Ready to pick

As July nears its midway point, the signs of summer are everywhere, from children frolicking in local watering holes to jammed pack cars heading to vacation destinations. But perhaps one of the most enticing signs of summer can be found in the overflowing leafy fields of local produce gardens.

Several popular fruits and vegetables are at the peak of their harvest right now, making it a great time to stock up on these fresh, healthy options and flex the old culinary muscle with a few simple, gardener-approved produce recipes.

First things first, the best ingredients are those that are freshest, said Cindy Brown, garden coordinator for Harvest of Hope Community Garden in Marietta.

“You want to use your produce when it’s really nice and fresh. It’s just like eating it straight out of the garden,” she said.

Currently, many of the items sprouting up in the community garden and in Brown’s own garden are those used in one of her favorite summer recipes-gazpacho.

The soup features a variety of raw vegetables in a tomato base and is typically served cold, making it a perfect summer treat, she said.

“A cold soup on a hot summer evening. It’s just the best,” exclaimed Brown.

Some of the common vegetables used in the dish are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions, all of which are currently in season, she said.

Unfortunately, tomatoes are often one of the more tricky garden items due to blight and viruses, noted Brown. But some tips for keeping them healthy include rotating where they are planting, suckering the plants and mulching around them, she said.

For those looking for something a little less fussy, produce farmer Linda Fagan, of Lower Salem, has two easy-to-grow suggestions.

“Probably one of the easiest things that I’d recommend for a beginning gardener is zucchini and then green beans,” said Fagan, who sells her own succulent harvests at the weekly River City Farmers Market.

An experimenter in the kitchen, Fagan recently tried a unique squash recipe.

“I made a vegetable lasagna using squash instead of lasagna noodles,” she explained. “You cut your squash into long strips and use those in place of noodles. It would be good for someone dealing with a gluten allergy.”

On a nearby farm, Fagan’s son and daughter-in-law tend to multiple sprawling produce fields.

While zucchini, tomatoes and cucumber are in peak season, Kate Fagan said the leafy swiss chard and green onions are nearing the end of their season. Still on the summer horizon are broccoli and cabbage, she added.

Kate and her husband Tom operate a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, enabling people to purchase a share of their garden and in return receive 20 weekly orders of a variety of vegetables.

“It helps offset the farmers’ upfront cost of paying for seeds and soil, and each week we give a share to the members, which is about enough fresh produce for two to three vegetarians for one week,” she explained.

As part of the program, Kate puts together a weekly recipe to highlight the spotlight vegetable for that week.

So far, some of the recipes this year have included zucchini tots, grilled cheese with chard and dill, garlic scape pesto and hound growler salad.

For those ready to be bold in the kitchen but still timid in the garden, the farmer’s market is a great place to pick up the necessary ingredients, said Gary Smith, president of the River City Farmers Market.

The market is held Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon at the Washington County Fairgrounds. During the summer, the market also operates from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays.

“Just almost everything is available at the market right now,” said Smith.

Cabbage, potatoes, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, blueberries and many other items have been in high demand at the market lately.

For a slightly edgier take on cabbage, Smith shared a favorite recipe of his own.

Starting with a whole head of cabbage, cut the core and fill the void with a stick of butter.

“Wrap (the cabbage) in bacon, put a little butter on it. Put your seasoning on. I use a kind of cajun seasoning,” he explained.

The bacon-laden cabbage should then be completely wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the oven or grill at a temperature between 350 to 400 degrees for four or five hours.

“When you take your fork and dip it out, it’s ready,” he said.