The Underrated Summer Produce To Freshen Up Your Seasonal Dishes

When the dog days roll around and foodies shake the dust off their go-to summer recipes, seasonal produce steps into the spotlight. Strawberries, corn, and snap peas are all on our radar, but for James Beard Award-nominated Chef Emma Hearst, it's all about the lesser-known seasonal produce: fresh herbs and garlic scapes.

Hearst has been a longtime champion for local produce and fresh ingredients. She's the former chef-slash-owner of acclaimed Lower East Side Italian restaurant Sorella, where the walls were literally painted with wine from the menu. More recently, Hearst has teamed up with fellow Culinary Institute of America graduate John Barker as the co-owner of Forts Ferry Farm, inspired by a shared desire to grow the kind of fresh produce they wanted to incorporate into their dishes — and home cooks can follow their lead with Hearst's tips. 

The chef sat down with Tasting Table to share her two go-to types of summer produce, and they're less common than the standard ones folks can find at the grocery store. Challenge accepted. We've rounded up a few ideas to help get your brainstorm rolling. (This is your cue to add "herbs" and "garlic scapes" to your farmer's market shopping list).

Don't shy away from uncommon herbs

For summer dishes, Hearst is reaching for "[a]ll the fresh herbs in the world, especially in the northeast where they are abundant for such a short period of time," as the chef tells Tasting Table. "They make such a huge difference in creating dishes that pop with flavor." Kick it farmer's market style and try out some less-popular seasonal herbs to take your flavor game to new, unexpected levels.

Pesto is always an option for enjoying fresh herbs. You can also press herbs into sheets of pasta dough for flavorful ravioli. Calendula petals offer a mild peppery taste that works well in rice, blended into cream cheese, or baked into corn muffins. It also makes a good saffron substitute. And lemon verbena is the perfect fit for jelly, shortbread cookies, ice cream, or as a flavorful garnish over grilled fish.

Culantro (not to be confused with cilantro) has a similar but stronger flavor and larger, longer leaves. Try it in Vietnamese pho or sofrito. Similarly, shiso is a complex spiced, minty, basil-like herb popular in Japanese dishes that can be used anywhere you might normally use mint, like in a mojito, or pickled and served alongside sushi.

Up your baking game with lavender and make some lavender vanilla scones or lavender lemon pound cake. You could even bring lavender to the beverage world with a quick lavender simple syrup. (Lavender cold brew or lavender French 75s, anyone?)

Garlic scapes for days and days

The other go-to summer produce on Chef Hearst's list is fresh garlic. "Fresh garlic (and its scapes) is another one that has such a short season and is magnificent in its more youthful, greener stages," she explains, "Once cured, it takes on a very different characteristic."

To cure fresh garlic, it's placed outside or in a cold setting in order to make the skin turn papery and dry. This method effectively preserves the garlic for long-term storage and later use far beyond the peak of summer, but also makes the flavor more intense than spring garlic. Use fresh, milder garlic in egg dishes and stir fry for a pleasant (yet not overpowering) umami kick.

Long, curly garlic scapes resemble green onions and grow out of the garlic bulb. At farmer's markets, they're typically sold by the bunch and are great in soups, pasta, and frittatas. To let their garlicky flavor shine, hit 'em with a simple sauté with green beans and ramps as a seasonal side dish.

To get a taste of prime seasonal produce like this and more for themselves, foodies can visit Chef Hearst's Forts Ferry Farm in Latham, New York. The farm also sets up at the Troy and Delmar farmers market every Saturday at 9:00 a.m. For non-New Yorkers, Forts Ferry Farm runs an online store where foodies nationwide can shop for products like raw honey and house-made granola.