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It’s summer!

When summertime is here, veggies — like these greens from the farmers’ market — are the star of the show. (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

It’s officially summer — and it feels like it! The weather’s warm, school’s out, and the pandemic is still among us. While Mother’s Day was unseasonably cool, Father’s Day was unseasonably hot.

Summer is the time to play on the water, in the water and in the woods. It’s also the time for fresh food. Whether you grow it yourself, join a CSA, buy at a farm stand, or shop at your local farmers’ market, June heralds the arrival of the season’s fresh fruits and vegetables. There is a good reason why June is National Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Month!

Among the fresh treasures you will find are scallions, radishes, carrots, beets and cucumbers; fresh greens like spinach, pea shoots, arugula and lettuce. Strawberries are the season’s first fruits, and there are also apples from autumn’s harvest.

It’s still early in the season but there are already peas, summer squash varieties, brightly colored peppers in hot and sweet flavors, tomatoes at our farmers’ market. Soon, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, hot and sweet peppers in many hues and corn will join the season’s fresh offerings.

We all know vegetables are essential for good health; they provide important nutrients and are low in calories. Eating vegetables and fruit can help reduce your risk for many diseases like heart disease and cancer. Media headlines remind us about their amazing antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. Examples abound: green beans provide folic acid, carrots pack beta-carotene, spinach offers iron … the list goes on and on. Each year we learn about new “super veggies,” like kale, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, broccoli, peppers or tomatoes.

However, most Americans still don’t get enough. The FDA recommendations keep rising; they’re now up to 10 servings per day — but 64% of Americans get less than 5 daily half-cup veggie portions. The TV dinners and other processed foods that many Americans dine on offer skimpy amounts; some frozen entrées include just 2 tablespoons of veggies.

The best way to increase your vegetable intake is to cook at home — and with the pandemic, more people are doing just that. When making casseroles, soups, salads, pasta dishes, sandwiches and pizzas, it is easy to double the amount of veggies the recipe calls for. Extra vegetables will enhance flavor as well as up the nutrient value. Cooking up a Mexican casserole? Replace some of the meat with extra peppers, mushrooms, green beans and squash. Double the peas and carrots when making chicken pot pie. A turkey club sandwich is much better when you add a half-cup of fresh greens like spinach or mizuna, or cucumbers, zucchini and sliced apples.

If you want to include more fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet, this column is a great place to find recipes — and so is the award-winning Garden Gourmet cookbook. June is a great time to visit farm stands and farmers’ markets with your kids. Get the entire family involved in trying new, fresh flavors. When children begin eating healthy as youngsters, they will enjoy fresh, delicious summer veggies as they grow into adults.

Many people don’t know how to prepare vegetables. Overcooked, mushy greens with little or no seasoning are not appetizing. However, when not overcooked and well-seasoned, fruits and veggies add color, flavor and texture to your meals.

Kids still won’t eat veggies? Try sneaking some into their meals. Shred zucchini and carrots when making meatloaf or turkey burgers. The veggies add moisture and flavor. Cooked cauliflower, squash, turnips and parsnips can be stirred into mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese to add nutrition as well as flavor.

Local produce has superior taste because it is fresh and picked ripe. Fruits and vegetables shipped cross-country in refrigerated trucks lose both taste and nutrition by the time they reach the supermarket. Buying local connects you with the growers, supports our region’s economy, and saves resources such as gasoline used for trucking produce from California and Mexico. And as the saying goes, it’s better to pay the farmer than the doctor.

Yes, it does take a bit of planning and effort to incorporate veggies into meals — but it’s worth it. Veggies are good for you: low in calories, high in fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients. But most importantly, veggies are delicious. Here are a couple recipes to help you use that summer abundance.

Summer Ratatouille

This versatile summer staple can be a warm stew (cooked on the stove or in a slow cooker), a baked casserole, a cool salad or even a pizza topping! Eat as a side or add beans or chicken for a main course. Serve with French baguette or serve over pasta. The possibilities are endless … this recipe is for an easy stovetop version. For ease of preparation, cut up all the ingredients ahead of time. Leftovers freeze well or can be served later as a cool salad.

Ingredients:

2 medium eggplants (about 2 pounds)

1 teaspoon salt

5 onions

1/4 cup olive oil

3 cloves garlic

2 medium zucchini

2 – 3 large tomatoes (or 1 or 2 cans, diced)

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon savory

1/2 teaspoon tarragon

Directions:

Cut eggplants into 1-inch cubes. Toss with a tablespoon of salt and place in a colander over the sink.

Heat oil in skillet. Peel and dice the onion, and add. Sprinkle with a half-teaspoon of salt. Cook 5 minutes. Rinse the eggplant and add. Cook on low about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Mince the garlic and add. Chop the zucchini and tomatoes, and add. Add herbs. Cook 15 minutes longer, until vegetables are soft.

Serve as a side.

For a main course, serve with herbed chicken.

For a vegetarian main course, stir in 2 cups cooked garbanzo beans, and serve over pasta or with French baguette.

Cool Beet Soup

(or Salad)

On a hot summer day, let cukes, yogurt and beets cool you down.

Ingredients:

1 pound fresh young beets, with greens

1 / 2 teaspoon salt

2 cups broth or water (for soup recipe)

1 yellow onion, peeled and diced

1 cup diced cooked ham (optional)

1 large cucumber (more for salad recipe)

1 quart kefir or buttermilk (Greek yogurt for salad recipe)

1 / 2 cup fresh dill sprigs

eggs (one per person)

Directions:

Remove beets; baby beets should be about the size of a radish. Peel and grate the beets; wash and chop the stems and greens. Place in pot with onion and ham, if using; cover with boiling broth or water with half a teaspoon of salt. Cook about 10 minutes.

Peel and chop cucumber. Stir into soup, along with chopped fresh dill and buttermilk. Chill 6 hours or overnight for flavors to intermingle.

Before serving, cook eggs until hardboiled; peel and quarter. Place the egg in the bowl, add fresh minced dill and top with soup. Serve with dilled new potatoes.

To make this into a salad, after washing and chopping beets and beet greens, place in a bowl. (Use a half-pound of beets and greens, and add more cucumber). Replace the onion with a bunch of scallions, sliced. For the dressing, combine a cup of Greek yogurt (in place of the quart of kefir) with salt & pepper and possibly a tablespoon of prepared mustard to taste; fold into the beet greens and cucumber. Add chopped hard-cooked eggs and ham, if using.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.

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