same time as tomatoes. Use them in ratatouille, slice them and fry them quickly to get the bitterness out before baking them in the oven topped with some fresh mozzarella and oregano. Or use them as the star of an Asian dish — I sauté the eggplant with ground pork and cubes of tofu with loads of fresh ginger, garlic, soy sauce and scallions for a hearty but still summery dish.
Although you don't see nearly enough of them, green beans are another summer favorite that can be used in as many ways as tomatoes. Stewing them with tomatoes and okra can be a nice main dinner dish with some Carolina gold rice. But my favorite way to prepare them is with equally abundant potatoes and basil pesto in a classic Italian pasta with a few twists.
At the end of July, melons in all shapes and sizes start to appear at the market. After that initial pop of excitement of biting into a farm-fresh watermelon cracked on a hot day, explore some other ways to use this quintessential summer treat. Watermelons offer a crisp and cool base for a salad when mixed with hunks of briny feta cheese and fresh sprigs of mint. My favorite way to enjoy it, however, is in a cold refreshing glass of agua fresca. You can even add a little vodka if you're feeling naughty. Cheers to summer!