How to Select, Store, and Cook Summer Produce
How to choose: Fresh arugula has long, firm, bright green leaves. Larger leaves are more peppery than small ones. Holes, tears, and yellowing edges are signs the greens are past their prime. If you can, buy arugula in bunches with the roots intact; this helps retain freshness.
How to store: If you buy arugula with roots, wrap the stems in a moistened paper towel and place in a plastic bag in the most humid area of the refrigerator (usually the vegetable drawer). Keep loose leaves in a plastic bag. Packaged arugula can remain in its clamshell container or bag.
Shelf life: Bunches of arugula will last two to three days. With packaged greens, it’s essential to follow the expiration date, no matter how fresh the leaves appear, since harmful bacteria can develop. (Most packaged leaves have a two-week shelf life.)
Best uses: Arugula tends to be gritty, so rinse the leaves thoroughly. The greens can be stirred into pasta and scattered on pizza. Arugula is at its best in salads: Drizzle it with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice and top with shaved Parmesan, salt, and pepper.
How to choose: Look for whole, smooth leaves that are aromatic, bright green, and free of black spots. Avoid basil that is wilting or has moldy stems.
How to store: Basil does best at room temperature. Trim the bottoms of the stems (leave the roots attached, if present) and place the stalks in a few inches of water in a sturdy glass, vase, or jelly jar―as you would a bunch of flowers. Keep out of sunlight.
Shelf life: Use basil, like all fresh herbs, as soon as possible. It will last two to four days.
Best uses: Basil needs a little extra care during washing, since it bruises easily. Add whole leaves to minestrone or a tomato-and-mozzarella salad. You can also crush them into a pesto or make a quick sandwich spread by blending 1 cup leaves with ¾ cup mayonnaise in a food processor.
How to choose: Select beets that are firm with smooth, blemish-free dark red or golden yellow skins. If you want to cook any attached leaves, make sure they are bright green.
How to store: Before refrigerating, separate the beets from the leaves. To keep the beets dry, store them and the leaves, unwashed, in separate plastic bags in the vegetable drawer.
Shelf life: The leaves will last for only two to three days, but the beets can stay fresh for two to three weeks.
Best uses: Small, young beets are tasty grated raw in salads. (Beet juice can stain, so protect your countertops.) All types are delicious steamed or boiled. Or roast them at 400º F for 45 minutes; slice and top with goat cheese, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.
How to choose: Red peppers are simply mature green peppers; yellow and orange peppers are different, sweeter varieties. Keep your eye out for shiny, unblemished, wrinkle-free skins, regardless of color. Peppers should be firm when you buy them.
How to store: Refrigerate peppers, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer. Keep them dry, as moisture will eventually cause them to rot.
Shelf life: Red and yellow peppers will last four to five days; green, about a week.
Best uses: Peppers stand up well to grilling, baking, and sautéing. Roasting makes them smoky. One quick summer side dish: Cook a box of couscous and stir in 1 diced bell pepper, a can of chickpeas, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper.
Berries (Blueberries, Blackberries, Raspberries)
How to choose: Blackberries and raspberries should be deeply colored; blueberries should have a slight frosty-white hue. Pass by blackberries and raspberries with hulls attached, a sign of premature picking. Check all fruit for mold, and inspect containers for stickiness or stains.
How to store: Pick through the berries and discard damaged or moldy ones. Place unwashed raspberries and blackberries in a single layer on a plate, cover loosely, and store in the refrigerator. Blueberries are sturdier and can be refrigerated in their container.
Shelf life: Unlike many other fruits, berries don’t ripen after picking, so they are best eaten right away. Blackberries and raspberries will last for two to three days; blueberries, up to a week.
Best uses: Berries are perfect eaten out of hand but are terrific cooked in pies, muffins, and pancakes. For a sweet-tart breakfast, snack, or dessert: Top a small dish of fresh ricotta with a mix of blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, drizzle with honey, and sprinkle with toasted almonds.
How to choose: Chard is typically classified by the color of its stems―red, white, green, or rainbow (a combination of colors, including yellow). Look for crisp, crinkly green leaves; avoid ones with spots or holes. The smaller the leaves, the sweeter their taste. (Large leaves and stems are often chewy.)
How to store: Refrigerate chard, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer.
Shelf life: Chard will last two to three days.
Best uses: Small leaves can be cooked with the stems attached. Larger leaves have tougher stems, so separate them and give the stems a few minutes’ head start when cooking. Stir chard into stews and soups, or blanch or sauté it, like spinach.
How to choose: If the store or farm stand won’t let you pull back the husks (the most reliable way to check the quality), squeeze the ear to feel whether the kernels are closely spaced, firm, and round. Look for grassy green, tightly wrapped husks. The silk should be glossy and pale yellow, the stem moist.
How to store: Refrigerate ears unshucked in a bag.
Shelf life: Corn is best within 24 hours of purchasing, though it will last three days.
Best uses: It’s hard to beat corn on the cob boiled, steamed, or grilled. If the corn is very fresh, try tossing raw kernels with tomatoes, Feta, extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper for a simple side dish.
How to choose: For both regular cucumbers and smaller, bumpier Kirbys (often used for pickles), choose firm, dark green ones with no wrinkles or spongy spots. No matter the variety, smaller cucumbers contain fewer and tinier seeds. The skins contain vitamin A, so try to buy unwaxed cucumbers, whose skin you can eat.
How to store: Because cucumbers thrive in temperatures just over 40º F, keep them in a plastic bag on a shelf toward the front of the refrigerator, which tends to be warmer.
Shelf life: Cucumbers will last three to five days.
Best uses: Peel waxed cucumbers; unwaxed ones need only a light scrubbing. Cucumbers are tastiest served raw, as in this cool side salad: Thinly slice 2 regular cucumbers and toss with 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, 2 teaspoons sesame oil, and a pinch of sugar and salt.
How to choose: An eggplant should feel weighty for its size and is tastiest at less than 1½ pounds. (Larger, older ones tend to be bitter.) Look for a smooth, shiny dark purple or creamy white skin (a dull exterior indicates over-ripeness) and a green stem with leaves clinging to the top.
How to store: Refrigerate eggplants in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer.
Shelf life: Eggplants will last four to five days; after that, they become bitter.
Best uses: Eggplants can be baked, sautéed, roasted, pan-fried, or broiled. For an easy starter, brush ½-inch-thick slices with olive oil and grill for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Layer with sliced fresh mozzarella and top with extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.
Stone Fruits (Plums, Peaches, Nectarines)
How to choose: Gently squeeze plums, peaches, and nectarines; they should yield slightly. Look for richly colored plums with no brown spots. Peaches and nectarines should have no green or wrinkly patches.
How to store: Ripen stone fruits at room temperature, stem-end down. A sweet, flowery smell means peaches and nectarines are ripe and should be refrigerated, unwashed, in a plastic bag. Ripe plums have dull skins.
Shelf life: Ripe plums and yellow peaches will last in the refrigerator for three to five days. Nectarines and white peaches ripen more quickly; refrigerate them for only a day.
Best uses: Like berries, stone fruits are wonderful eaten out of hand. They can also be roasted, poached, or sautéed. Or cut the fruit in half, coat with butter and sugar, and grill for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Serve with ice cream.
Summer Squash (Yellow Squash, Zucchini)
How to choose: Select yellow squash and zucchini less than eight inches long; the vegetables can become bitter the larger the plants grow. Make sure the squash are firm, particularly at the stems, and have bright skins.
How to store: Refrigerate yellow squash and zucchini, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer.
Shelf life: Summer squash will last three to five days.
Best uses: You can eat summer squash grilled, roasted, steamed, or raw. Or slice them thinly and sauté with chopped onions and fresh thyme as a colorful accompaniment to steak.
How to choose: Select tomatoes that are deeply colored and firm, with a little give. Sniff all tomatoes if you can. If they’re missing that sweet, woody smell, leave them behind. Check grape tomatoes for wrinkles, a sign of age.
How to store: Keep tomatoes at room temperature on a plate; never store them in a plastic bag. If you want to speed the ripening process, put the tomatoes in a pierced paper bag with an apple, which emits ethylene gas, a ripening agent.
Shelf life: Once ripe, tomatoes will last two to three days.
Best uses: Tomatoes can be grilled, roasted, or sautéed. Or make a juicy sandwich: Spread white bread with mayonnaise; top with tomato slices and a second piece of bread. One bite and you’ll wish fall would never come.