Apricots are at their best and cheapest in July, but avoid any fruit that feels spongy.
Apricots can vary greatly in quality. If they taste woolly and bland when eaten fresh, cook them into a dish and they will become luscious and flavoursome. Apricots make excellent jam if cooked with sugar and lemon juice. Apricot jam is used as a glaze on pastries and to stick cakes such as sachertorte together. Melt the jam with water and strain before applying. The strong sweet-sour taste of apricots makes them popular in desserts and sauces. Vanilla or distilled rosewater taste particularly good with them. For an extra rich pie, cook halved apricots in unsalted butter and sugar before baking.
Aubergine / Eggplant
Although the plump, pear-shaped variety, with its near-black shiny-skinned exterior, is probably the most familiar in Britain, aubergines come in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes. Italian cooks enjoy varieties with long fruit and striking lavender and cream streaks. Asian cultivars vary widely: some, such as the bitter-flavoured pea aubergine, are the size of a grape; the seed-filled, rounded Thai aubergine has green stripes and is used in curries; the beautifully long and slender pale-purple Japanese and Chinese varieties are ideal for stir-frying. The aubergine can also be ivory-coloured and ovoid, which almost certainly led people in some countries to name it the ‘eggplant’.
Aubergines can be bought all year round but they are at their best, not to mention cheapest, from July to September. Look for unblemished, firm, lustrous skin with a bright green calyx, or stem. Home-grown aubergines are available from April to October in the UK.
Aubergines store well in the fridge or a cool larder for about four to six days. In the past, many recipes recommended salting aubergines to reduce their bitter flavour. This isn’t really necessary now, although salting does make them absorb less oil when they’re fried. To prepare, wash the skin and trim off the stalk. Slice or cut the flesh into chunks just before cooking as it discolours quickly.
This humble plant has played a major part in many popular regional cuisines throughout the world – in French ratatouille, say, or roasted and whipped into baba ganoush in traditional Levantine style. The slightly bland flavour of the aubergine makes it the perfect blank slate to which rich and aromatic spices and herbs can be added: slick with miso and grill, or stew gently with stock, chilli bean paste and Shaoxing wine for a classic Chinese dish with minced pork. In India, Iran and Afghanistan, aubergines are made into hot, spicy pickles to whet the appetite.
Look for small beetroots with the stalks still intact. To store fresh beetroot, cut off the leafy tops and then place to dry in a single layer in a wooden or cardboard box.
To cook wash – but don’t peel – the beetroot and either boil, steam or bake until tender. Once cool enough, the outer skin should be rubbed off. To avoid stained hands, wash them and anything else you’ve used as soon as possible. Beetroot leaves and stems can also be eaten: cook them as you would any other spring greens.
There are many different types of cherry, including maraschino, griotte and Morello cherries, from which kirsch and Black Forest gâteaux are made. Look out for telltale punnets of deep red cherries in markets from mid-July to the end of August. The best cherries are plump, firm, glossy and free of blemishes; the stems should be fresh and green. Cherries benefit most from being stored at cooler temperatures – warmth can compromise their flavour and texture.
A perfect bedfellow for rich ingredients, it’s no surprise that perhaps the most iconic cherry dessert is the decadent Black Forest gâteau, with its layers of deep, dark chocolate, fluffy cream and kirsch liqueur. For something lighter, eat sweet cherries straight off the stalks, or remove the stones before stirring into Greek-style yoghurt with a drizzle of honey. Dried sour cherries impart that all-important sweet-sour tang to many Iranian and Middle Eastern dishes; alternatively they’re just the thing to add a little extra pizzazz to your morning muesli. Sour cherries are an excellent foil for fatty meats, and so are perfect for giving a classic duck dish a summer twist – try adding them to sauces or chopping the flesh into spicy salsas.
Chicory is available throughout the winter months. Choose chicory with crisp, fresh-looking leaves that are springy to the touch and tightly packed; there should be no sign of insect damage. Once picked and exposed to light, chicory leaves start to become more bitter, so they should be stored wrapped in paper to keep out the light and eaten as soon after picking as possible.
Chicory works best in composed salads rather than tossed with other, softer leaves. Raw chicory leaves are excellent eaten fresh, drizzled with a little vinaigrette, or stir-fried and served as a vegetable side dish. Whole heads of chicory can be baked, poached or griddled. Chicory is particularly good wrapped in ham, covered with a Béchamel sauce and baked in the oven.
Courgette / Zucchini
The perfect courgette is no fatter than your middle finger, with a wide-open yellow flower still clinging to its stem. Look for small, firm, unblemished courgettes whose skin has a healthy glow.
Dark green courgettes are easily available in Britain. Larger, pale green courgettes streaked with cream, a common sight during the summer in Italy and southern France, are starting to appear in UK farmers’ markets. Round courgettes, which are sometimes imported from France, can also be grown successfully in Britain. Spaghetti squash, a rather bland-tasting vegetable whose flesh comes away in long, skinny strands when roasted, can sometimes be found in supermarkets.
Courgettes will keep in the fridge for weeks, but taste best when used as quickly as possible after picking or buying.
Courgettes can be poached, blanched, hollowed out and stuffed, baked, fried, steamed or stewed, and taste great combined with goats’ cheese or garden herbs. They are quite watery vegetables so need to be cooked with care. If stuffing courgettes, pre-cook them for a few minutes in salted water before baking with their filling. Try courgettes preserved in vinegar, made into fritters or stirred into risotto. If you’ve grown your own, you can make good use of the delicate flowers too: remove their stamens, dip the flowers in tempura-style batter and deep-fry, or stuff with ricotta, parmesan and herbs and bake. They can also be sliced and added to salads, soups or risotto.
Cucumbers are in season from May to October, but are available year-round. Look for firm, vibrantly green fruit without wrinkles. Smaller ridged cucumbers differ little in taste to the more common smooth variety.
Store fresh cucumbers in the fridge for up to one week. Small examples, or sliced cucumbers can be pickled very successfully: pickled cucumbers are also known as gherkins or cornichons.
Curly Lettuce (Escarole, a.k.a. Bavarian endive)
This wavy lettuce adds body, flavour and decorative appeal to any salad that needs to make a statement. July’s a perfect month to enjoy it.
Try making a very simple salad with soft herbs like chervil, basil and parsley and dressing carefully with a perfect vinaigrette.
Look for small, blemish-free bulbs that are pale green, firm and tightly packed, which indicates crispness and freshness.
Both the base and stems of Florence fennel can be cooked by braising or roasting, which make it sweet and tender. Cut off the root end and the leaves and peel the outer layer of skin away, then cut either downwards or across the bulb, then boil in salted water for about 15 minutes, or until tender. For those who like raw fennel, try mixing thin slices into a green salad or shredding it with citrus fruit. Fennel is excellent for making soup or it can be poached, steamed or briefly boiled.
French / Green Beans
If possible, purchase green beans at a store or farmer’s market that sells them loose so that you can sort through them to choose the beans of best quality. Purchase beans that have a smooth feel and a vibrant green color, and that are free from brown spots or bruises. They should have a firm texture and “snap” when broken.
Store unwashed fresh beans pods in a plastic bag kept in the refrigerator crisper. Whole beans stored this way should keep for about seven days.
Just prior to using the green beans, wash them under running water. Remove both ends of the beans by either snapping them off or cutting them with a knife. We recommend Healthy Steaming green beans for maximum flavor and nutrition. Fill the bottom of a steamer pot with 2 inches of water. While waiting for the water to come to a boil, rinse green beans. It is best to cook green beans whole for even cooking. Steam for 5 minutes and toss with our Mediterranean Dressing and top with your favorite optional ingredients.
Globe artichokes should have tightly packed, firm heads with no brown patches on the outer layers.
Young globe artichoke buds can be cooked and eaten whole. Later, they still make a delicious starter boiled whole and served with melted butter, mayonnaise, hollandaise or vinaigrette. Break off each leaf and draw the soft fleshy base through your teeth, then pull or slice off the hairy ‘choke’ and eat the heart and the meaty bottom with the remaining sauce.
To prepare raw artichokes, cut the artichoke in half, through the ‘equator’ with a serrated knife. Discard the tops of the artichokes. Remove and discard the stem and pull off the tough outer leaves at the base. Trim around the base of the artichoke to remove what remains of the tough outer leaves from the sides and base, removing all of the dark green to leave only the white part. Then carefully remove the hairy ‘choke’ in the middle of the artichoke with a spoon and discard. You’ll be left with the artichoke heart or ‘fond’.
Greengages (a.k.a. Reine Claudes)
Greengages are in season in August and September. Greengages bought from shops and markets can vary in quality from superb to dull, but it’s impossible to tell until you bite into the fruit. Keep at room temperature and eat as soon as possible after purchase. Greengages are worth poaching and freezing for later in the year.
As they have a soft, delicate, aromatic flesh, greengages are best appreciated raw. If cooking with greengages, crème fraîche or Greek-style yoghurt will enhance their natural sweetness in fools, bavarois, mousses and ice creams. Vanilla and almond complement their flavour in pies, crumbles and sponges. Greengages have a medium level of pectin, so add lemon juice to help them set when making jam.
This knobbly bulbous brassica has a peculiar, alien-like look with its pale green colour and strange protruding stems. The name literally translates as ‘cabbage turnip’, but this belies its excellent juicy crispness and light flavour, which is slightly sweet and milder than both a cabbage and a turnip. This is a two-in-one vegetable – the leaves taste almost as good as the kohlrabi itself.
Kohlrabi tastes great steamed, stir-fried, added to soups and stews or dipped in batter and fried to make tempura or fritters. Served cold, it adds a pleasing crunch and mild spicy note to salads. Both the leaves and the bulb can be eaten: cook the leaves as you would spinach.
Nectarines are a smooth-skinned variety of peach and can be white- or yellow-fleshed, free-stoned, or cling-stoned (where the firm-textured flesh clings to the stone). White nectarines have a more delicate, sweeter flavour than yellow ones.
August and September are the best time to buy nectarines from Europe. Nectarines don’t need peeling, but if you want to peel them for use in a pie, cover the ripe fruit with boiling water, leaves for 15 seconds, then drain and peel. If poaching nectarines, don’t peel them as their skins will colour the syrup a beautiful rose colour. Although nectarines can be used in any peach recipe, their smooth skin makes them particularly useful sliced in sweet or savoury salads, or halved and either baked or grilled. The stronger flavour of yellow-fleshed nectarines makes them better suited to savoury salads, and cooked dishes such as nectarine tart and poached nectarine with vanilla ice cream.
Frozen peas are available year round, but fresh garden peas are in season from early June until late July. Mangetout are undeveloped garden peas, picked while the pod is still edible. Similarly, petits pois are young garden peas that are picked and shelled when small, young and tender. Unlike mangetout pods, the pods of garden peas are too tough to eat, but popping fresh peas straight from the pod into your mouth remains one of life’s great pleasures.
Select fresh peas with bright green pods that are firm and plump.
Peas don’t need fussy preparation when they’re in season. Boil them briefly until just tender, add a knob of butter and season with black pepper, perhaps crushing them lightly with a fork before serving alongside grilled fish fillets or slices of boiled ham hock. Alternatively, cook up a prawn risotto, stirring in the peas, a sprinkle of chopped fresh mint and a squeeze of lemon juice just before serving.
For picnics, prepare a cold pasta salad and add peas or mangetout, a crumbly, tangy cheese such as feta, chopped mint and plenty of olive oil. Or make a Spanish-style tortilla and add fresh peas and leftover vegetables. When the weather’s hot, cool down with chilled pea soup, garnished with a swirl of cream.
Perfectly ripe peaches are one of life’s pleasures, and summer is the best time to seek them out.
Look for fruit that is smooth with soft, velvety skin and a bright complexion and avoid hard or wrinkled peaches with blemishes or green tinges. A ripe peach will yield gently to palm pressure, suggesting a state of being, as William Morris so expressively put it, ‘pinch-ripe’. Do not store peaches in the fridge, which can cause their flesh to turn floury or mealy.
Fresh peaches are second to none, and are perfect eaten as they are (with the obligatory peach juices running down faces and arms!), though extra decadence can be added with lashings of freshly whipped cream or a drizzle of honey to enhance their sweetness. Caramelising the flesh on a hot griddle will add an extra dimension, and poaching the fruit in wine is also a worthy way of serving it. Purée the fruit and use in a classic Italian Bellini recipe for a summery cocktail, or chill into an icy sorbet. Tarts, pies and crumbles will all put peaches to good use.
The radish is a plant whose edible fuchsia and white root is used in cooking. The texture of the root is crisp and crunchy like a carrot and its flavour is hot and peppery. Radishes can be cooked but are arguably best raw, either added to salads, marinated in vinaigrette, or eaten as a snack with a sprinkling of celery salt.
When choosing radishes, look for bright green leaves, which indicate freshness and quality.
Fill a Victoria sponge with fresh raspberries for a taste of summer, or use them in a classic summer pudding. Try visiting a pick your own farm for the freshest raspberries.
The UK raspberry season runs from May until November. They’re cheapest from July to September.
Keep raspberries chilled in the top of the fridge, or freeze by spreading out onto baking trays and then bagging once frozen. Bring fresh raspberries up to room temperature before eating to maximise their flavour. Puréed, sieved and sweetened raw raspberries make a good summer sauce to go with ice cream and grilled fruit. The fruit also has an affinity with cream and nuts.
Raspberries collapse easily when cooked, so mix with other fruit such as summer berries, rhubarb, peaches, or apples to maintain the texture of the dish. Preserve raspberries in vinegar, cordials, jams and jellies (add redcurrants to aid setting in jams and jellies).
Redcurrant recipes are ripe for cooking with. Try these pretty, bright red, juicy berries with their tart, sparkling flavour. Use them to decorate cakes and puddings – dip them in lightly whisked egg white then roll in sugar to give them a frosted effect.
Redcurrants, with their high pectin content, make beautiful jellies full of vigour that are perfect on toast or stirred into gravies and sauces to be served with lamb and game. Fresh redcurrants are essential in summer pudding, but also marry beautifully with strawberries for a cool, elegant, healthy dessert.
This peppery leaf is also known as arugula, particularly in the US. It’s a dark green salad vegetable, popular in Mediterranean countries. The leaves have a slightly bitter, peppery flavour and are gathered when they’re young. Rocket is a rich source of iron as well as vitamins A and C.
Home-grown rocket leaves are often speckled with small holes, but these taste just as good as unblemished leaves, so don’t despair.
Rocket makes a delicious addition to salads but can also be used to make soups and to replace basil in pesto. A bed of rocket is a good base on which to serve grilled poultry or fish.
Runner beans (scarlet runner bean, multiflora bean, Oregon Lima Bean or Ayocote)
Runner beans, also known as string beans, are long, flat green beans with a rough skin. They can be chopped and added to rice dishes, sprinkled with sesame seeds as a side dish for Asian-style recipes, or served as a traditional British ‘veg’ with roast dinner.
These beans are best eaten when young and tender, as they can become tough towards the end of the season. Look for beans with fresh green skins and a firm texture with no brown spots. They should not be too long or stringy. Fresh beans will ‘snap’ easily and look moist and juicy inside. Home-grown runner beans are in season from July to early October.
Store in a paper bag in the vegetable tray at the bottom of the fridge and use within a day or two. To freeze, wash the beans well and slice. Blanch, then drain and plunge into iced water; drain again and pack into polythene bags. When you come to use them, cook them from frozen in boiling, salted water.
Top and tail the beans and pull away any strings (these are usually found on older varieties of beans, although stringless varieties are available). Slice runner beans at an angle or use a bean slicer to cut them into thin strips. Serve steamed or boiled and tossed with butter, or add them to minestrone or vegetable stews.
Pick a normal onion early in the growing season and you’ll get a spring onion. Spring onions are useful for adding a marked onion note to dishes, particularly when used raw.
Spring onions should have dark-green leaves and fresh-looking roots. Choose firm bulbs with even-coloured skins and no signs of sprouting.
Serve spring onions in salads, or sprinkled over Chinese dishes (particularly steamed fish), or stirred into raita or traditional Irish champ (mashed potatoes speckled with chopped spring onions). They can also be brushed with olive oil and chargrilled whole.
This succulent, fragrant fruit is as beautiful as it is flavourful. Traditionally, part of the strawberry’s appeal is that its short, six-week season, from early June until mid-August, coincides with the brief, long-awaited British summer. These days, however, the British strawberry season extends from mid-April until mid-December, thanks to the increased use of plastic polytunnels, which provide the berries with a warmer, more protected environment – and a much longer growing season. Just one variety of strawberry, Elsanta, accounts for 80 per cent of the British fruit sold in UK supermarkets, although many other varieties are available from farmers’ markets and pick-your-own farms and are worth seeking out. Strawberries have long been a key ingredient in classic British summer foods such as Eton Mess, summer pudding, or strawberries and cream.
Look for unblemished strawberries with bright-green hulls. Try to buy only British strawberries where possible: you’ll be rewarded with a better-tasting product, because Britain has a climate that’s ideally suited to growing soft fruits. If you buy freshly picked fruit from local farms or visit a pick-your-own farm, you’ll be getting produce that’s approaching the peak of ripeness in contrast to imported fruit, which is likely to have been picked early. Locally-picked berries also have less impact on the environment. However, read the labels on strawberries carefully: local fruit isn’t always marked as clearly as it could be. Be prepared to pay more for local strawberries too: they’re often more expensive than fruit grown in the Mediterranean or even South America. Although the Elsanta variety is justifiably popular, environmentalists point out that a ‘strawberry monoculture’ is not good for biodiversity. Pick-your-own farms are more likely to offer less-familiar varieties such as Florence, Alice, Rosie, Cambridge Late Pine and Rhapsody, each with its own flavours, aromas and growing seasons.
Freezing strawberries can prove disappointing as, once thawed, they become flabby. To get around this problem, freeze whole strawberries in thick raspberry purée or pulp them and freeze to use in other recipes.
Strawberries are the quintessential summer treat. For better flavour, let strawberries come to room temperature before eating them: if possible, put them out to warm in the sun for a couple of hours to bring out their full taste and aroma. As with any other delicate berries, wash and handle them gently and as little as possible to avoid bruising them. Always wash strawberries before hulling them.
Dip whole strawberries into melted dark chocolate and set aside until firm, then serve as a tasty canapé at champagne receptions; the berries will complement a rosé bubbly. Garnish summer salads with slices of strawberries, stir the berries into meringues and whipped cream to make Eton mess, or sandwich them between sponge cakes or pastries such as millefeuille. Alternatively, sprinkle a few drops of balsamic vinegar or a dusting of freshly ground black pepper sparingly over strawberries to enhance their flavour. If you end up with a glut when the season draws to a close, add them to homemade ice cream or sorbet, or make homemade vinegar and liqueur. If you make strawberry jam, remember that the berries are low in pectin, so add some lemon juice or bottled pectin to help the jam set.
This member of the beet family has large, flat, crinkled green leaves with thick, fleshy stalks and ribs. The taste is rich, complex and robust. Think of chard almost as two vegetables in one as both the leaves and stems can be used. Swiss chard is popular in Italian and French cooking. Swiss chard is also called chard, leaf beet, seakale beet, white beet and spinach beet. Different varieties may have red, pink, white or yellow stalks, rub chard has red ribs, for example.
Swiss chard is in season fro June to August, and from October to April.
Look for rainbow varieties of chard at farmers’ markets or farm shops. Choose fresh-looking bunches with bright, glossy leaves and firm, unblemished stalks. Reject any that are starting to yellow.
Chard needs to be stored in a moist, cool atmosphere. Store it unwashed: wrapped in damp kitchen paper and place in a plastic bag in the salad drawer of the fridge. Use within a few days. Chard leaves freeze well, but the stems become soggy. Wash the leaves well, blanch, drain, then plunge into iced water. Drain again and pack into freezer bags, then label and seal. Cook from frozen.
The stem is often steamed and served separately. The leaves cook more quickly than the stem and can be added to soups, flans, tarts and omelettes. They are also sometimes used as a substitute for spinach. Both stem and leaves can be sautéed with cream, butter and cheese. Wash well, before use, to remove any grit, and trim only when ready to cook.
So often thought of as a summer vegetable fruit, tomatoes actually improve as the summer progresses, so tomatoes bought at the beginning of autumn will have a most intense flavour. The flavour depends largely upon the variety and how the fruit has been grown and ripened: some cheap imported tomatoes are grown under polytunnels, picked under-ripe, then artificially ripened with ethylene gas, a plant hormone. Sun-warmed tomatoes picked straight from the vine are arguably the ideal way to enjoy tomatoes. Tomatoes are available to buy on and off the vine from supermarkets and farmers’ markets.
When choosing tomatoes, pick them up, feel them and smell them. Choose tomatoes that feel heavy for their size; they are more likely to be bursting with juices. Tomatoes with no smell will probably have no flavour, so opt for those with a pleasant aroma (although the aroma released by tomatoes on the vine are usually due more to the vine than the tomatoes themselves).
Sun-dried tomatoes are available from some supermarkets and Italian delicatessens.
Get more flavour from tomatoes by removing the plastic packaging and leaving them in a fruit bowl in a sunny spot to ‘breathe’ and ripen. Never put them in the fridge as this will diminish their flavour and damage their texture. Tomatoes do not withstand freezing very well. Use under-ripe, green tomatoes for making chutney and over-ripe tomatoes to make soups or sauces – these can then be frozen for up to six months.
Watercress leaves have a mustardy bite that makes them natural bedfellows to strongly flavoured meats such as game. The leaves are most commonly served raw as a garnish to eggs or meat, or as part of a salad with orange segments. Watercress also makes a pleasingly peppery soup that is as good hot as it is chilled.
[Images from www.gettyimages.com]