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The Good, The Bad, and the Ripe
Thoughts of Summer Produce
Mar 10, 2008
Iím having trouble in the produce section again. While in the midst of the botanical bounty of summer, I canít seem to get the hang of choosing the right stuff, even though Iíve been doing this longer than I care to remember.
Take peaches, for example. I have learned, through trial and error, that there are about 23 minutes during which a peach is at its prime for eating. Before then, it is one of natureís little bullets, lovely to look at, but basically impenetrable.
For days, checking the fruit bowl yields nothing but anticipation until suddenly, one morning, the gentle squeeze for ripeness produces a gooey mess from the same peach that was a bullet only hours ago. The window of opportunity for eating the peach probably opened around 2:19 a.m.
Nectarines are a more forgiving, user-friendly fruit. They look a lot like peaches and have the same fat content, but arenít so awful if youíre a little off gauging their ripeness. True, they donít grow in Georgia, donít bake up into sublime pies, or have that tantalizing little fur. But I can overlook all that because I rarely have to rinse squashed nectarine off my hands.
I also have better luck with tomatoes. Judging the ripeness of a tomato is no challenge. It is simply a matter of preference: slightly firm with subtle flavor, or dead ripe, ruby red, running with juice. The challenge lies in using this most perfect of fruits when they all seem to ripen at once.
There is always the tomato sandwich: white bread, mayonnaise and a succulent slice of red, liberally seasoned with salt and pepper. The perfect meal, any time of day. But there comes a time when mere sandwiches are no longer adequate for the torrent of tomatoes that arrive late summer.
In the good old days, when I had more time and energy, canning was the inevitable fate of those sun-drenched beauties not immediately consumed with a salt shaker. My best friend and I would spend whole days peeling tomatoes and sterilizing jars, quieting our laughter just long enough to hear that all-important POP the lid makes when it seals properly. Weíd divide the booty and enjoy the fruits of our labor all winter long.
Then babies came, and spending long hours in a kitchen full of boiling water and slippery produce lost its appeal. When we quit canning, some of the fun went out of the season. I miss the companionship even more than those sparkling jars filled with the taste of summer. And I still have to do something with all those tomatoes.
But itís easier to deal with tomato overrun than zucchini overload. It was a desperate gardener who baked the first loaf of zucchini bread. Most of my zucchini grows dispirited in the vegetable bin, waiting to be called into service. My children pray it will be overlooked under that cabbage leaf until itís too far gone to be used. I usually donít use the cabbage leaf either.
When I feel like living dangerously, Iíll head to the tropical fruit aisle in the produce section. Star fruit, mangoes, and papayas - all enigmas whether ripe or green. Iím never sure how to use them, but I love exploring their taste, their texture and aroma at least once during the season. For me, they represent the best of summer produce: delectable, mysterious variety.
Better to have pinched and tossed than never tasted at all.