June signals the beginning not only summer, but also the cook's desire to rely less on time-consuming cooking methods and more on the abundance of seasonal produce to round out warmweather meals.
But how does one judge what's best in terms of quality? If you're an amateur, you thump cantaloupes along with everyone else in the market, oblivious to what one is supposed to look for. But there are standards for fruits and vegetables just as surely as there are guides by which we purchase clothing and appliances.
And there's help in the form of Janet Bailey's forthcoming book, "Keeping Food Fresh" (The Dial Press, $12.95), with its tips on selecting and storing everything from apples to zucchinis.
From the author, here's what to look for in your favorite summer produce:
Watermelons: Look for deep-colored rinds with a dull, waxy bloom. The underside, where the melon touched the ground as it grew, should be yellow rather than white or pale green. The watermelon should be well-rounded and symmetrical, and neither end should be flattened. It should feel firm but not rock-hard.
Cut watermelon should have intense, uniform coloring with no white streaks. Seeds should be dark and hard. Too many pale seeds indicate a bland, immature melon.
Cherries: Sweet cherries are in season from May through July and sometimes into August. Very dark cherries are sweetest. They should be clean, plump, firm and shiny. Purchase cherries with (flexible) stems attached, for once they are removed the fruit is susceptible to decay. Examine a handful at a time. Because the fruit is so dark, discoloration and leaking are otherwise difficult to see.
Blueberries: Blueberries range in color from light to dark blue, but if they are fully mature, they'll appear completely blue, with no reddish tinge. You'll want to see a silvery sheen, which is a natural protective coating. The berries should be clean and dry -- overripe berries are soft, watery and often moldy.
Peaches: Skip very hard peaches and look for those that have begun to soften and give off a sweet aroma. They should have a yellow or creamy colored background -- avoid anything green. The fruit should also be clean, well-shaped and have a distinct seam on one side (a sign of maturity).
Sweet corn: The author advises us to think twice about buying corn displayed outside a refrigerator unit, unless we know it's freshly picked, for corn loses about half its total sugar in one day at room temperature.
The husk of unshucked corn should be green and pliant, the silk golden. The stem end should be damp, pale green and flexible, not dried and brown. The condition of the kernels is the most telling sign of freshness; they should be tightly packed together in even rows (gaps indicate the ear is overmature) and look plump and juicy. Fresh kernels, when pierced, spurt a milky liquid.
Today's Express Lane offering is a light and practically effortless meal. (In fact, the chicken in this salad can be poached a day ahead, if desired, and stored in the refrigerator for a cook-free meal the next day.) Be sure to look for poultry that looks moist and rounded, with unbroken skin, and pineapple that is bright and yields slightly to finger pressure.
Only salt and pepper are required at home prior to a trip through the express lane.
Express Lane list: chicken, celery, pineapple, whipping cream, mayonnaise, lettuce CHICKEN AND PINEAPPLE SALAD (6 servings)
2 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breasts, poached and skinned
2 cups diced celery
2 cups diced ( 1/2-inch) pineapple
1/2 cup whipping cream, whipped
1 cup good quality mayonnaise
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Lettuce leaves for garnish
Cut the chicken into 1-inch chunks. Combine the chicken, celery and pineapple in a mixing bowl.
Whisk the whipped cream and mayonnaise together until blended and pour over the chicken. Toss to coat thoroughly. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Line 6 salad plates with lettuce leaves. Mound the salad on each plate and serve immediately. From "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Sarah Leah Chase (Workman Publishing, $11.95)