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]

How to Grow Tomatoes on Your Patio

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Checking in on the BP spill cleanup

bp spill cleanupReports last week from the beaches of Alabama and Mississippi suggest that the post-BP gusher cleanup continues, with varying degrees of success, and that new oil continues to show up.

Near the Alabama-Florida border, a placed called Perdido (Lost) Key, BP-contracted crews have been sifting sand for more than six months to try and get rid of tar mats buried nearly three feet beneath the sand.

Having suffered 50 percent losses in tourist’s dollars last summer, the effort is being made to insure the areas renowned white sand beaches are pure white by the first of the New Year. The idea is to next move the process west along the coastal islands of Mississippi and the marshlands of Louisiana, using slightly different systems.

But locals in Perdido Key tell the Times that while a BP spokesman says he expects to eventually get “99 percent of what’s out there,” all the sifting and shifting of sand is not getting rid of the oil, just spreading it around.

Near Harrison, Mississippi, crews have been cleaning oil and tar balls off the beach for 200 days and the work continues, with expectations that it will last through next summer. A BP spokesman there says each crew is picking up 20 to 30 pounds of tar balls a day, by hand, since machinery has proved inefficient against the “small, oily clumps.” Along with the visible tar balls scattered along the shore, there is also concern about possible sub-surface oil buried beneath a layer of sand.Just offshore Harrison, the low-lying sand barrier called Horn Island took the brunt of the oil spill; heavy machinery is still being used there to try and clean it up.

Suggestions that the oil from the spill and its long-lasting impact is mostly gone seem to be exaggerated. About 135 shrimp and fishing boats are still at sea aiding in the cleanup; another 1,200 boats are waiting to be scrubbed clean and decontaminated at more than 20 dry docks across the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 9,000 square miles of federal Gulf waters remain closed to fishing; bad weather has kept crews from getting enough species to sample and decide whether to reopen some of that area. It’s estimated that the daily cost of the cleanup has dropped to $27 million, from a high of about $67 million … a day.

Different cleanup concerns are being voiced about the Chandeleur Islands at the mouth of the Mississippi River off Louisiana. That’s where Governor Bobby Jindal and his troops attempted a quick fix at the height of the spill, bulldozing thousands of tons of sand in an effort to build-up berms to try and prevent the oil from reaching the marshes and shores.

Unfortunately, according to my friend Ivor van Heerden, a coastal restoration expert who’s been monitoring the impact of the spill since the very first day, that berm-building process buried oil as deep as seven feet. Since it was halted no effort has been made to retrieve that buried oil. He predicts normal winter erosion will unearth it and send it on to the shoreline.

He is concerned that local politicians may be purposely dragging their heels on proper clean up as a way to keep attention – and federal dollars – focused on the state.

“A few weeks back I had the opportunity to speak to some researchers at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and in their opinion Louisiana has become a ‘victim’ state. It cannot manage its resources well enough to generate sufficient income; instead it looks to get ‘payout’s’ from time to time. They also pointed out that this is a very slippery slope for a state.”

Flickr image via GT51

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Using creatures to filter the sea

While scientists continue to monitor fish taken from the Gulf for raised levels of chemicals and oil, others around the globe are using specific species to purposely suck up polluted waters.

Two recent reports cite scallops and oysters being used like the proverbial “canary in a coal mine” to both warn of the impacts of growing toxins in the ocean and to help clean it up.

In Russia, the Moscow Times reports, organic chemists have set up a giant sea scallop garden in Kozmino Bay on the Sea of Japan – 7 times zones east of Moscow – near a new, very busy Siberian oil terminal to measure water pollution. Big, recent oil discoveries in remote Siberia are being delivered to the port by pipeline and business at the terminal is expected to double this year to 200 million barrels. Nearby in the same bay abandoned Soviet-era ships, pipelines and old Navy infrastructure rot in the sea.

Known for their ability to filter contaminants including oil and heavy metals, the scallops will serve as watchdogs for the booming port.

Curiously the scallops – 10,000 of the meaty suckers, squeezed into 80 long tubular nets — are not being used so much to help scientists conduct long-term monitoring thus preventing oil spills but rather to help clean them up, suggesting that spills are inevitable not stoppable.
“If the monitoring is successful, we have an idea to create large permanent colonies for scallops, mussels and seaweed at the bottom of the bay and use them to filter the water and keep it clean,” a spokesman told the Times.Across the Northern Pacific, the Voice of America reports on a Seattle laboratory where scientists are using baby oysters for their filtering systems. The goal is to assess just how efficient the oysters are at sucking up carbon dioxide, which is being dumped into the sea thanks to the burning of fossil fuels (the severe problem known as the “evil twin” of global warming, ocean acidification).

Paul McElhany, a biologist working at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, has set up a four tanks reflecting the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean in 1) pre-industrial times, 2) today, 3) the projected amount for the year 2100 and 4) a worse-case scenario. The tanks are filled with Pacific Northwest oysters, which are monitored each day by grad students.

Why oysters? Because they are apparently the most sensitive of all filter fish.

Not all fish are impacted similarly by the ocean’s increased acidity; apparently algae and seaweed prosper under elevated levels of carbon dioxide while shellfish can literally begin to dissolve.

Next up to be tested after oysters? Abalone, geoducks, clams, mussels and krill.

I’m not sure if I’d rather be a scallop assigned to suck up spilled oil or an oyster asked to put its life on the line to help better understand ocean acidification, but both sound better than what scientists are doing to poor zebrafish at Duke University, which are being used to analyze genetic mutations.

In efforts to better understand the inherited Bardet-Biedl syndrome — its symptoms are obesity, retardation and retinopathy – and Down’s syndrome, in vivo tests are being done on zebrafish to see how they respond to defective mammalian cells.

Word of caution: I’d be careful about ordering the Siberian sea scallops for the indefinite future.

[flickr photo via Dan Hershman]

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Lifiting the drilling moratorium

Less than 180 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank and less than 60 days after BP finally sealed the well that leaked 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama Administration lifted its own moratorium on deepwater drilling.

While Gulf State oil workers, especially in Louisiana, are relieved, hoping that new permits will be approved by year’s end and jobs that have been on hold can continue, others are concerned the early end of the moratorium (days before it was planned, on November 30) may be rushed.

Five reasons we may regret the early lifting:

  • New rules and regulations required by oil industry operators may not be sufficiently understood, by either government or industry. New standards require that operators must have blowout preventers inspected and design approved by an independent third party. In direct response to the BP accident, new deepwater rigs must come with reports illustrating exactly how they could prevent or reduce a blowout at the wellhead. And they must have all casing designs and cementing operations certified by an outside engineer. All of that sounds good on paper, but is the new government agency set up to inspect new permits ready?
  • Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council – comprised of scientists and lawyers – worry that not enough is known about what exactly caused the BP explosion to prevent a similar accident from happening again. Despite the new standards for permitting “there is no insurance that future drilling will be done responsibly,” says the NRDC’s executive director Peter Lehner. Cutting corners will remain a concern in the very-for-profit oil industry.

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  • Lifting the moratorium in the Gulf gives fuel to those hoping for a similar relief off the coast of Alaska. Since the BP accident all drilling in the Beaufort Sea has been banned; Alaska Governor Sean Parnell immediately picked up the argument that if it’s okay to drill below 5,000 feet in the Gulf it should be a-ok to drill in shallow waters in his state’s waters. For now the Department of Interior is proceeding cautiously regarding oil drilling off the North Slope due to to concerns that any spill could decimate a still-mostly pristine environment.
  • With the moratorium lifted Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal will have plenty of time on his hands; he’s made lifting the ban his fulltime job since early summer. Never friendly to environmental concerns, Jindal may refocus on the misplaced building of offshore berms (a boon to buddies in the construction business?). He is also pushing for even more shallow water permits – since June only 12 have been permitted off Louisiana; pre-spill that many were okayed every month. But competition for ugliest political maneuvering in the state is stiff: Senator Mary Landrieu continues to single-handedly block the appointment of a new White House budget director until she’s satisfied the moratorium is “sufficiently” lifted.
  • The biggest reason to worry about more deepwater drilling is because inevitably leaks and spills will continue to occur. And not necessarily because of industrial malfeasance or corners being cut, just statistically. As long as we continue to drill one, two and three miles below the ocean’s surface – an always risky, messy undertaking whether on land or sea – there will be accidents, small and, one day again, big. The best protection against another BP-like accident? Less dependence on crude.

[Photos by P.J. Hahn]

From the shores of Louisiana – Gulf Fisheries

In Baton Rouge last week I met for the first time a very vocal third-generation shrimper, George Barisich, who has been working the Gulf his entire life, initially for the fun of it – crabbing as a kid – and ever since as a fulltime commercial fisherman, since 1966.
He inherited his 50-foot shrimp, the “FJG,” which his father named after his three sons: Frances, Jefferson and George.
Today he’s president of the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association, which represents 139 shrimpers who are still all every disappointed by both the BP spill and its follow-up.
While the fisheries have largely been opened, and Barisich and his peers are out there every day catching shrimp, the market for them has mostly disappeared.
“There’s no one to buy the shrimp we’re bringing in, because they’re having a hard time selling it. The result is I’m getting 85 cents for a pound a shrimp, which used to bring me at least two dollars,” he says. “I’m not sure how long I can keep that kind of business going.”
The week before he’d had to drive his shrimp all the way into Mississippi before he could find a processor who would buy his shrimp, for $1.40.

“Back home my dealer don’t want it and his processors don’t want it. I’m going to have to go to make some money, but it’s going to be at depressed price, which means somebody’s going to have to give me free fuel or something. It’s complicated and not many fishermen understand what to do now.”

For the moment he vouches for the safety of the shrimp, despite some local scientist’s concerns that the allowable chemicals in the seafood have been altered by federal testers, making them seem safe when maybe they are not.

“We should be concerned about the reputation of Louisiana shrimp and seafood, so yes it needs to be tested. But for right now, I’m going to stay out there, fishing.”

“As for the oysters … I’m scared to death.” Due to all the freshwater from the Mississippi that was released into the mouth of the Gulf, most of the oyster beds are dead and may take three years or longer to revive.
A physically robust 54-year-old, George garnered good attention at the height of the spill, by appearing on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” show wearing one of his own designed t-shirts.

On the front it had a mock-BP logo and the words, “Bringing Oil to Your Shores in All New Ways.” (Watch video)

“We sold 893 of them the first day after the program,” he says, “which was the best money I made all summer.” The day after I met him last week he was headed to a Gulf Coast concert in Houston armed with t-shirts to sell.

(His knack for producing timely t-shirts had previously gotten him in hot water with Homeland Security, when he handed some out free near a FEMA office soon after Hurricane Katrina. Those read “Flooded by Katrina! Forgotten by FEMA! What’s Next, Mr. Bush?”)

Like many Gulf Coast fishermen, Barisich is wrestling with proposed buy-outs from BP.

“Helping with the clean-up was the first time I ever worked for someone else in my life, so I’m more than a little confused,” he admits.

Thousands of business owners, fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast are confronting a similar conundrum. Those who accept a one-time payoff check for their long-term losses from the victims’ compensation fund will have to give up their right to sue BP. So George could accept a piece of BP’s $20 billion claims fund – relatively fast, easy money – or sue the oil giant for a bigger payday, which could require waiting years and risking ending up with nothing.

“One lump settlement – should I take it if it’s decent? Should I wait it out? It’s on the back of everyone’s minds right now,” says George. “It’s another one of the unknowns that’s driving everyone sleepless right now.

“The only silver lining that is going to come out of this is that the government and the country are going to understand the importance of the Gulf.”

[Flickr image via leunix]