PRODUCE THAT ISN'T PRICEY
Summertime brings fruits and vegetables in excess and produce prices at rock-bottom. Take advantage of this natural cycle, when the produce is bursting with flavor, by using the foodstuffs as inspiration for seasonal menus. A few of the items listed here are technically fruits (which come from flowers and have seeds), but most consumers would probably put them on the vegetable side of the ledger. Some can be preserved by pickling, canning, or freezing to prolong the savings and flavor into the colder months. Prices come from a weekly survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
When the weather starts to warm, markets and grocers swell with an abundance of summer squash varieties such as yellow, zucchini, and pattypan. Usually less than $1 apiece, these nutritious vegetables can be grated or chopped to add bulk to just about any recipe, from lasagna to taco filling to stir-fry. Or, turn them the main event by halving and stuffing with seasoned rice or skewering and grilling with chunks of kielbasa. Enjoy raw by thinly shaving with a mandoline or vegetable peeler and then soaking in salad dressing, or keep up with the newest craze by spiralizing zucchinis into "zoodles," a carb-free pasta substitute. Summer squash can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or sliced and frozen for up to two months.
Cabbage is one of the most versatile and inexpensive vegetables year-round, summer being no exception. For about $1 a head, thrifty cooks get a lot of mileage from this cruciferous green by using it as the base for soups or stuffing the rolled leaves with rice and covering with tomato sauce. Simply sauté sliced cabbage with onions and garlic for a cheap dinner side or go the ultimate summer route by shredding and mixing with a mayonnaise base for slaw.
Radishes come in many varieties -- from short and plump, like the type commonly found at the grocery store, to long and mild, like the Asian daikon. Whatever the variety, radishes are inexpensive, at $1.15 a pound for the typical supermarket fare. Thinly slice and layer on buttered slices of bread for a quick lunch or appetizer. Bulk up salads or guacamole with radishes' refreshing crunch, halve them for a welcoming addition to crudité platters, or quickly sauté for a side dish. Radishes will keep for about one week in a sealed plastic bag.
Cucumbers overflow from gardens and farms during the summer months, so this crisp fruit is at your disposal. With an average price of about 45 cents a pound, cucumbers become a refreshing go-to on a budget. Seedless English cucumbers cost more, so stick to the reliable, inexpensive Kirby cucumber. Aside from preserving cucumbers as pickles or slicing them for a classic cucumber salad, you can also create kiddie snacks or party bites by shaving thin strips with a vegetable peeler and wrapping around a cheese or hummus filling. Peeled cucumber slices sprinkled with lime juice, chile powder, and salt are a classic Mexican appetizer. Don't toss those cucumber ends or peels, either -- infuse water to create a spa-like beverage or muddle into a gin and tonic for extra oomph.
Corn brimming with sweetness is one of the simplest delights of summer. About 30 cents an ear in season, it can simply be boiled or grilled on the cob. Kick it up a notch by cutting the kernels off the cob and turning them into a spicy salsa or salad with fresh basil, tomatoes, and avocado. Silky corn bisque or corn chowder is an easy way to convert the humble ingredient into a heartier meal, or opt for comfort-worthy corn pudding or cornbread. To stretch the savings into fall, slice raw kernels off the cobs and freeze for up to three months.
Once you've enjoyed crunchy green beans, it's hard to return to the mushy canned versions that many grew up with. Plunge raw green beans into a sour-cream-based dip as a cheaper and healthy alternative to chips. Mix with halved cherry tomatoes and lemon-herb dressing for a light salad, or quickly sauté or boil to incorporate extra crunch and nutrition into potato and pasta salads. Roast green beans in the oven with plenty of garlic for a veggie-centric sandwich or as a side. Cut and washed green beans keep in the freezer for up to three months.
Peas come in different forms during the peak of freshness -- snow peas, garden peas in or out of the pod, and sugar snaps, a cross between the two. Garden peas in the pod require more effort to pop out of their shell but are often cheaper and also provide an opportunity to get kids involved in the kitchen. Easy to freeze and keep on hand for months, their sweet and bright flavor is welcome in any pasta dish or as a side, just barely sautéed with a bit of butter. Add a cup of peas to any pesto recipe or replace chickpeas with peas for a summery twist on hummus. Snow peas or sugar snap peas add flavorful crunch to fried rice and stir-fries but can also be devoured raw as a snack.
Of course, bagged pre-washed, pre-cut lettuce and salad mixes are convenient, but that convenience comes with a hefty price tag. Instead, grab a head of summer lettuce for a cheaper cost and fresher quality. Romaine, green leaf, red leaf, and Boston bibb are often just $1 to $2 for a large head compared with a few dollars for half the amount of greens in a bag. Because lettuce is picked so fresh, it holds in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Aside from using it as the base for salads, take advantage of the flavorful and abundant leaves to wrap grilled meats or as a carb-free substitute for a hamburger bun. Halve heartier lettuce varieties and throw on a hot grill for a few minutes to wilt before drizzling with dressing for a new twist on a salad.
Eggplants are an inexpensive summer delicacy, selling for about $1.25 apiece in most markets. The sponge-like consistency soaks up any flavor thrown at it, be it a miso-sake braising broth or a peanut-soy drizzle. Classics such as stuffed eggplant and eggplant Parmesan are options for potluck gatherings, or explore the international side of eggplant with dips such as Middle Eastern baba ganoush. Combine eggplant with zucchini, bell peppers, and canned tomatoes for a big batch of ratatouille or use grilled or roasted eggplant slices as a meat substitute in sandwiches and wraps. Stored whole in the refrigerator, eggplant lasts about two weeks.
Many people reserve their tomato intake for the summer months, when tomatoes are plump, flavorful, and dirt-cheap. Incorporate different varieties of this juicy fruit into salads or purée for gazpacho. Thickly slice to layer onto mayonnaise-coated bread for tomato sandwiches or sprinkle slices with Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and olive oil and give a quick stint under the broiler for a side. Also consider stocking up on tomatoes during the height of the season to make into sauce and can for later use. Store tomatoes at room temperature.