Summer, the time of year we all dream about during winter once our toes don’t quite remember how to fully thaw before we go back outside, we begin to think of hot beaches and sunburn. Finally summer arrives and with it comes humidity that smothers your skin and mosquitoes that have taken quite a liking to you this year. But who can really be too upset about those things when the sun is out, the birds are singing, and the earth is truly bursting with generosity? The first day of summer this year is June 21, which is also International Yoga Day for all you yogis out there, and the veggies are beginning to tumble in. Many cultures have celebrated the Summer Solstice in different ways: The Egyptians celebrated their New Year at the Summer Solstice which coincided with the rise of the Nile and lead to annual flooding; the Irish would cut hazel branches on the even of the summer solstice that were then used to search for gold, water, and precious jewels. There are not many modern celebrations of the summer solstice, so I guess we can all make our own traditions. But with all of the vegetables coming our way, we can feast and learn how to store the summer produce so that it stays fresh for longer.
Cucumbers: Cucumbers should be refrigerated and kept relatively dry. Over exposure to moisture can cause premature deterioration through mold. You can check the life of a cucumber by squeezing the ends. The ends generally turn squishy before the rest of the cucumber, so if they feel soft or start to look wrinkled, the cucumber is coming to the end of its storage life.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are best stored at room temperature. Refrigerating causes them to become mealy and lose much of their flavor. Check tomatoes occasionally for softening, and use softest tomatoes first. Softness is a sign of ripeness. In good condition, tomatoes will keep for 2+ weeks, but keep an eye on any bruised or dinged spots, as these will deteriorate faster than the rest of the tomato.
Summer Squashes: Summer squashes include a wide variety of squash like zucchini, yellow squash, patty pan squash, and eight ball squash. Summer squashes live close to the ground, and as such can get a little dinged up or scratched. It’s important to keep summer squash relatively dry, or mold may take form in any small damaged areas of the squash. Summer squash are relatively hardy, but should be stored in the refrigerator for best results.
Bell Peppers: Bell peppers come in many varieties and colors. Most bell peppers start out green on the vine, then turn red, yellow, orange, etc. as they ripen. They can be picked early as green bell peppers, or they can be left on the vine and turn color. Since green bell peppers are picked at an earlier stage, they tend to keep longer than do colored peppers. Since colored peppers are left on the vine longer, they tend to have a sweeter more mature flavor than green bell peppers. Bell Peppers should be stored in the refrigerator, and kept dry to prevent mold growth.
Corn: Corn is best eaten soon after picking, when it will be at its sweetest. Corn slowly loses sweetness after picking, as the sugars begin to convert to starch. If you cannot consume immediately, store corn in the refrigerator, unshucked. Wait until you are ready to use sweet corn before shucking, as this will increase storage life. As the corn season wears on and temperatures rise, you may see evidence of corn ear worm in NC corn. This is a pest that all local growers have to deal with, and eventually takes over entire fields of corn. The corn ear worm generally enters through the top of the corn and stays in that area, so if you find worm damage, you can usually just cut off the top 1-2 inches, and still have a full ear of corn.
Blueberries: Of all berries, blueberries tend to keep the longest. First check for any damaged or squashed berries, and remove those from the container, as they will accelerate deterioration of other berries if they are left in. Blueberries should be stored in the refrigerator, or also take very well to freezing for longer-term storage.
Peaches: It wouldn’t be summer in NC without fresh, tree-ripened peaches. Peaches are extremely delicate fruits, and sometimes only keep for a few days before going bad. This is why they are best purchased locally, as out of state peaches have to be picked unripe in order to survive the rigors of shipping, which means that they have not developed full sweetness on the tree. Allow peaches to ripen on the counter, you will know they are ripe when the flesh starts to turn slightly soft, giving under light pressure. Once ripe, it is best to consume immediately, or to store them in the refrigerator. Allow refrigerated peaches to come to room temperature before eating, for optimal juice and flavor.
Green Beans: Green Beans are a southern staple, best eaten fresh right after harvest. There are many different varieties grown on a bush or a climbing vine. Once they arrive in your care be sure to store them in the refrigerator and eat within one week for maximum crispness and flavor.
Okra: Okra are best known for their presence in gumbo or the crispy, fried okra you can get at most southern restaurants (or your grandmother’s kitchen). The biggest complaint about okra is its slimy texture, this can be remedied by soaking chopped okra in white vinegar for half an hour before cooking. Make sure to store okra in the refrigerator and eat within 5 days before it starts to brown and deteriorate.
Eggplant: Eggplants are in the same family as tomatoes, the nightshade family. So the best way to store eggplant is similar to storage for tomatoes: it does not like being cold, storing in the refrigerator causes it to lose its flavor and texture. The best place to store eggplant is in a cool place on your kitchen counter where it will remain fresh for about a week. Eggplant is delicious fried or sautéed with other vegetables, especially when paired with tomatoes!
“Eat a tomato and you’ll turn red
(I don’t think that’s really so);
Eat a carrot and you’ll turn orange
(Still and all, you never know);
Eat some spinach and you’ll turn green
(I’m not saying that it’s true
But that’s what I heard, and so
I thought I’d pass it on to you).”