By Jessica, Pure Matters

When summer starts heating up, I stop wanting to turn on my oven. Luckily, produce is so bountiful and flavorful throughout the season that I barely have to. To me, the dog days mean smoothies, sandwiches and salads, and it’s my healthiest time of the year. Read on for tips for selecting, storing and using my seasonal produce picks, and give one of my favorite summertime salads a spin.

These fruits (yes, they’re fruits) hit their peak in the summer months, and while a ripe beefsteak can liven up any sandwich or salad, don’t overlook heirlooms, which hit the farmer’s market hard in the summertime and have a more complex flavor than their supermarket counterparts. When selecting tomatoes, look for firm, blemish-free skin. Store them on the countertop or windowsill – the refrigerator compromises their flavor and texture.

Okra is one of those vegetables that gets a bad rap, and in my humble opinion, a largely undeserved one. Okra lends itself well to high-heat cooking methods, like deep-frying, sautéeing or even grilling. And, in keeping with my “raw” theme, it is unbelievably delicious pickled. When buying, look for firm, bright green pods. Store okra in the refrigerator and use within a couple of days, or freeze for later.

Confession time: sometimes, nay, often, I eat half of an avocado for breakfast all by itself. That’s how much I love avocados. In addition to being heart-healthy and chock-full of omega-3s, these babies have a unique buttery flavor and smooth texture that can’t be found in any other fruit (yes, it’s a fruit). Unripe avocados should be left at room temperature until ready to eat, after which time they can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.

While there are few things better than corn on the cob fresh off the grill in the summertime, ripe sweet corn is also delicious raw, and a great addition to salsas and bean salads. When buying, look for bright green husks, and peel them back a little bit to make sure that the kernels are plump. Store in the refrigerator, in their husks.

I love how versatile and refreshing cucumbers are. Blend them up with fruits or veggies for smoothies (they’re delicious with watermelon or avocados), slice and dice them for salads, or cut them into thin rounds to top sandwiches. When buying, make sure they’re firm throughout and blemish-free, and store in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic for up to a week after buying.

While bell peppers are available year-round at the supermarket, they’re at their tastiest and most affordable in the summertime. While they’re great on the grill, I love them in salads, and find them much more flavorful on a crudité platter than celery and carrots. When buying, look for firm, blemish-free skin and bright color. Bell peppers can be stored in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.

When it comes to fruit, I’m a picky eater. While the more savory types like avocado and tomatoes are foods I enjoy nearly daily, eating the sweeter varieties is something I struggle with. Don’t even come near me with a cantaloupe or nectarine. Seriously. Berries, though, are fruits I actually like, be them raw, in smoothies or yogurt parfaits, or less healthfully, in summer pies. When buying, look for a bright, uniform color and no obvious signs of trauma or mold. Berries can be stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 days or frozen. Frozen berries blended with yogurt makes an awesome light breakfast or afternoon snack.

There’s something so sweetly nostalgic about a ripe, juicy slice of watermelon on a hot summer day. It’s like being a sticky-fingered six year old all over again. I love watermelon raw or in smoothies, and because I hate wasting anything even remotely edible, I’m a big fan of pickled watermelon rinds. If you want to dress up your next outdoor barbecue or picnic, try this easy, more savory preparation of watermelon:

Watermelon and Feta Salad
Serves 6-8

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 pounds watermelon, cubed and seeded
8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together salt, sugar, mint and vinegar. Let sit until salt and sugar are completely dissolved, about 15 minutes.

2. In a large mixing bowl, toss watermelon with dressing. Top with crumbled feta cheese, and serve immediately.