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Midsummer's Sweet Abundance

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Overflowing tables, baskets and crowds of shoppers signal the height of the season at farmers markets, a high that will happily last well into the fall.

"The peak is here," says Ann Harvey Yonkers, director of the FreshFarm Markets in Washington and Maryland. "We have melons, berries, the trifecta of the farm markets: tomatoes, corn and peaches. And the peppers are coming."

Those are the items that draw people into the markets -- the ones for which Americans have a particular affinity and knowledge of how they should taste, Yonkers says. Locally grown broccoli may be lovely, but a field-ripened tomato is a prize worth making an extra trip to obtain. Fresh corn is sweet and flavorful, whether purchased directly from the farmer or from supermarkets featuring local ears. And there's nothing like buying a peach that's ready to be eaten that day.

Virginia Cooperative Extension coordinator Jennifer Abel sees the same surge in August at the Arlington Farmers Market: "We're a year-round market, but it's right now that we have the things people love most."

I'm drawn by the abundance of peppers. My favorite is the sweet bell pepper. Yellow, orange, red and purple, they are mature versions of the green bell pepper. During the rest of the year, with prices often hovering around $5 per pound for hothouse sweet bell peppers, I have to be sparing with them.

But not now.

At the Mount Olympus Berry Farm's stands at markets across Fairfax County, Mary and Ken West price all their peppers at $2 a pound so customers can mix and match. The Wests grow nearly 40 different kinds of peppers, and they take pride in the wide variety they offer from late July until the first frost hits, usually in early November.

"I have people who come in every week and try a new pepper. A lot of them like experimenting and playing with the different varieties," Mary West says. In addition to several kinds of hot peppers, they sell a large assortment of sweet bell peppers, including smaller kinds that are seldom seen here when not in season.

Buying local means you're connected to the local growing season; this year, that season includes a drought. Although farms across the region are suffering, the markets are still well stocked, even with the hard-hit corn.

"Irrigation," says Wanda Catlett, owner of J&W Valley View Farm in Westmoreland County on Virginia's Northern Neck. "If we didn't have the irrigation system, we would not have corn." Catlett's farm is on the Rappahannock River, and the water it provides has saved her crop, she says. Nearby, at Lois's Produce, the pond on the property has been a lifesaver, according to Bill Grigsby, one of the farm's representatives at area markets. "Next to nothing -- that's what we'd have if it weren't for irrigation," he says.

Whatever your favorite summer produce, it doesn't take much to turn it into dinner. Chopped tomato mixed with basil, oil and vinegar and then tossed with pasta is a quick and delicious example. When you've had your fill of munching corn on the cob, cut cooked kernels from the ear and feature their sweet flavor and crunchy texture in salads and sautes. Try stir-frying raw corn kernels with diced red or orange bell peppers and scallions. Or make a seafood salad with corn, a classic summer pairing, rounding it out with a citrus dressing. I like to dice and slice my beloved summer sweet bells and add them to salads and stir-fries. As the weather cools, I'll roast them, discarding their skins and deepening their flavor, but for now I enjoy them as is.

Peaches are flourishing in the current dry environment, according to grower Mary Margaret Kuhn. She and her husband, David, own Kuhn Orchards in Cashtown, Pa. "Dry weather develops sugars in anything you're growing," she says. The Kuhns use controlled irrigation to find a happy medium. "In some respects it's easier, but at this point we're ready for rain," she says. Without rain, Kuhn worries, the upcoming apple crop is certain to suffer.

Delicious eaten out of hand, peaches are a great addition to salsa, balancing the sweet against the heat of a hot pepper or two. I like to grill peaches and serve them alongside marinated, grilled fish fillets. Larger pieces of fish can be roasted with peaches and sweet onions. When you come across a really sweet peach, make a dessert anyone can prepare: Just slice it over vanilla ice cream.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached atfood@washpost.com. Her In Season column appears the first Wednesday of every month.

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