What to Eat Now: July
Summer’s peak is nearly here, and Mother Nature shares her lush bounty: blueberries, melons, nectarines and peaches, plus eggplant and tomatoes have finally arrived.
The flush of summer is upon us: hot, languid days with bright sun and surprise summer storms. This is the time to cool down and lighten up, and fortunately what’s best at the market right now is juicy, succulent, and refreshing. And there’s not much work to be done — when tomatoes are teeming, when berries are bursting, when the scent of a peach drives you mad, when eggplant is plump and the melons are heavy with juice — all that’s left to do is revel and relax into the tart, sweet, and infinitely satisfying recipes below.
It’s hard to find a person who doesn’t like a blueberry. These versatile berries can do almost anything: They’re delicious in sweet baked goods, savory dinners, healthy breakfasts, in cooling smoothies and craft cocktails, and a great snack straight from the bowl. And while you can find them (imported from other countries) throughout the year, few things celebrate sizzling summer days like the local appearance of these tart, sweet cousins of the cranberry.
A Chilling Past
The blueberry's lowbush ancestors first appeared in North America at the end of the last ice age, growing wild in the acidic soil left behind by glaciers. Native Americans ate them fresh, dried, and smoked, and also brewed the roots as tea to make a muscle relaxer for childbirth. Today we know them as an antioxidant powerhouse, potential cancer fighter and healthy diet mainstay, but mostly they’re just a good time (especially the recipe below that features a quick homemade blueberry BBQ sauce that’s used in a cocktail)!
Blueberries are a delicate fruit that need to be stored thoughtfully. They continue to ripen after they’re picked, though refrigeration helps slow the process. Toss any wrinkled or moldy berries before refrigerating, and wait to wash them until just before use. To wash blueberries, put them in a colander and rinse with cool water for about 30 seconds. The gentlest method for drying is to line a salad spinner with a paper towel, then spin them for about 15 seconds.
Melons have been the delight of pharaohs, celebrated in hieroglyphics as far back as 2400 B.C., and are believed to originally come from a region that included northwest India and ran through Iran into Egypt. In the U.S. today, our beloved summer melons fall into two main categories: netted and cantaloupe (which includes more varieties than just those called "cantaloupes"). Both types are part of the gourd family, along with pumpkin and squash — although watermelons belong to a different genus altogether. Netted melons (also called musk melons) have an intricate network pattern across their skin, whereas cantaloupe melons have a delicate perfume and tend to be smaller.
Use Your Melon… And Your Fingers. And Your Nose.
Melons are notoriously hard to choose! The best method is to press your finger into the little circle located opposite the stem end: If it yields a bit to gentle pressure, it’s good to eat. If there’s no give, leave it on the table. Your nose is a good guide too: If there’s a rich, sweet scent, it’s a good bet. You can store melons in the refrigerator to extend their freshness, but a cold melon also has a muted flavor. Let it come to room temperature before serving for full flavor.
Melons are very low in calories and provide refreshing relief on sweltering hot days, especially when sprinkled with a little salt or ginger, as with this salad.
Peaches and Nectarines
Like a shooting star, stone fruits shine for a brief moment in summer and then are gone. It’s crucial to catch these members of the rose family at their peak: July is the month to seek out luscious peaches and nectarines. The two are nearly identical except for their fuzzy versus smooth skin, with nectarines having slightly firmer flesh. In some varieties (known as freestones) the pit pops right out; in the clingstone category, a serrated grapefruit spoon can help scoop out the pit with ease.
A Storied Past
Peaches first grew in China, where wild trees still grow today. From ancient times to modern day, poets and songwriters from the Far East to the West have sung the praises of its curvy shape and exquisite scent. There are many peach varieties: Saturn or Doughnut peaches are flatter (but no less sweet), and farmers' markets might sport Candy Pearl White Nectarines or the succulent yellow-fleshed Honey Royale. Dappled Korean white peaches have firmer flesh and pinkish-golden skin.
Nectarines and peaches taste best when they’ve been allowed to ripen on the branch; the skin should give a little when pressed and there should be an intoxicating aroma. If it’s hard and smells like a photograph, keep looking. In a pinch, not-quite-there peaches and nectarines can be ripened on the counter for a few days in a paper bag with some vents to allow air to circulate. Ripe peaches can be stored in the fridge for 3-5 days ... if you can resist eating them immediately.
Tomatoes are the crown jewel of summer feasting. The rest of the year they top burgers, fill Bloody Marys at brunch, and make a zesty pool of salsa for chips to dive into. But in July and August, tomatoes need little adornment. A locally grown tomato newly plucked from the vine has a richness and complexity of flavor — it’s born an umami master — that most other fruits and vegetables can’t come near. It’s hard to mess up a good summer tomato.
Tomatoes are native to the Americas and are a member of the nightshade family, which includes eggplants and potatoes. Ancient Aztecs named them “xitomatl,” but the Spaniards then called them “tomatl,” which actually just meant “plump fruit.” European aristocrats originally rejected tomatoes, calling them “poison apples” after the acidic tomatoes leached the lead from their pewter serving plates, sickening the well-heeled diners. But as the truth was revealed, they became “love apples” instead, and the world has never looked back. Today they are still grown in hundreds of varieties; farmers' markets and roadside stands are your best bet for finding heirloom and unusual varieties unavailable in regular grocery stores.
How to Store a Tomato
Never put an uncut tomato in the refrigerator. Ever. The second there’s a chill in the air, tomatoes turn into mealy mush—the texture becomes grainy and unpleasant, and they’re no fun to eat uncooked. Instead, keep them out on the kitchen counter, stem side down.
Holy baba ghanoush! Though it seems like a vegetable (and a controversial one at that) the eggplant is not just a fruit … it’s technically a berry! Known as an “aubergine” across the Atlantic, in parts of West Africa it’s called a “garden egg,” and its Italian name — melanzana — comes from the Latin “mala insana,” which meant “apple of madness.” Though perhaps it makes sense to be mad for eggplant in July, given the glorious heirloom varieties you can find at farmers' markets now.
Fairy Tales Can Come True
Eggplant is believed to have originated in India, though the oldest written mention of it comes from fifth-century China. This member of the nightshade family didn’t make it to American shores until after 1500; while today the deep purple, rotund Italian variety is most common, many markets also carry the slimmer Japanese eggplants as well. But at farmers' markets and some Asian markets there are beautiful heirlooms, such as white eggplant; Kamo Nasu, which is shaped like a persimmon and is creamier with a velvety skin; Indian eggplant, which is egg-shaped and about the size of a large tomato; Thai eggplant, a round, variegated green variety about the size of a golf ball that’s now grown in California; and Fairy Tale, which is ridiculously cute with purple stripes; it fits in the palm of your hand — a perfect size for grilling.
Selection and Storage
Whichever variety you choose — and any can work in the recipes below — be sure to look for ones with glossy, smooth skin (no soft spots) that feel a little heavy for their size. Store in a cool spot out of the sun, or in the refrigerator if you plan to keep them for more than a few days.
Hungry for more?
Check out other articles in our monthly fresh produce series.