Yippee! It's summer time! That means juicy peaches, plump strawberries, fragrant tomatoes, sweeter corn -- and farmers' markets.
There are close to two dozen local farmers' market across the state (see box, 2F). In the city, the Baltimore Farmers' Market at Holliday and Saratoga streets will be celebrating its 15th anniversary July 19. While the market opens at 8 a.m., festivities begin at 9 a.m. with Mayor Kurt Schmoke expected to appear at 9:30 a.m., followed by a birthday cake, strolling entertainment and costumed characters.
Donald Laramore, of the Holliday market, grows Korean and Japanese radishes, Chinese cabbage, Korean cantaloupes and other Asian cousins to familiar fruits and vegetables. With the trends toward lighter, healthier meals, many more of his customers are trying Asian recipes and stir-fried dishes.
Lucinda Sebastian, another farmer with a stall at this market, grows a wide variety of herbs, edible flowers and European salad greens including French sorrel, escarole, muche (a type of lettuce), arugula, lolollo rossa (an Italian lettuce), raab (a leafy green similar to broccoli), endive, and mizuna (an Oriental green used in stir-fry and salad).
Ms. Sebastian finds that today's health-conscious consumers are more willing than in the past to experiment with unusual vegetables because "they're light, cool, crunchy, no-cook food. Just rinse and dry." They add variety and taste to salads rather than the usual boring celery and carrots. Ms. Sebastian recommends that if you have any questions at all about a vegetable or want recipe ideas -- ask, ask, ask. In fact, many farmers have leaflets for just this reason and tag their produce with information or suggestions.
To help choose produce you might be less familiar with -- or if you just need to refresh your memory -- here are some tips about what to look for:
Apples: Look for firm, unblemished fruit. However, watch what other produce you store with apples. They give off a gas that can make other produce ripen quickly and will make carrots taste bitter.
Apricots: Pick smooth fruit which give slightly when pressed.
Artichokes: Green stems and firm, tightly closed leaves without any spots or blemishes.
Berries: Look for plump, firm, dry berries. Blueberries should have a slightly frosted look and no redness. Strawberries should not have brown caps. Beware of stained cardboard containers -- it can indicate spoiling. Do not wash until shortly before eating or cooking the berries.
Carrots: Look for smooth carrots without cracks splits or green near the top. If they still have their green tops, remove them right away or moisture will be drawn to the top and shrivel the carrot.
CHERRIES: Bing cherries should be dark red, firm and very plump.
CORN: Look for golden, moist silks, green, fresh husks and plump, moist kernels that aren't too big.
Eggplant: Heavy, firm, unblemished, smooth eggplants without tan patches. Keep refrigerated and try to use as soon as possible. Eggplant can absorb a lot of oil while cooking but thiscan be prevented by salting to draw out the excess water, drying and cooking in a well-heated pan.
Endive, escarole, chicory and radicchio: Curly and straight endive and radicchio should have deep colors and crisp but delicate leaves. Thick, tough leaves are bitter. Belgian and French endive may be tipped with yellow. The whiter and firmer the head is, the fresher it is. Store endive, escarole, chicory and radicchio like lettuce (refrigerated, unwashed in a plastic bag). Belgian endive can turn very bitter, so never soak it in water. Protect it from light, wrap in a slightly damp cloth or paper towel and store in a plastic bag, in the refrigerator. Use Belgian endive within a day.
Melons: For most melons, choose those with a pleasant smell. The stem end should give slightly when pressed. Honeydews should have a slightly velvety feel, not slick. For a Korean cantaloupe, use the same methods but the stripes on the rind should be bright yellow.
Mushrooms: Cap should be tight around the stem and expose little of its gills. Do not wash until ready to use or they will become slimy. Keep them dry and store in paper -- not plastic -- bags so they "breathe."
Nectarines: The seam will be slightly soft when ripe and color will be an orange-yellow with some orange-red and a sweet smell.
Peaches: Ripe peaches are better since they rarely ripen much off the stem. Fruit should be slightly soft without any brown spots and have a fresh, peachy smell.
Pears: Choose firm pears without bad spots. Some ripening will be required at home.
Peppers: Smooth and firm with a bright, glossy color. Bell peppers are available in red, yellow, golden or purple varieties and have mild flavors. Light green Italian peppers are tapered and have thinner skins. Hot red and green chili peppers should be handled carefully. Don't touch your eyes after handling.
Plums: Plump, slightly soft fruit with good color and smooth skins. Huge plums can be bland.