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Eat Well, Spend Less: Summer In-Season Produce

photo: Michelle Kroll

Buying in season is a simple way to save money and eat well.

The tough part about a summer visit to the nearest farmers market: with so many vegetables and fruits in season, there’s no easy way to decide which to bring home.

The abundance of fresh tomatoes, okra and other summer goodies pushes down prices as supermarkets and local farmers compete to fill your basket before the produce spoils. Home cooks have it easy, too: in-season fruits and vegetables are at their prime, flavor-wise, so it doesn’t take much culinary effort to prepare wow-worthy dishes.

Here’s what fresh, cheap seasonal produce chefs around the country are buying now, and their suggestions for how home cooks can prepare it for maximum flavor. (Have more ideas? Post a favorite recipe in the comments.)

Garlic Scapes

These corkscrew-like shoots — the green tops to fresh garlic — are just coming into season, says Leah Bloom, an instructor at the Boston Center for Adult Education who teaches a “Cooking with Farmer’s Market Finds” course. Use them in place of chives or scallions in stir fries, pasta salads, mashed potatoes and other dishes. The flavor is garlicky, but less fierce. “There’s none of that garlic breath you’d be worried about on a date,” she says.

Okra

On a recent episode of “Top Chef Masters,” Chef Monica Pope made a killer version of shrimp and grits with pickled okra and beans. (She lost by a narrow margin, but judges declared the dish “bold and beautiful.”) At her restaurant t’afia in Houston, Pope usually serves okra in a fresher format. “We do simple things with it, to let it stand out,” she says. Try a succotash with corn, shell beans and chopped tomatoes (all in season). Or use some sauteed okra as a garnish on an African-style crab soup. Looking for more of a comfort food? Coat okra in cornmeal batter and serve with homemade Ranch dressing.

Cherries

Eating fresh cherries by themselves is a perfect summer escape, but there are plenty of creative ways to use them in cooking, too, says Babette Pepaj, the founder of recipe and social networking site BakeSpace.com. Her favorite: as the topping for a cream cheese and almond tart.

Baby Bok Choy

This early summer market find is milder and more tender compared with big bok choy. Sauté with a little olive oil, garlic and sea salt. (Incorporate in-season sweet white turnips and other farmer’s market finds, if desired.) Then lightly fry two eggs and break the still-runny yolks atop the veggies. “It’s a perfect summer dish,” Bloom says. “I ate it two nights in a row.”

Corn

To take advantage of sweet summer corn, Banks White, the executive chef of Five in Berkeley, Calif., just added a crab and corn fritter to his menu. Sift together one half-teaspoon salt, one cup of all-purpose flour and one teaspoon baking powder. Stir in one tablespoon melted butter, two eggs and a half-cup milk. Then fold in a cup of corn kernels (preferably white corn), six ounces crab meat (preferably Dungeness or Peekytoe) and one bunch of chives, diced. Fry in oil until cooked through.

Strawberries

Frugal Foodie finds it impossible to pass up fresh berries at the market. She likes to freeze the sliced berries for smoothies and to use in lieu of ice cubes for pitchers of lemonade and iced tea. Another idea: make stuffed strawberries by slicing off the tops and using a knife to core the berries. Blend cream cheese, powdered sugar and vanilla extract to taste, and then stuff it into the berries. (For more suggestions — including strawberries as a topping for white pizza — see our spring farmers market suggestions).

Tomatoes

This summer staples can be grilled, stuffed, sauteed or used raw in salads. To showcase the flavor, Christine Denney, the food services director for The Oaks at Ojai in Ojai, Calif., uses tomatoes and other in-season items in a simple gazpacho. Mix chopped parsley, scallions, tomato, bell peppers and cucumber with two cups tomato juice and two tablespoons red wine vinegar. Chill thoroughly before serving.

Shell beans

“They’re really wonderful, just gorgeous, this time of year,” Pope says. Cook for about half an hour and mix with grains, or blend with portabella mushrooms into a flavorful spread. There are, surprisingly, dessert options, too: use cooked beans to flavor ice cream. “It makes you appreciate them in a different way,” she says.

Artichokes

Steamed or grilled artichokes can make for a satisfying meal. Pepaj suggests dousing the leaves with a spicy garlic aioli; Frugal Foodie likes stuffing them with a mixture of bacon, breadcrumbs and cheese.

Pea Tendrils

Foodies in the Northern U.S. can still find this pretty veggie — the vines and flowers that, later in the season, farmers will let grow into peas. The taste is “like peas, but lighter and fresher,” Bloom says. She likes to use the tendrils raw as a salad topper, or lightly steam them to serve as a side.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.