10 Must-Have Specialty Fruits & Vegetables for Summer Menus

July 13, 2018

Every season has it's own perks in the produce industry, but summer is undeniably fun. With local production in full swing and domestic tropicals at their peak, summer on the East Coast brings an especially vibrant bounty to the market that just begs for menu specials and grilled everything. Below are ten of our favorite peak season specialty fruits and vegetables for summer that bring vibrant colors, sensational tastes, and some extra fun to summer promotions.


1. Dragon Fruit


Dragon Fruit Sliced


With its eye-catching color, bold shape and approachable flavor, dragon fruit, also known as pitaya, is the perfect specialty fruit for summer. Dragon fruit is available in three different varieties:


  1. The standard: White flesh. Magenta skin with white flesh, available year-round but in peak season domestically in the summer.
  2. Less common: Red flesh. The same magenta skin but vibrant, deep red flesh. It’s sweeter with a berry-like flavor, but is only sporadically available, so get it when you can!
  3. The newcomer: Yellow. Bright yellow skin with stubby green bracts and semi-translucent white flesh. It is the sweetest of the three, but doesn’t have quite the looks of the other two. It’s in season from Ecuador from summer through fall – but availability can still be somewhat sporadic.

Each variety’s flesh is studded with small, black, edible seeds - a bit like kiwi seeds. Mildly sweet, with a lightly tropical flavor reminiscent of Asian pear or peach, dragon fruit is a great addition to smoothies, juices, ice creams, and sorbets. The fruit’s striking appearance makes it perfect for cocktail garnishes, or adds flair to a tropical summertime fruit salad when scooped into small, decorative balls.



2. Fresh Figs


Black Mission Figs


Native to the Middle East and Western Asia, the fig was one of the first fruits to be cultivated by man (it’s been grown by humans since at least 2500 BCE)! Spanish settlers introduced this fruit to the United States in 1769 and since then the US, primarily California, has become a leading producer of figs. There are many varieties of fig, each containing variations in color and distinct flavors. Some of the most common types of figs are Black Mission, Brown Turkey, and the green figs, Kadota, Calimyrna, and Tiger Stripe.


  1. Black Mission figs are deep purple in color and taste sweet, rich, and jammy. A classic. Available in high summer: June through August.
  2. The Brown Turkey fig is maple-brown in color, and has a juicy, refreshing, and sweet taste. This fig is available for the longest period of time from May through October.
  3. Green Kadota and calimyrna figs are yellow-green in color with an amber interior flesh. A marvelous, nutty, complex sweetness like caramel! These figs are great eaten out of hand, canned, jammed, or dried. They are only sporadically available from mid-August through September, and pair great with cheeses and salty meats.
  4. The Tiger Stripe fig has a distinct teardrop shape with striking green and yellow stripes and bright red flesh. They have a rich, jam-like consistency and a flavor just like strawberry jam. Great for making jams, filling cookies, and topping off ice cream and cheesecakes. Available sporadically from July through September.



3. Quenepa




Pronounced “keh-nay-pah,” quenepa (also known as mamoncillo, Spanish lime, gnep, and quenette) is a member of the soapberry family. They’re hugely popular in the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico, where they grow all over the roadsides in the summertime. Related to the lychee, rambutan, and longan, quenepas are small; contain a large seed covered by a creamy, yellow, jelly-like flesh; and are encapsulated by a green, tough outer skin. The fruit’s flesh is sweet yet tart and acidic in flavor. They’re most often eaten out of hand, however once soaked in liquid and strained to remove seeds and create a pulp, they work well incorporated into ice cream, or turned into simple syrup and poured over pound cakes, scones, and other desserts. Quenepas are available from June through September.



4. Starfruit


Starfruit Sliced


You can’t get more fun than a star-shaped fruit! Typically available year round from a variety of countries including Mexico and Taiwan, starfruit (aka carambola) is in peak season in Florida from July through February. Tasting like a blend of tangy apple and juicy citrus, the entire fruit is edible, skin and all, (there are a few seeds that might need to be removed). It's a good source of Vitamin C and fiber too! In the Philippines, its fiber content makes it a popular aid for those on low-calorie diets! Offering great color, looks, and flavoring, starfruit is great incorporated into fruit salads and desserts like sherbet or fruit crisps. It can also serve as a striking garnish for the rim of a summer cocktail glass, or simmered down into sauces to pair along meat and fish dishes. 



5. Lychee




With its floral aroma and light-pink to bright red skin, lychee fruit sings summertime. Also known as lichi, litchi, leechee, and Chinese cherry, the lychee fruit comes from the tropical and subtropical tree native to South Asia and Malaysia where it symbolizes love and romance. The fruit is a little smaller than the size of a golf ball, and its white, succulent, juicy flesh is covered by an inedible, bumpy skin. Do be mindful that the flesh surrounds a small, brown seed that should not be eaten – just eat around it!


The floral aroma that lychee is known for is often described as bursts of rose petal, cherry, and pineapple - refreshing and sensational for summertime. Lychee can be enjoyed by cracking open the skin just below the stem, peeling, and eating just like a cherry (spitting the seed out). Mexican lychee is in peak season during June and July, and continues from China through the remainder of the summer. This fruit adds sweet and aromatic flavor to fruit salads, enhances desserts, and adds the perfect sweet twist to cocktails.



6. Eggplant


Chinese Eggplant


There are an abundance of eggplant varieties to add flair to the line-up during summer’s peak. While most eggplant varieties are available year-round from greenhouses or the Caribbean, summertime sees the highest volume of local production and it is – of course – grilling season! Here are our favorite specialty varieties:


  1. Baby eggplant, also known as Italian eggplant, is petite and tastes similar to that of the globe eggplant – BUT it has a super thin skin and tender seeds that make it quick-cooking and easy to ace. Baby eggplant pairs well with other summer vegetables, such as tomatoes and onions, stewed together. This variety can also be used as a substitute for the globe eggplant in eggplant parmesan, or it can be seasoned and baked. They’re available year round.
  2. The graffiti eggplant is close in shape to that of the globe, but has a spunky skin with white and purple streaks. Graffiti eggplant, like baby eggplant, has a thinner skin and tenderer flesh than the globe variety. The graffiti eggplant also absorbs less moisture, so it’s great for avoiding oil-sogginess. To really show off its beautiful skin, preparing graffiti simply is suggested: grilled, roasted, or sautéed.
  3. Japanese eggplant is slender, and has a much darker purple color than its relatives. It has super thin skin and a sweet, sophisticated mild taste with a creamier texture. This variety is well suited to dishes that include Asian flavors like soy sauce, miso, or ginger, but it is also adaptable to almost any recipe. Sauté it, roast it, grill it. Japanese eggplant is available year-round, peaking during the summer through the fall.
  4. Known for its vivid, bright purple color, the Chinese eggplant is very long and thin, containing almost no seeds. Because it has minimal seeds, it has little-to-no bitterness. It cooks very quickly, yet maintains a firm texture. Use this variety in spicy stir-fries, or broil as the base for a Ma Po eggplant dish. If grilling, cook quickly over high heat to avoid overcooking!
  5. Thai eggplant stands out with green and white-striped skin and a golf-ball shape. Because this eggplant is small in size, it can be cooked whole. The seeds give a nice crunch without any bitterness or unpleasant texture. The perfect eggplant for soaking up the flavors of sauces and broths, incorporate into coconut curries and Asian-influenced soups. Thai eggplant is available sporadically throughout the year. 
  6. Indian eggplant is smaller in size, comparable to that of the Thai eggplant, but egg-shaped with a reddish-purple skin. This variety has tender skin and few seeds. Most commonly used in India, the Indian eggplant is beginning to find a home in the US. Use in the popular Indian dish, bharta, or stuff, pickle, or include in Indian curries! They are available year round and peak during the summer season.



7. Heirloom Tomatoes


Heirloom Tomatoes


Heirloom tomatoes have been around for decades - and no, they are not GMO! These colorful varieties of tomato have been selectively bred by small farmers through generations to save and enhance valued characteristics. Did you know there are actually four "types" of heirloom varieties?


  1. Classic heirloom varieties have been available to the public for more than 50 years.
  2. Family heirloom varieties are a variety that were developed by a particular family, acquiring their own distinct character.
  3. Created heirloom varieties are a cross between two existing heirlooms.
  4. Mystery heirloom varieties are the product of natural cross pollination.


Within each of these categories there are hundreds of varieties of tomato, ranging in size, shape, and color! These delicate tomatoes are bred for flavor, not shelf-life, so we recommend favoring a local heirloom whenever possible. They're in peak  supply and eating quality during the summer months, especially July to September. They are picked at full maturity, so be aware that they should be treated very gently - and never refrigerated!


Heirloom tomatoes can be used like any tomato, however, due to their high water content (and exceptional flavor) they are most often enjoyed raw rather than cooked. They’re the perfect addition to salads and sandwiches or hamburgers, offering a pop of color and a punch of flavor ranging from meaty and rich, to acidic and bright, to fruity and sweet! 



8. Okra




Available year-round, but in peak season June through September, okra is known for its distinct ridged pod. The adult pod ranges in length from 5 to 6 inches. The skin of okra can be fuzzy, and inside are many small, edible white seeds. When cut, this vegetable becomes sticky and mucilaginous, which may seem unpleasant, but it is actually what makes it so wonderful in soups, stews, and gumbo! Its stickiness thickens them for that perfect, satisfying texture. With a mild, grassy flavor and unique texture, okra can make a delicious summertime side-dish pickled, sautéed, grilled, or deep-fried. 



9. Chile Peppers


Red Habanero Peppers


Chile peppers are HOT right now! Chile pepper varieties break down into two species: capsicum annuum and capsicum chinese. Capsicum annuum is the family name for most varieties we know such as jalapeno, poblano, and serrano. Capsicum chinese is the group that contains the world’s hottest peppers known for their intense heat and flavor, such as the habanero and Trinidad scorpion pepper. Some of the most popular varieties of chile peppers include: banana, caribe, cubanelle, cherry hot, bird’s eye chile, jalapeno, finger hot, long hot, poblano, serrano, habanero, Thai chile, manzano, hungarian, anaheim, and shishito. Check out our visual guide to chile peppers here.


Chile peppers are versatile, delicious, and kick up the heat in any summer dish. They can be used as a mouthwatering (and eye-tearing) burger, pizza, or sandwich topping. Or, stuff them (poblano and anaheim are popular stuffing peppers), simmer down into marinades and hot sauces, or dice and include in fresh salsa. Most varieties of chile peppers are available all year round, however, if a variety is not accessible, you can usually substitute one for another. For example, if serrano chiles are not available, substituting jalapeno or habanero peppers will do the trick. We're always happy to help identify the right substitute!



10. Boston Lettuce


Boston Lettuce


Boston lettuce, otherwise known as butter lettuce and very similar to bibb lettuce, is good to have on hand when grilling up burgers, or tossing together a fresh salad. Available year-round, Boston lettuce is known for its sweet, mild flavor and exceptionally tender texture. It peaks in popularity during the summer months due to its vibrant color and perfect characteristics for burger season! Boston lettuce is one of the best sandwich and burger lettuces, and it’s hearty enough to be used as a "lettuce wrap" for low-carb or gluten free menu options. Not to mention it's a wonderful base for a refreshing salad with a bright, acidic vinaigrette. 


Posted by:
Katie Babinsky

Summer, Produce, Fruits, Vegetables, Dragon Fruit, Eggplant, Grilling, Menu, Foodservice

Share this:

Sign Up For Our Mailing List!