Seasonal Produce Superstars

ColumnLearn how to prepare okra, eggplant, tomatillos, jicama, and nopales.

Are you in a corn, tomato, and basil rut? Read on to learn how to choose, use, and enjoy some of summer’s most overlooked stars.

Okra—Okra gets a bad rap because of its legendary sliminess, but when treated properly, it’s tasty, versatile, and super impressive in the nutrition department.

Choose small, unblemished, firm, plump looking pods. The smaller the pods the better because okra slimes when moisture hits the interior of the vegetable. Small ones are bite-sized and if you can cook them whole using high heat, you won’t notice anything but their delicious, green-bean like flavor.

How to prepare: Try tossing them whole in salt and olive oil and roasting them in a single layer in a 425 degree oven, pickle them, or dip them first in buttermilk and then cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper and fry them.

Nutrition: Low in calories, high in fiber and vitamins C, K, A, as well as antioxidants.

Tomatillos—what do you do with those little green tomato-looking things with the papery husks? Answer: make the best salsa you’ve ever tasted!

How to prepare: Choose firm, bright green fruits with intact husks. To prepare, peel off the husks and rinse the sticky residue off. Boil for 10 minutes and puree with jalapenos, cilantro, onion, garlic, and salt to taste to make a spicy green salsa that’s great on everything from quesadillas to chicken.

Nutrition: Good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus and copper, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, niacin, potassium and manganese.

Eggplant—Love it or hate it, it’s a summer staple in the produce section. Learn how to get the most out of it.

For a side dish, I like the smaller Japanese or Chinese eggplants better than the Italian globe eggplants, which can tend toward bitter. All eggplants are sponges for flavor, and the small ones are particularly great for sautéing with strong aromatics like garlic, ginger, and Indian spices. They’re also like sponges for oil, so be sure you cook them over high heat to prevent them from absorbing too much. My favorite eggplant dish, hands down is baba ghanoush.

How to prepare: For this dish, use the Italian Globe eggplants and make sure you char the skins thoroughly to get that signature smoky flavor. If you don’t have a grill, you can char the eggplants directly over the gas burner on your stove.

Nutrition: Eggplant is rich in fiber and its deep purple color means it has lots of antioxidants.

Jicama—this unassuming root is sweet, crunchy, and refreshing in salads and as a snack.

How to prepare: Choose smaller roots, as they tend to be less woody. Peel and cut into slices and then sticks to serve raw Mexican street food-style with lime, salt, and chile, or add to salads, as you would radishes.

Nutrition: High in fiber, vitamin C, and potassium. Low in calories.

Nopales (cactus pads)—another candidate for the Slime Hall of Fame, but don’t knock them until you’ve try them because they have a fresh, earthy flavor and they’re great in a variety of dishes.

How to prepare: Choose unblemished, fresh looking, non-limp specimens. Holding a sharp knife with the blade away from you at an angle, carefully trim the sharp spines off. Slice the paddles into 1/4 inch thick slices. Boil in salted water for 15 minutes until tender. Drain and rinse. Add to salads, quesadillas, scrambled eggs, or sauté with squash and beans for a delicious side dish.

Nutrition: Lots of fiber and vitamins B6, A, C, K and minerals iron, copper, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and manganese.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.


Images: Laura Padgett, Dave Parker, Tim Peartrice, Quibbly, La Grande Farmers’ Market, volante





Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.