Ten iconic foods of summer, and where to find them

favorite summer foodsAah, summer. A time for the beach, pool parties, lazy days…and sheep cheese? While many foods are undeniably the essence of summer–watermelon, peaches, and anything grilled come to mind–there are plenty of edibles not identified as seasonal foods.

Most of my favorite things to eat just happen to peak in summer, so I decided to compile a list of both the obvious and not-so. Even the most dedicated city-dweller can find these foods with minimal effort. Farmers markets abound in major metropolitan areas, as do specialty food shops and local produce-focused grocery stores and food co-ops. Just look for the most local product where things like tomatoes or corn are concerned; they degrade quickly, and summer produce is all about freshness.

1. Cherries
I used to work for an organic peach and cherry farmer at several Bay Area farmers markets. Each year around this time, customers would start getting antsy, wanting to know when the first cherries of the season were coming in.

I understood. I also eagerly await their all-too brief appearance. Sweet cherries have a wide growing range, from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to the Rockies. But Traverse City, Michigan, gets the title of Cherry Capital of the World. Their famous National Cherry Festival is July 2-9th, but should you miss out, there are U-picks pretty much everywhere cherries are grown. FYI: Most tart (“pie”) cherries are grown in Michigan.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dr_knox]favorite summer foods2. Copper River Salmon
The first shipment of this Alaskan treasure hit the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on May 17th. While season and availability depend upon how stable the fishery is during a given year, May 15th to mid-June is when you can usually find this succulent, deeply-flavored species on menus and in the marketplace. If you’re feeling really motivated, take an Alaskan fishing expedition. However you procure it, treat it gently and prepare simply, so you can best enjoy this most fleeting and precious of wild ingredients.

3. Corn
“Knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The first time I heard that old-timey phrase, I was driving with a chef through the verdant farmland of Southern Wisconsin. As with cherries, people get really amped up over the imminent arrival of sweet corn. U-picks and farm stands are a way of life in Cape Cod and other parts of the Northeast (how can you have a clam bake without fresh corn?). And “fresh” is key. Corn starts to lose its delicate, milky sweetness the moment it’s picked; refrigeration converts the natural sugars into starch. Resist purchasing until the day you need it, and don’t shuck it prior (avoid purchasing pre-shucked ears, or those with dry, brown, or slimy tassels). For a real down-home corn hoe-down, check out the Olathe Corn Festival on Colorado’s Western Slope.
favorite summer foods
4. Blue crabs
A few years ago, I went crabbing for the first time in an estuary on the Florida Panhandle’s “Forgotten Coast.” Those blues tasted all the sweeter because I’d caught them myself (Equipment check list: string, bait, and a net. Go to this site to see what state permits are required, and double-check with local authorities). Alas, BP has utterly screwed the marine and estuary life and livelihood of the fishermen on parts of the Gulf Coast (word is the Apalachicola/Forgotten Coast was spared). An alternative are Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. While commercial harvests are in decline due to habitat loss, it’s still considered a “good alternative,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just don’t be greedy.

5. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Spot prawns–actually a species of large shrimp– can be found throughout the North Pacific, but this fishery has a rep for being one of the most sustainable, due to it’s strict regulations, catch-method (traps), and the fact that the small fleet are all small, family-run vessels. Because the cold, deep waters of the nearby Channel Islands are so clean and nutrient-rich , SB spot prawns are revered for their sweet, lobster-like flesh. Supplies are limited, however, due to loss of habitat (if you need to purchase a large quantity, opt for British Columbia spot prawns). While technically available yearround if the fishery is stable, spot prawns are an iconic Santa Barbara summertime treat, especially grilled. You can purchase them from the fishermen at the farmer’s market; at the Santa Barbara Fish Market (live and frozen) or straight off the boat at the adjacent Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor (7-11am).
favorite summer foods
6. Wild mushrooms
The Rocky Mountains explode with edible fungi such as morels, chanterelles, and boletes (porcini) come early August, which is monsoon season. If you’re not an experienced forager, be sure to go with someone who is, or see if your local mycological society offers forages. Never eat a mushroom you’ve collected without having it identified by an expert, first. If you live in mushroom country, which also includes the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South and Midwest, you’ll likely find foraged mushrooms at the farmers market. If you want to really geek-out, don’t miss the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 18-21st. Seminars, forages, special dinners, and a truly, uh, trippy parade are the highlights.

7. Tomatoes
Sun-ripened. Just picked and still warm–preferably from your own garden or container planter. Or just check local farmers markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and co-ops for local, sustainably-grown heirlooms or hybrids such as Early Girl. Tomato-lovers understand that there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

8. Watermelon
Few can resist a slice or three of icy-cold watermelon, followed by a long nap on a sweltering summer afternoon. Cordele, Georgia, declares itself the Watermelon Capital of the World (Watermelon Days Festival ion June 3rd!), but Arizona, Florida, and California’s Imperial and Riverside Counties are the other major growing regions. My personal favorites come from Northern California’s pastoral Capay Valley, located between Davis and Sacramento. The Valley’s dry, intense heat produces melons with a syrupy sweetness and perfume balanced by fine-textured flesh. Bonus: most of the farms in the area are small, organic or sustainable family operations; look for Capay or North Valley/Sacramento Delta melons at Bay Area farmers markets.

9. Honey
Most folks don’t realize honey is a seasonal food. But during the chilly, wet winter months, bees hunker down in the hive, feeding on honey. Come mid-to-late spring, they again venture out in search of pollen. Seasonal harvests depend upon location, climate, and food source (pollens) but on average, a beekeeper can expect two to four hauls between late spring and late summer/early fall.
favorite summer foods
If you’ve never tried local, raw (unheated; pasteurizing or heating destroys flavor compounds as well as health benefits), unfiltered honey, you’re in a for a big treat. Honey has proven anti-microbial properties, and studies show consuming local honey helps prevent seasonal allergies (by ingesting it, you’ll build up a tolerance to the allergens). The flavor complexities and textures in local honey are specific to microclimate, and what the bees are eating. Where I live, in Seattle, blackberry honey is treasured. But you can find great local honey anywhere: whenever I’m in New Mexico, for example, I’ll puchase a jar from a roadside stand.

10. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
As with honey, our urban-dwelling culture has mostly lost touch with the concept of seasonality, especially as it pertains to certain crops and food products. Cheese is of an entirely seasonal nature, especially at the “artisan” level. A small-scale cheesemaker creates product as the milk supply waxes and wanes throughout the season(s). The flavor and chemical composition of the milk also changes, depending upon how lush the pasture, if the animal’s feed is supplemented by hay or grain, and what plants are indigenous to the region.

While cows produce milk for about 10 months of the year, sheep and goats lactate only during the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall months. That makes cheeses produced from sheep and goat’s milk a seasonal specialty, especially when they’re fresh varieties such as tangy chevre or fromage blanc, or sweet, milky ricotta. I know summer has arrived when the first deliveries of cloud-like sheep’s curd arrive at the cheese shop I work at.

We live in a time when we can get whatever ingredient or food product we want, when we want it (usually at the expense of massive fossil fuel consumption, environmental degradation, and pesticide use that affects the health of both consumer and farmworker). Some things are just worth waiting for.

What’s your favorite seasonal food of summer? We’d like to hear from you!

[Photo credits: corn, Flickr user agrilifetoday; all remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

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