Summer Produce


Arizona’s mild winters make it easy to forget that most of the country can’t enjoy the luxury of grilling food outdoors year-round like we do. Fresh local produce, however, is a little more difficult to find in Southern Arizona. Most of our local farmland is used for growing cotton, alfalfa, or milo, a grass feed for cows.  As a result, it’s much harder to eat locally here than in other parts of the country. Our farmer’s markets are considerably smaller here than in other parts of the country – I’ve been to one of Tucson’s three farmer’s markets and have been pretty disappointed. I am hoping that the other two will have more than one produce vendor.

I have, however, been spoiled by the Farmer’s Markets in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Harrisonburg’s Farmer’s Market never really disappoints. Their beautiful several-years-old outdoor facility is major credit to the market, and the indoor Dayton Farmer’s Market is pretty cool, too. I don’t know of anywhere in Southern Arizona where you can have a conversation with the farmer who made the cheese you are buying as you are buying it as I have in Dayton, VA. Of course, these markets are driven by the local Mennonite community- most of the vendors are Mennonite farmers, bakers, and butchers. The quality of their food is incredible. If you ever have the opportunity to buy food from a Mennonite farmer, do it; I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

So, how do you eat fresh and local when you don’t have access to a farm-to-market resource? Unfortunately, you’ll have to compromise a bit. Check the little sticker on your produce before you buy; it should give a country of origin. If you can, buy food that’s been grown in the US. If you can’t, buy food that’s been grown closer to home. In my house, this means Mexico in many cases. When you buy a product (of any kind), you’re not only paying for the product, you’re also paying for everything involved with the manufacture and delivery of the product. If your food is grown several miles form your home, the farmer doesn’t have to charge as much to make enough money to stay in business. If your food is grown thousands of miles away, the manufacturer and distributors have to charge slightly more because of the cost of fuel, labor, etc., involved in getting the food to you! Granted, in that case, there’s usually the element of volume that brings cost down a bit.

Why Go Organic?
My experience as a consumer has been that organic food tends to be more local than non-organic foods. I was hesitant to switch to organic produce last year, since I hadn’t noticed a significant difference in taste or quality, but since I have switched as completely as possible, I’ve noticed across the board that my organic produce tastes better, and I feel better. I’ve also noticed differences in texture- root veggies, such as potatoes, garlic, and carrots have a smoother texture. They are creamier. Organic potatoes seem to have a lot more starch in them. Stone fruits, such as peaches and avocados, also have smoother flesh and are easier to cut and slice. The skins may not be as pretty, but that’s a small price to pay for better fruits and vegetables! Organic greens, such as romaine and spinach, are darker in color, which is an indicator of a higher nutritional content. If you are unsure whether something is organic or not, check the PLU sticker. Organic produce has a 5-digit code (versus the normal 4-digits) that starts with a “9.”

Many cities are starting or have already started community gardens. If you don’t have any outdoor space to grow tomatoes, herbs, or smaller veggies like peppers, cucumbers, or berries, consider a community garden. I imagine that most folks who grow produce in a community garden probably share their crops, as space is limited for the amount of different plants you can grow.

If you live in an apartment or have very little outdoor space, consider growing your own herbs (it may take a few tries to get them going as herbs can be difficult to grow) or tomatoes. You can also check to find a farm or orchard within driving distance where you can find the freshest produce available- the produce you pick yourself! The fresher your produce is, the more nutrients it will have available. Produce that is picked before it’s ripe and then artificially ripened with plant hormones (sometimes produced artificially in a lab) do not give the same nutritional value.


Ripe or Not Ripe?
So, how do you determine if your produce is ripe or not? Fresh produce should be bright in color. Fresh produce should smell good when you pick it up. The skin of your fruits and veggies (greens aside) should be firm but not squishy or hard. Squishy produce is going bad. Firm produce can probably be ripened within a day or two and should be fine. Melons should sound hollow, as should large squash. Produce should never be slimy anywhere.

My pet peeve when buying summer produce is corn. Apparently, most people don’t know how to buy good, fresh corn without shucking it in the store. My grandmother taught me a few tricks when I was a little girl about buying fresh corn in the supermarket and I’m happy to share those; they’ve yet to disappoint me. Corn husks help keep fresh corn FRESH!! The first thing you want to looks for is tight, green husks around the ear of corn. The darker the green and the tighter the husk, the better. The silk hanging out of the top should as as close to white as possible. There should also be a minimal amount of white fuzz on the husk, but sometimes this is difficult to avoid. The ear of corn should feel firm, but not overly hard or squishy, the same as with other produce. That’s it!

Pulling the husks back exposes the corn and accelerates deterioration- not a good thing if you want fresh corn! When  you shuck the corn, wait until you are ready to cook it. It should take some effort to pull the husks off. You can husk corn more quickly by pulling from the top, half an ear at a time, not one individual husk at a time. This also pulls the majority of the silks off, too! Bonus! Don’t worry if there is a lot of silk on your ear of corn- this only means it will be sweeter. The silk helps deliver sugars to the corn kernels while it is growing- not a bad thing at all.

Now go out and enjoy those cool summer nights! Light up that BBQ grill and throw some of those fresh veggies on!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.