We’re finally in the hot summer months up North, and I’ve heard that it’s been a pretty hot summer in most parts of the country this year. Thankfully, the long summer days combined with the heat helps farmers and gardeners alike reap the benefits of what they sowed with now bountiful crops of vegetables appearing at farmer’s markets, road-side stands and on the store shelves. These vegetables are not only beautiful and delicious, they are full of vital nutrients important for good health, muscle strength, healthy skin and healthy eyes. And, they taste especially good this time of year. But in case you need a few more good reasons to enjoy delicious in-season vegetables for their health benefits, here are a few of my favorites along with information on how to choose, store and serve them.

Zucchini, fresh from the garden, are legendary this time of year. Not only do they grow enormous when you inadvertently leave one on the vine too long, they also show up on porches across the country as if magical…well, it may be your neighbor trying to “share” their abundant crop with you. But have no fear, there are good reasons to add zucchini to your plate because they only have about 20 calories per cup and provide fiber, vitamin C, folate and potassium.

How to choose, store and use zucchini: Choose zucchini that feel heavy for their size. The skin should be free of cuts and bruises. Store zucchini in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and wash prior to using. Use by cutting off the ends and then slice, grate or chop for your recipe. Small zucchini are great for steaming and sauteing, while very large zucchini are good for baking. You can easily grate extra zucchini and freeze for later use in breads, muffins or casseroles. Simply thaw before use. There is no need to peel or de-seed zucchini before using.

Tomatoes are plentiful this time of year and much more flavorful than the blander tomatoes you get during winter. Tomatoes provide beta-carotene, vitamin C and a good dose of lycopene, which can help support healthy eyesight. Interestingly, cooked tomatoes may actually provide more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Tomatoes are also high in water content, helping you keep well hydrated during your workouts and hot summer days. Don’t just settle for red tomatoes though, there are an abundance of heirloom varieties from zesty green, sweet yellow and almost black – and those different colors equate to a variety of micronutrients.

How to choose, store and use tomatoes: Pick tomatoes that are free of mold and soft spots. Ripe tomatoes will have a sweet aroma and yield to slight pressure. Store tomatoes at room temperature and use within a few days because refrigeration can change the texture of tomatoes and make them less flavorful. Tomatoes can be used in many recipes for salads, dips, casseroles and on sandwiches. You can also enjoy them sliced with a little salt, pepper or sugar.

Cucumbers are also abundant this time of year. And whether you pickle them or add them to a salad, you should definitely make them part of your healthy diet because their high water and fiber content make them a very satisfying food. Cucumbers are also a good source of potassium, magnesium and some B vitamins, making them healthy for your heart. Cucumbers can be peeled, or eaten with the peels on – which provides even more fiber and nutrients.

How to choose, store and use cucumbers: choose cucumbers with bright skin and no yellowing or blemishes. Avoid cucumbers that look wilted or have spoiled areas. Smaller cucumbers tend to be crisper and have smaller seeds, making them a favorite for kids. Use them in salads, make pickles or add to smoothies such as the pineapple cucumber lime smoothie below.
Interestingly, according to the UC Davis Post Harvest Technology website, you should store cucumbers at room temperature and keep them away from bananas, melons, and tomatoes, which give off ethylene, causing accelerated yellowing and decay. Cucumbers are sensitive to the cold and should only be stored for 1 to 3 days in the refrigerator, if needed.

Sweet Corn is abundant this time of year and can make a budget-friendly nutritious addition to summer meals. The sweet, juicy kernels are gluten-free and are rich in fiber, folate and antioxidants. One ear of sweet corn has about 100 calories. I bet you didn’t know that each ear of sweet corn typically has 800 kernels arranged in 16 rows, with one strand of silk for each kernel…did you?

How to choose, store and use sweet corn: Choose sweet corn with fresh-looking husks and plump kernels that are well developed. Avoid corn that is dented in or has dry looking kernels. Store sweet corn with the husks on in a sealed container or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. Use sweet corn within a few days after purchasing for the best flavor. Sweet corn can be steamed, boiled, grilled, baked or even microwaved.

In fact, the easiest way to cook sweet corn is to husk it, then wrap in a wet paper towel and microwave for 2-3 minutes, or until desired doneness.

Now that you’ve learned a bit about summer vegetables and their health benefits, why not try some of these great recipes?

Sweet Corn and Bean Salad

2 cups cooked sweet corn

1 (15.5 oz.) can kidney beans, drained & rinsed

½ cup chopped red onion

½ cup chopped red bell pepper

¾ cup cider vinegar

¼ cup honey

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro

½ tsp. minced garlic

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine the first four ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients; combine with corn mixture and stir until well blended. Chill at least two hours to allow flavors to blend.

Pineapple Cucumber Lime Smoothie

1/2 cup Greek yogurt

1 small cucumber, peeled and chopped

1 banana

1 cup pineapple, fresh, frozen or canned, drained

1 handful spinach leaves

Juice of ½ lime

Orange juice, for blending

Ice cubes for blending

Add first 6 ingredients to a blender container. Blend until smooth adding orange juice and ice until desired consistency. Serve cold.

Freeze-ahead Cucumber Pickles (yes, you can freeze pickles!)

6 or 7 cups sliced cucumbers

2 cups sugar

1 cup diced green peppers

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup diced onions

1 tsp. celery seed

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. ground black pepper

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients and stir until sugar dissolves. Refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to blend. Fill freezer containers, label, date and freeze until ready to use. Use within 6 months for the best quality.

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