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Got an appetite for summer? 

Our annual preview offers food, fun and sights for the hot weather season.

The best part about summer for hungry Arkansans is the wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available in grocery stores and farmer's markets. They taste better then, and they're usually cheaper, too. In a couple of months, many a supper table will hold a plateful of deep red, sliced tomatoes picked from a vine just hours (or minutes) before. And sometimes there's no better cure for a hot, humid day than a cold slice of watermelon, its fleshy meat disappearing in the mouth like cotton candy while sweet, sticky juice runs down the chin. How to shop for fresh produce? Here are some tips on popular choic es from the USDA and Beth Phelps of the Pulaski County Cooperative Extension Service: Cantaloupes. These sweet, orange-fleshed melons are in season from late June through the end of August. Mature melons detach from the vine very easily; if there's evidence that the melon was cut from the vine (part or all of the stem remains or the base of the fruit looks jagged or torn), then the melon isn't ripe and won't ripen properly. Phelps said the flesh of ripe cantaloupes will yield to slight pressure but should not be mushy. Ripe melons will also have pleasant, melony fragrance at the base. Ripe melons should be used as soon as possible; if not eaten immediately they should be stored in the refrigerator for no more than a week. Storing unripe melons at room temperature for a couple of days will complete the ripening process. Watermelons. The best time for these is from the beginning of July through the middle of September. Phelps said that when picking watermelons in the garden, the easiest and most reliable way to tell if one is ripe is to check the tendrils that grow on the vine next to the melon. If the tendril closest to the melon has dried up, the melon is ready to pick. In the store, check the watermelon's skin. On a ripe melon, the skin will be rough to the touch, Phelps said. There's also the thumping method. Phelps said to listen for a hollow, dull sound rather than a ringing, metallic sound. There's no way to tell about the taste of the watermelon until you cut it open. Tomatoes. Because tomatoes are fragile, produce wholesalers are forced to pick tomatoes before they're ripe for shipping to grocery stores. Food guru and "Good Eats" host Alton Brown advises that tomatoes are at their best only when they're in season, which for Arkansas is roughly the middle of June through the end of July and during October. Phelps agrees. "You can make tomatoes red, but it doesn't make for good flavor," she said. Tomatoes ripened fully on the vine have the best flavor. Look for a rich, deep red color and a slight softness. The tomatoes should be unbruised and smooth. Phelps said uncut tomatoes should never be refrigerated. It ruins the taste. Okra. Okra is in season from late June through mid October. Phelps said it can't be harvested too soon. Look for smaller pods, whose tips bend with slight pressure. Pods two to three inches in length are the ideal size, but will toughen with prolonged storage. Phelps said it's important for consumers to find out where their produce is coming from. "The closer to market the vegetables are grown, the more likely you'll get high-quality fruit," she said. Putting the good stuff to use Once you have some choice produce in hand, what to do with it? For that, we turn to some of the city's top chefs for some of their favorite uses of seasonal picks from the market. Marinated asparagus and crab salad From Peter Brave of Brave New Restaurant 6 to10 large asparagus spears 4 ounces.jumbo lump crabmeat 1 sliced tomato 2 ounces spring mix lettuce 2 ounces vinaigrette Trim and wash aparagus. Blanch for two minutes in boiling, salted water. Shock in ice water to stop the cooking process, then set aside. Build salad on large plate; start with spring mix and then tomatoes. Arrange asparagus like spokes and top with crabmeat. Drizzle with vinaigrette. Vinaigrette 2 ounces Dijon mustard 1 tsp minced garlic Juice of 1/2 lemon 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar 3/4 cup olive oil Mix first four ingredients; then slowly whisk in olive oil. Note: Like all of my recipes, this one takes advantage of the freshness of the ingredients. Feel free to improvise with shrimp, a different type of greens or another type of vinaigrette. Corn soup with tomato-basil relish From Scott McGehee of Boulevard Bread Co. Serves 6 For Soup: 1 medium onion 1/4 small carrot 2 tbsp. butter 1 sprig of fresh thyme 4 cups fresh corn kernels 4 cups chicken stock 1 tsp. salt (or more to taste) 3 tbsp. cream (optional) For Salsa: 1/2 medium red onion 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar 1 large ripe tomato 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 3 tbsp. fresh corn kernels 8 fresh basil leaves Method for soup: Peel and dice the onion and carrot and stew slowly in the butter until the onion is translucent. Add corn, salt, thyme, chicken stock and cream and bring to a boil for 1 minute. Remove the thyme sprig and puree in the blender until very smooth. Strain through a medium mesh sieve making sure to force as much matter through as possible. There should only be the skins of the corn kernels left in the sieve (those can be discarded). Finish with a drop of red wine vinegar and more salt if necessary. Method for salsa: Finely mince or slice the onion and soak it in the red wine vinegar for 30 minutes. Dice the tomato and cut the corn off the cob and combine with the onions and vinegar, salt and olive oil. Chop the basil and add it just before serving. To finish: Reheat soup just before serving (keeping it hot for a long period of time will cook the corn and the texture of the soup will change for the worse). Garnish with a spoon full of salsa and a little cracked pepper. Green Goddess dressing with crisp Romaine From Scott McGehee, Boulevard Bread Co. Serves 6 For dressing: 1/2 red onion 1 clove garlic 3 tbsp. white wine vinegar 1 lemon 2 anchovies 1 avocado 3/4 cup olive oil 1/2 cup cream 4 tbsp. chopped Italian parsley 3 tbsp. chopped chervil 3 tbsp. chopped tarragon 2 tbsp. chopped cilantro 1 tbsp. chopped basil Salt and pepper For the composition: Crisp hearts of romaine, washed and drained Method: Slice the onion thin and cover with the white wine vinegar in a small bowl; let soak for 10-15 minutes. Add salt, pepper, crushed garlic, chopped anchovies, mashed avocado, olive oil, cream and almost all of the herbs (reserve a sprinkle for garnish). Whisk until just combined. Dress the romaine and garnish with more herbs. Grilled Arkansas tomato, portobello and goat cheese Napoleon with a honey balsamic glaze From Mark Elliotte of Best Impressions Serves 4 4 tomatoes cut into half-inch thick slices 1/4 pound sliced bacon cooked and crumbled 4 portobello mushrooms, gills removed 3 yellow bell peppers cut lengthwise into thirds 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro 8 ounces goat cheese at room temperature 6 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 cup balsamic vinegar 1/4 cup honey 4 springs fresh thyme Salt and freshly ground pepper To prepare balsamic glaze: Combine the honey and balsamic vinegar in a saucepan and reduce over low heat to 1/4 cup. Let cool. When the coals are ready on your barbecue grill, place a tomato slice on the underside (gill side) of a salted and peppered portobello mushroom. Put on some crumbled bacon, then spread a layer of goat cheese on top. Salt and pepper a yellow bell pepper slice and place a tomato slice on it, some of the crumbled bacon and a layer of goat cheese. Put both on the grill, drizzle with olive oil, close the lid and grill for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and place a portobello cap down on the plate first, then stack a yellow bell pepper on top. Spoon some of the balsamic glaze over the vegetables and around the plate and sprinkle with fresh cilantro. Garnish with thyme sprig.
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