When you’re a food nut in an agriculture-rich state like Alabama, you mark the seasons by when nearby farms harvest certain vegetables and fruit. Winter’s greens, broccoli, and satsumas give way to spring’s asparagus, baby onions, and strawberries.
Summer in Alabama is not just measured by calendars and thermometers. The changing bounty for sale at local farmers markets also marks the transition from spring to summer.
Spring produce starts winding down by early June. Summer stuff appears. These are a few of my favorite things that Alabama farmers are picking now.
Yellow crookneck and zucchini squashes are both flavorful and versatile. But aficionados celebrate the appearance of the slender half yellow, half pale green zephyr variety. It’s a hybrid of crookneck, acorn, and delicta squashes. Relatively sweet and nutty-tasting, zephyrs should be simply cooked – halved and grilled, or pan-fried. Pattypan squash, shaped like a scalloped UFO, is perfect for cooking on high heat, including roasting or grilling. They’re most tender and buttery-tasting when picked relatively young; up to palm-sized are best.
People have eaten Alabama-grown blackberries – wild and later cultivated – since long before Europeans arrived starting in the 16th century. At Petals from the Past orchard and farm in Jemison, the first blackberries ripened at the end of May. They are expected to linger into August. The fruit adds a sweet-tart element to yogurt, salads, and smoothies. But fresh-picked blackberries most popular in homemade preserves, pies, and other baked goods. Blackberries also shine in cocktails and temperate drinks when juiced, made into a syrup, or mixed with apple cider vinegar for shrub.
There are two cucumber seasons in Alabama – one starting in late May and the other beginning after Labor Day, according to the state Farmers Market Authority. The early-summer cucumbers from Caver’s Farms in Chilton and Autauga counties are suitable to brine for pickles, slice for salads, or infuse to flavor water. They are refreshing and delicious.
Hot peppers. Mild peppers. Trendy peppers. All are starting to come in now across Alabama, just in time to relish in chow-chow, add punch to main dishes, and play a leading role in sauces and other condiments. Social media posts by Lovelight Farm in Wilsonville report that its early-June harvest includes cayenne, serrano, hatch, purple bell, shishito, and banana peppers.
The heirlooms and beefsteaks for the signature seasonal tomato salad at Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club restaurant came early this year. Both green and vine-ripened tomatoes are showing up on an increasing number of stands at local farmers markets. Heirlooms – often gnarled and misshapen but oh so delicious – are perfect for classic ‘mater sandwiches or in sauces. Sweet cherry tomatoes liven up salads or charcuterie boards. As for much-loved red globes from the tomato-friendly soils of Slocomb in Geneva County and Chandler Mountain in St. Clair County, you’ll have to wait until early July.
See Ya Next Year
The wistful side of this seasonal transition is saying goodbye to old friends. Buying locally means eating seasonally. Alabama farmers warn that we’re seeing the last of this year’s strawberries, beets, and spring herbs like dill. Fans of locally grown purple- and orange-hued cauliflower will have to wait for next May.