Seven Best Foods of Summer

We got a very late start here in Colorado, with heavy snow and freezing temperatures well into May. But after a hot, hot July, we made up for it. At the hot and sunny peak of summer, Colorado produce really shines. You’ll find an abundance of fresh, local and ultra-healthy foods at stores and farmer’s markets throughout the Front Range. Most of them are ideal for backyard gardens (I’m growing all of them!), so you can have a crop of nutrient-dense offerings all summer long. Some of the best:

Tomatoes. For those of us who grow them, tomatoes are the surest sign of summer. Look for a variety of heirloom selections at local stores and farmer’s markets; try black Russian tomatoes or snow white cherries, little white tomatoes with a sweet, complex flavor. Why they’re so great: Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a hard-to-get antioxidant that protects against prostate and other cancers. Try them like this: use juicy red tomatoes in chilled gazpacho with diced cucumbers, peppers and cilantro; dice a variety of heirloom tomatoes, toss with minced garlic, olive oil and basil, and layer on thick slices of grilled rustic bread, topped with shaved Asiago cheese.

Melons. Cantaloupe and watermelon are the local standards, but also look for honeydew, musk and other varieties. Why they’re so great: they’re low in calories and rich in potassium; deep-orange varieties like cantaloupe, canary, crenshaw and musk melons are high in beta carotene, and watermelon contains lycopene.  Try them like this: toss cubes of cantaloupe with arugula, baby spinach and balsamic vinegar for a tangy-sweet salad; puree watermelon with mint, lime juice and unrefined sugar or honey, then freeze for watermelon mojita sorbet.

Berries. You’ll find a variety of locally grown selections, including blackberries, raspberries and strawberries; blueberries are harder to grow in Colorado (it has to do with soil pH), but some dedicated growers persist. Why they’re so great: As far as healthy foods go, you can’t beat berries; they’re rich in antioxidants that protect against cancer, heart disease, macular degeneration and Alzheimer’s disease. Try them like this: toss blackberries with salad greens, spiced nuts and chunks of melon  for a colorful salad; puree raspberries, lemon juice, lemon verbena and raw honey, then freeze for sorbet.

Peppers. Colorado varieties come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and range from sweet and mild to mouth-numbing fieriness; my favorites are purple bell peppers and the Pueblo mirasol chile, which is said to be unique to Colorado. Why they’re so great: they’re one of the best sources of vitamin C, and they’re high in six major carotenoids.  Try them like this: dice orange, yellow, red and purple bell peppers, then toss with chopped olives, capers, parsley, garlic and olive oil; roast whole jalapeno peppers with tomatillas, whole garlic cloves and chunks of onion, then puree for a spicy green salsa.

Zucchini. Say what you will about zucchini, it’s still one of the best summer foods; pick them or buy them when they’re smaller, for tender texture and a sweeter flavor. Why it’s so great: They’re high in lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids that protect the eyes, and may help regulate blood sugar.  Try it like this: lightly cook chopped zucchini with summer greens, coconut milk and curry, then puree into a creamy soup; slice them lengthwise, brush with olive oil, and grill.

Chard. This versatile green is light and tender enough to eat raw, but sturdy enough to stand up to light stir-fry cooking. Why it’s so great: chard is high in vitamin K, beta-carotene and chlorophyll, and contains a compound called syringic acid that helps regulate blood sugar, Try it like this: remove stems and thinly slice leaves crosswise, then toss with walnut oil, raspberry vinegar, slivered almonds and fresh raspberries; lightly steam leaves, then use them to roll around a filling of quinoa and lentils.

Plums. We have two plum trees in our yard, which yield amazing plum butter (when we can manage to stop eating them raw). You’ll also find lots of wild plum trees scattered all around Colorado; if you go foraging, be sure they’re not sprayed. Why they’re so great: They’re extremely high in antioxidants and vitamin C, and help increase the body’s absorption of iron. Try them like this: halve large plums, remove stone, and grill cut side down until tender, then serve with Mascarpone cheese if desired; toss plums with arugula, spinach, cashews and basil, then drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Blackberry fruits and blackberry jamFresh Berry Salsa
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 small serrano pepper, seeded and finely minced
1/2 cup strawberries, chopped small
3/4 cup coarsely chopped blackberries
1/4 cup minced red onion
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1. In a small bowl, combine serrano pepper, strawberries, blackberries, onion, cilantro and lime juice. Stir to mix, mashing some berries against the side of the bowl to crush them. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Serve immediately, or let chill for 1 hour before serving. Store in a glass jar, refrigerated, for up to five days.

Zucchini and Green Pea Soup with Chives
Serves 4 to 6

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small leek, chopped
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger root
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups homemade or high-quality vegetable stock
2 pounds zucchini, chopped small
1 cup fresh green peas
1/2 cup coconut milk
White pepper
Cayenne pepper
Fresh minced chives and chive blossoms, if available, for garnish

1. Heat oil in a 3-quart pot over medium-low heat. Saute leek for 3 to 4 minutes, until softened. Add ginger and garlic, and cook for 1 minute, stirring.

2. Add stock and zucchini; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, partly covered, for 15 minutes, until zucchini is soft and liquid is slightly reduced. Add peas and cook for 5 minutes longer, until peas are just tender. Stir in coconut milk. Transfer to a blender and process until smooth. Season to taste with white pepper and cayenne pepper.

3. Divide soup between four individual bowls. Sprinkle tops of each bowl with chives and chive blossoms, if available, and serve.