Monday, August 3, 2009

Get Fresh with the Farm Stand!

A perfectly timed topic for my first blog: your local farm stand. August starts the peak of summer harvests and so now is the time to support not only your health and your appetite, but your local growers as well. The government food pyramid recommends consuming three-to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruits daily. That's a lot of produce. What better way to take in all of those vitamins than to seek out inspiration at your local farm stand?

Here on Long Island, farm stands are plentiful all over eastern Suffolk County. Some areas in the country have farmers' markets instead, where local farmers come together to sell their freshly picked produce. Some of these local venues also have displays of honeys, jams and preserves made by local growers. Driving along the north fork of Long Island, nestled among the wineries, are farm stands which beckon us with their colorful cornucopias of mouthwatering fruits and vegetables. The abundance of color showcased through the summer and fall seasons make for beautiful scenery and then, ultimately, a treat for the senses as the produce makes its way to your table that evening. Hierloom tomatoes in an array of sunny colors, golden summer squash, bright green cucumbers, ruby red strawberries, sapphire blueberries, striped watermelons and gorgeous purple eggplants enhance any summer barbecue menu alongside the local corn, perhaps the biggest draw for the farm stands every year. In the fall, the displays turn to the flame orange hue of pumpkins, plus various apples and pears, and squashes of every shape, size and color to embellish your autumn table.

Fresh produce is best, and you cannot buy fresher than at your local farm stand. The produce was just picked and brought directly to the stand, unlike the produce you see in the supermarkets which have traveled sometimes far distances to get there. Fruits and vegetables are also at their peak - that is, at their best for flavor and texture - at different times. For example, you can purchase tomatoes all year in the supermarket, but in the winter months they are quite lacking in flavor and their color is less than appealing. Try a tomato at the peak of the summer tomato season, from a local stand or from your own backyard garden, and you will see and taste the difference. Eat with the seasons, and enjoy the best of the fruits and vegetables that the season has to offer. For those of you who may live in areas where your only shopping option is the supermarket, practice the same strategy. Take advantage of asparagus, peas, strawberries and spinach in the spring, enjoy tomatoes, summer squashes, cucumbers, berries and melons in the summer, and shift your repertoire of cooking to highlight butternut squash, apples, pumpkin and pears in the fall. Whether from a farm stand or the supermarket, try to make your purchases every two to three days as opposed to once a week. A zucchini which you brought home yesterday will certainly be fresher than one which was purchased six days ago. When you come home from shopping, refrain from tucking your produce away in the refrigerator. Instead, display it in a decorative basket right on your kitchen counter, where it won't be forgotten and will serve to inspire you when it's time to cook.

If you are one of those individuals who is daunted by a the appearance of a whole, fresh vegetable, unclear of how to approach it for preparation, relax ... you're bigger than the vegetable and you're the one armed with a knife! My belief when it comes to vegetables is that simpler is better. My favorite way to cook many vegetables is so easy and really brings out the best flavors of the vegetables themselves. You will need only three things from your pantry: good quality extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly cracked black pepper. If the vegetable is one which needs peeling, such as butternut squash, do so with a vegetable peeler. Then cut the vegetable into one to two inch chunks and place them into a roasting pan. Drizzle generously with the olive oil, sprinkle with the salt and pepper, then give them a toss to coat all of the vegetable with the seasoning. Roast in a 450-degree oven for about 30 minutes (a little longer for very hard vegetables like butternut squash, beets, sweet potatoes or carrots, a little less for softer ones like zucchini, eggplant or yellow squash). That's it, it doesn't get any easier than that. If you want to add another facet of flavor, you can add a few cloves of sliced garlic to the vegetables before tossing them with the oil-salt-pepper mixture. You can also roast combinations of two or more vegetables mixed together, such as eggplant and red bell peppers or zucchini, yellow squash, red onion and red peppers. Grilling vegetables is another option. You can either thread the chunks of vegetable onto skewers, or cut the vegetable into slices instead of chunks to lay directly onto the grill. As the vegetables cook on the grill, brush them frequently with a mixture of olive oil, salt and pepper, plus a little lemon juice or balsamic vinegar (this acidic addition helps to cut into the oil and prevent flame-ups from the grill, nobody likes burnt vegetables!). Another way to easily eat your vegetables is encouraged by the heat of summer. Summer is salad season, and when it comes to salads, anything goes. Cole slaws, tossed garden salads, cooked-then-chilled roasted vegetable salads and even pasta salads with added colorful peppers and red onions are all refreshing ways to get your nutrients when the mercury rises.

So many people find fruits boring, particularly in this country where people are raised on sugar highs from processed sweets on a daily basis. In many European and Asian countries it is perfectly acceptable to place a bowl of fruit on the table for dessert. I enjoy a luscious home-baked cherry clafoutis, pumpkin-nut bread or apple pie as much as anyone and I do make these things occasionally. In between these treats however, I say nothing beats the tasty, juiciness of a big, fresh, ripe farm stand peach in the summer. Try it sometime. Another option is to cut up different fruit combinations and enjoy them as a fruit salad. Honeydew and blueberries work well together, as do pineapple, strawberries and blueberries, and of course combining four different varieties of berries is always a palate-pleaser.

With such an abundance of fresh produce available to us, there really is no excuse to ever present a dish of warmed-up frozen vegetables to the dinner table. The only time I ever use frozen vegetables is when I need them for an ingredient in a pasta, soup or stew recipe, and therefore the only frozen vegetables in my freezer are peas, corn and pearl onions. I have even abandoned keeping frozen spinach on hand, because to cook up a package of fresh spinach is so simple and quick and tastes much better. Canned vegetables should be left on the supermarket shelves altogether, no exceptions; most of the nutrients have dissipated from them. Whenever possible, most vegetables and all fruits should be enjoyed fresh. So go ahead, go get fresh with your local farm stand and help support your local growers. Getting in your daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables has never been so easy and so appetizing.

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