3 Fresh Ingredients for Summer

Summer is the season for cooking fresh and fabulous feasts. The summer months bring ripe and juicy produce that nearly falls off the vines, farmers markets in their fullest glory, and perfect weather for celebrating the bountiful harvest in your very own backyard. Three summer all-stars are tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. Delicious and versatile, this trio is also incredibly healthy.

Although commonly regarded and categorized as a vegetable, the tomato is really a fruit, a very healthful one. Tomatoes are known for being exceptionally high in lycopene, a carotenoid that has antioxidant properties and may help prevent cancer and heart disease. Eating tomatoes with fat (try to choose a healthy fat source like avocado, olive oil, or nuts) increases your body's ability to absorb the lycopene.

Besides that famous carotenoid, tomatoes are also a rich source of vitamin C, folate (folic acid), riboflavin, and chromium, each with its own extensive list of health benefits.

For the tastiest tomatoes, grow them yourself or buy them from a farmers market or road-side produce stand. That ensures that your tomatoes are fresh from the vine—and healthier, too. Although tomatoes that have been shipped from across the country are still technically tomatoes, the flavor and texture doesn’t even remotely compare to those that are freshly picked. Select tomatoes with a deep rich color and smooth skin and store them on the countertop, where they’ll keep for a few days. Never refrigerate tomatoes as it changes the flavor and texture.

For more than 200 new ways to cook with tomatoes, check out our top-rated recipes

Boasting a unique and refreshing flavor, cucumbers (they're technically fruits, too) make a cooling snack for hot summer days. They’re also a good source of water, fiber, and nutrients like vitamin C. But the real nutritional benefits come from the skin, which contains minerals like silica, potassium and magnesium. Silica is an essential component of healthy connective tissue—important for your skin, bones and joints. So eating unpeeled cucumbers is essential. Unfortunately, when conventional growing methods are used, the peel also contains the bulk of the pesticide residue, too, and conventional cucumbers should always be peeled to reduce your pesticide exposure. So you'll reap the greatest health benefits of cucumbers if you buy organic ones.

Besides providing vitamins and minerals to your body when you eat them, cucumbers can also supply nutrients directly to your skin when applied externally. Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and caffeic acid are two compounds in cucumbers thought to prevent water retention. Applying cucumber slices over the eyelids can help relieve swollen eyes and other minor skin irritations.

Choose firm, medium to dark green cucumbers that are unwaxed and organic, and store them in the refrigerator.

Get ideas to serve up summer cucumbers from SparkRecipes.com.

Bell Peppers
Available in practically all shades of the rainbow, bell peppers all start off green, then ripen to their eventual shades of red, yellow, orange, and even purple. (That's why green peppers are the least expensive; they take less time and care to grow.) When they ripen, they become sweeter, especially if allowed to ripen on the vine in the sunlight. They are excellent sources of the antioxidants vitamin C and beta carotene and also contain good amounts of Vitamin B6.

Select peppers that are firm and smooth, have fresh-looking stems and no wrinkles on their skin. Store them in the crisper of your refrigerator, where they will keep for a week. They can also be frozen (whole or chopped) and added to soups and stews throughout the winter. And you may want to consider buying only organically produced bell peppers. According to the Environmental Working Group's 2006 report "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce," bell peppers are one of the top 12 foods that commonly harbor pesticide residues.

Need some cooking ideas for peppers? Look no further

A great recipe which combines all three of these nutritional powerhouses is Summer Gazpacho, a Mediterranean soup that is served cold. Besides tomatoes, cucumber, and peppers, gazpacho usually includes olive oil, onion, garlic, wine vinegar and sea salt, and this combination of ingredients is a prolific source of a variety of disease-fighting nutrients.

Happy summer harvest!