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In supermarkets, the produce section looks pretty much the same year round. But if you pay attention to how things grow, to what’s in season when, you’ll enjoy each plant in the best version of itself. And according to many medical traditions, you’ll be attuning your body to the energy of the world around you as well when you eat seasonally.
Most people think of salad greens, or perhaps of potatoes, when they think of vegetables. But in summer, a time of expansion and ripening, the vegetable fruits come into their own. These are fruits, botanically speaking, but grow on vines or plants, not trees, and are lower in sugar than what most people consider fruits.
The all-American nightshade family of plants is probably most famously represented by potatoes, and perhaps tobacco. Not everyone realizes that the “superfood” goji berries are in this family too. Summer is the time for true abundance of nightshade vegetable fruits, versatile and delicious.
Half of the veggies featured here are nightshades: tomatoes, tomatillos, bell peppers, chili peppers and eggplant. Three more on the list are vegetable fruits from the Old World, and finally I include a cactus paddle and an absolutely essential green, one of my all-time favorite “weeds.”
Don’t chastise me for starting with tomatoes, as they really do offer something for everyone. It’s hard to imagine Italian or Indian cuisine without tomatoes, but before the discovery of the New World, tomatoes, together with potatoes, eggplants, and other nightshade plants now ubiquitous in European and Asian cuisine, were unknown in Italy and India. The Italians were early adopters; elsewhere in Europe they were considered poisonous and grown exclusively as ornamentals for a couple hundred years.
Tomatoes are used in myriad ways in cuisine, from being eaten fresh off the vine to being blanched, skinned, cooked, deseeded, pureed and used as the basis for many sauces. Green tomatoes stored in a paper bag will ripen through the winter. Canning and sun-drying, originally also preservation techniques for winter storage, concentrate and complexify tomatoes’ flavor in interesting ways, so that canned tomatoes or tomato puree and sun-dried tomatoes are now specifically used as whole different ingredients.
On the “food as medicine” front, for the past nearly 20 years, everyone’s been aware of the tomato as a great source of the antioxidant lycopene. And for this entire time, controversy has raged as to whether tomatoes yield more lycopene cooked than raw or if it’s just that the cooked tomato is more concentrated, whether it needs to be cooked and reduced for prolonged periods or briefly heated to 180 degrees. I’ve seen far more debate on this than explanation of why we want lycopene in the first place!
Briefly, lycopene is an antioxidant in the carotenoid group, and as such it’s considered protective of the heart and circulatory system, as well as helpful in preventing many common cancers. It’s also been used to treat the HPV virus.
Tomatoes are also versatile in terms of variety. From the delicious sungolds—candy-sweet, golden cherry tomatoes—to the brandywines—huge heirloom reds—they literally come in all shapes and sizes, and in pretty much every color except blue… and they do come in black.
Once you get them started, they’ll keep pumping out fruit all summer, and in a great variety of locations. Mediterranean climates are ideal, but with some attention and careful watering they can be grown both in much hotter and much cooler climates. Hothouse tomatoes are a year-round convenience and can be grown almost anywhere, but they don’t taste like “real” tomatoes. Enjoy the fresh ones of summertime!
Moving from the ubiquitously famous to the unfortunately obscure…
Tomatillo, which simply means “little tomato,” is a savory little fruit that comes in green, yellow, purple, and white varieties, just like eggplant. In fact, it tastes somewhat like a juicy, slightly sweet eggplant.
Tomatillos are delicious raw, can be dehydrated into chips, are great in chili, and once you’ve made salsa with tomatillos, you’ll never want to make it without them again.
Although they are easy to grow, especially in Mediterranean-type climates, and the plants just keep on producing all season once established, tomatillos are somewhat underrepresented. Not many farmers grow them, explaining that they can’t sell enough because people don’t know about them. So here’s a circular awareness/education issue.
Please, do everyone a favor and seek out some good, ripe tomatillos. They are a little smaller than tomatoes. They grow with a papery husk covering them and, as mentioned, come in white, yellow, purple, and green (most common) varieties.
Eggplant is another vegetable (or vegetable fruit) that it’s hard to imagine Eurasian cuisine without. Middle-Eastern food without baba ghanoush? Thai curry without eggplant? No baingan bharta? No moussaka? But these are New-World nightshades too.
Eggplant also come in more shapes and sizes than most people recognize. The stereotypical vegetable is the large, swelling, bulbous purple one, but they come long, skinny and finger-shaped as well, in purple and in white, and they come in tiny, flat, round varieties too.
Unlike tomatoes and tomatillos, you can’t just bite into a raw eggplant and eat it. That wonderful purple hue is indicative of polyphenol content, another form of antioxidant you’ve probably heard of in association with berries, chocolate, and coffee.
In the context of eggplant, it’s also associated with bitterness, especially in bigger and older eggplants. If you slice the eggplant thinly and salt the slices for about half an hour, you’ll see a dark brown liquid oozing forth. Rinse this off real well, making sure to get rid of the salt as well, and the eggplant will absorb spices and oil much more readily and will cook much more quickly and completely. It’s usually not necessary to do this with the smaller eggplants.
If you want to make baba ghanoush, you get that wonderful smoky taste by cooking the whole eggplant over an open flame. Make sure to pierce the skin in several places to avoid explosion! This is a very messy process no matter how you do it. You’ll see the brownish liquid soak out as the roasting continues. By the time the inside flesh is soft and ready to be mashed and mixed with tahini, lemon juice, and garlic, the skin will be completely charred and black.
Otherwise, eggplant is wonderful grilled, roasted or in coconut curries. When grilled or roasted, they’re best marinaded first. Otherwise, their water content is so high that in the dry-heat cooking they’re prone to just spilling their moisture and desiccating.
4. Bell Peppers
Bell peppers are higher in vitamin C than any of the citrus fruits or other iconic sources. Like tomatoes, they’re full of lycopene and other carotenoid antioxidants, and so they come in red, yellow, orange (the green ones are simply unripe), but they almost complete the rainbow as do tomatoes, with purple and blackish varieties. Much of the year, they’re grown in hothouses; they require long, hot, dry growing seasons. Do yourself a favor and seek out a well-grown summertime bell.
They’re splendidly juicy raw, adding great crunch to salads, and they preserve this crunchiness in stir fries and curries if cooked briefly. They have a seductive, almost leathery chewiness when roasted. Whatever they’re combined with, their flavor tends to be pervasive. A halved bell pepper, either raw or roasted, makes great presentation for stuffing with quinoa salad, hummus, curried lentils, or whatever your imagination desires.
Raw vegan cheeses often utilize bell peppers to get the cheesy note. One large bell pepper blended with two cups of soaked cashews and just enough water to get things moving is a good place to start. The addition of a quarter cup of nutritional yeast and some white pepper will make it really cheesy.
5. Chili Peppers
Chili peppers, known as Capsicum, chili, cayenne, paprika, are a whole different universe from bell peppers. In fact, they’re a whole universe unto themselves, spanning a huge variety, from the tiny bird’s eye and ghost chilis to the paprika peppers, which can be at least as big as a bell pepper. Some are as mild as a bell pepper, while some, like the ghost, habañero, and Scotch bonnet varieties are so hot you’ll have steam coming out of your ears from a tiny nibble. There’s even a special scale called the Scoville scale just for evaluating the heat of chili peppers.
If you do find yourself with steam coming out of your ears, by the way, don’t follow instinct and chug water; it could make things worse. To absorb the heat and soothe your delicate membranes, it works better to take something cool. Milk or yogurt are the traditional antidotes, and non-dairy varieties work too. Coconut milk or cream also work. The other tactic is simple dilution. In places like Thailand where spicy food is served with rice, it’s traditional to take the spicy bite with a greater quantity of rice.
A compound called capsaicin has been isolated from chili peppers, which is a potent analgesic (numbing heat, right?) and which is applied topically to sore muscles. Since the heat is also stimulating to the heart and is a vasodilator (expands the blood vessels), extracts from chili peppers often feature in diet pills.
Like chili peppers, nopales (the pad of the same cactus from which we get prickly pears) are also used for weight regulation. Most people think that this paddle is the cactus leaf, but actually it’s the stem. The nopal cactus grows all over the southwestern U.S., as well as the driest parts of the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa.
Essentially, it’s wild food, and it exists with many degrees of thorniness, from formidably unapproachable to almost entirely thornless. Both the pads and the fruits contain compounds known to help improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar regulation, and among the natives in the Americas there’s a strong tradition of their use as a diabetes remedy.
If you’ve come across nopal, most likely it was in a jar with pickles and condiments in a Mexican grocery market. Fermenting them in brine is a delicious and shelf-stable way to prepare them, but in the summer, when they’re young and crisp, try some fresh. They can usually be found both as full pads or ready to use, cleaned of any spines and chopped into cubes. The whole pad is excellent grilled or roasted, and cut into cubes it’s great in curries, chilies, stews or raw in salads. It also gives body and thickness added raw to smoothies in small amounts.
You’ll notice a slightly slimy quality to the cut pad. This textural quality, the reason it thickens smoothies, is called mucilaginous. It confirms that the pad is rich in polysaccharides, long-chain sugars that feed beneficial gut bacteria and are soothing to the digestion in general.
Not everyone appreciates mucilaginous textures, and this texture is what many people associate with okra, another vegetable best enjoyed in the summer when it’s freshest and crispest. Briny pickles preserve the crunch with delicious sourness, just like with nopales. As with bell peppers, brief stir-frying or cooking is best for texture preservation, or else cooking with tomato or lemon, or something acidic. Spiced, dehydrated whole okra “chips” are becoming widely available in supermarkets. If you chop it into a salad, it will ooze its mucilage and set the salad up like jelly, which may not be what you were hoping for. On the other hand, just eaten straight up or as a dip-carrier, the whole pods are delicious and crunchy.
The edible “pod” of the okra is actually the fruit of the plant, which grows in warm climates worldwide and is originally from—well, we’re not quite sure on that one. Most likely it’s either from North Africa or Southeast Asia, both of which are places with a long history of okra in their cuisines. Okra belongs to the mallow family, like marshmallow, whose mucilaginous properties are utilized as herbal gut medicine. Also in that family, by the way—cocoa!
The presence of polysaccharides also connotes high fiber content—a good thing—and okra is also high in calcium, potassium, vitamin C and folate.
Okra is a food to which many people have a strong reaction. Some of this seems to be related to the texture, some of it to the person’s cultural background. Certain cuisines use a lot of okra, and if you’re not from one of those cultural backgrounds, you may never have heard of okra.
Cucumbers are another vegetable fruit to which people have a strong reaction, despite the PR of “cool as a cucumber” that presents it as mild and neutral. Cucumbers contain a bitter compound not everyone can detect, but the minority who can detect it can’t stand it.
Additionally, many people experience gas and burping from cucumbers, and this reaction is so prevalent that of the three main varieties of cucumber grown, one is actually called “burpless” (the other two being “pickling” and “slicing”).
Cucumbers originated in India, so they’re an Old World plant, popular with Roman Emperors and the like. They are yellow or green, come in a variety of sizes and (unless it’s a seedless variety) have seeds dispersed through their flesh much as a watermelon does. They really are very much like low-sugar watermelons.
The other special thing about cucumbers is their high silica content, which makes them excellent for skin, hair, and nails. Their juiciness makes them a great base for nourishing green drinks. Tzatziki, the traditional Middle-Eastern salad of chopped cucumber, mint, dill, lemon, and garlic dressed with yogurt, is wonderfully cooling. A sour cashew sauce is an easy substitute for those who can’t do dairy.
Zucchini is the cucumber’s American cousin. Think of it like this: melons and cucumbers from the Old World; all kinds of squash from the New World. But as the name suggests, the culinary variety most often enjoyed now was actually developed in Italy.
Although very similar to cucumber in possible shapes and sizes, as well as (very low) calorie content, the great thing about zucchini is that it holds its texture so well, whether raw or cooked. As such, it’s the darling of the raw food world, and now the low carb world too, because of how it can be spiralized or pared into pasta, either as noodles or for lasagna. Along with tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplants, it’s a key ingredient in ratatouille, the delicious southern French stew for which these vegetables, plus some onions and garlic, are slow cooked in olive oil.
Assuming there are insects present to pollinate the vegetable, zucchini is one of the easiest crops to grow in a temperate or Mediterranean climate. Not only do they pump out lots of fruit; the fruits themselves keep on growing. Everyone’s either experienced or had a neighbor with way too much zucchini. The bigger they get, the tougher the flesh. While the enormous ones are often discarded in the U.S., in Europe they’re stuffed and baked. In this version, they’re called “marrow”—same vegetable fruit, different name.
But lots of zucchinis could mean lots of zucchini noodles—with tomato marinara, with a bell pepper cheese, in a lasagna with eggplant and a tomatillo relish on top. Or it could mean zucchini breads and muffins. Or, slice it into coins, toss with olive oil and your favorite spice, and dehydrate into delicious chips.
Last but not least is the one “green leaf” I’m including here—a succulent, slightly mucilaginous weed that grows literally everywhere—purslane.
Originating in the Mediterranean, it grows in the far north and in the tropics. It grows on the beach and far inland and up in the mountains. It grows in disturbed soil and in garden beds. I’ve seen it growing through cracks in the sidewalk in Bangkok, Thailand!
Like nopales, it’s quintessentially a wild plant. It embodies everything good in the concept of “weed”; it’s able to survive in adverse conditions, with limited and sketchy access to nutrients, and it’s also able to extract nutrients where there are not many and where there may also be non-/anti-nutrients.
Purslane is great in salads, but it’s also used in many of the same ways that spinach is used; like spinach, it contains some oxalic acid, which gives it a pleasant tartness. The presence of oxalic acid leads some to warn against consuming too much purslane, but truthfully you wouldn’t want to eat the quantity that might cause trouble; your body would give you the stop signal. As with all vegetables, it’s good practice to rotate consumption.
You may have heard of purslane as the one plant that contains EPA. It does contain more omega-3s than any other leafy vegetable, but mostly in the ALA form that is usual in plants. Its EPA content is underwhelming, at less than a hundredth of a milligram per gram. Like green leafies in general, it is rich in vitamins and minerals. It also contains betalain antioxidant pigments, which have been shown to be strongly cancer-protective.
Purslane is a great all-round supportive plant. Because of its sprawling growth habit, it can provide ground cover to help keep the soil moist, and because it has deep tap roots, it can make it easier for other plants’ roots to penetrate hard soil. As much as anything else, its character is a great metaphor to follow.
Look out for it at summertime farmers markets, where you might also see it with its Spanish name, verdolaga.
Which veggie on this list is your favorite? Are there any you’ve never tried before? Now is the time! Add these summer vegetables to your plate while they are at their peak, and enjoy all the fresh, bright, exciting flavors they have to offer.
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