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Recalling last year's cold, wet June and its deleterious effects on hot-weather-loving plants, we should welcome this year's long, blistering summer with open arms and empty bellies. The first corn appeared in farmers markets around July 4 — two to three weeks ahead of schedule. Peaches weren't far behind, coming on at the same time as cherries.

What this means is certain vegetables and fruits are peaking earlier than usual, and other crops will have a longer growing season. "This season will be perfect for me, as the market generally closes too early and I end up throwing late-harvest produce away," says Ron Jensen, of North Ogden's Jensen Farms, one of the seven original vendors 20 years ago at the Downtown Farmers Market. August promises to be exceptional for those of us who love fresh, local produce.

Whether you are making regular visits to a farmers market, participating in a local food delivery from a local farm, or harvesting crops from your own garden, high-quality fruits and vegetables — familiar and less so — are both accessible and abundant. While corn, tomatoes and zucchini are old friends, perhaps it's time to get acquainted with two other denizens of the garden: chard and blackberries.

A vegetable feast • Chard, known by a number of other names including Swiss chard, Sicilian beet, Roman kale and perpetual spinach, has ties to both the beet and spinach families.

Cultivated for its leaves and stems beginning in Greece around 400 BC, chard is an older relative of the beets that we know today. Like beets, chard is also vibrant in color: Its leaves are strikingly green, and its stems boast a rainbow of hues from white to neon pink, crimson and yellow. While it has much in common with spinach, the vibrant colors of the stems make this vegetable a feast for the eye as well as the body.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Center, chard has five times the potassium, four times the phosphorus, six times the magnesium, more than three times the calcium, and five times the iron of spinach.

Couple these benefits with the fact that, unlike spinach, chard doesn't contain oxalic acid, which prevents the body from absorbing minerals, and one small helping of chard can go a long way toward helping you eat more veggies.

As for vitamins, except for niacin, chard has significantly higher amounts of Vitamin A; Vitamins B1, B2 and B6; Vitamin E; Vitamin K; pantothenic acid; and folate than spinach, which means chard can help prevent or treat various diseases, reduce cholesterol levels, and just generally improve your health. It's also a significant source of fiber. The only bad news is that one helping contains 313 mg of sodium compared to spinach's 24 mg, so people who need to watch their salt intake should take this into account.

The nutritional punch of blackberries • If you prefer your nutrition in the form of berries, blackberries are the premium local choice.

While blueberries may immediately come to mind, their preference for acidic soil makes them a challenge to grow in Utah, where our soil is highly alkaline. Wild blackberries have a long history: Our Mesolithic ancestors enjoyed them as early as 5,000 BC, but their unruly brambles discouraged their cultivation for many centuries. However difficult to tame they once were, today's thornless varieties make them a great addition to the backyard garden.

Second only to blueberries in nutritional punch, a cup of blackberries is a rich source of certain vitamins and minerals, as well as dietary fiber. Even more significant is the blackberry's extremely high level of antioxidants, which protect the body by neutralizing free radicals that can damage cells and contribute to disease and aging. Blackberries are particularly rich in the antioxidant anthocyanin, which, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service, lowers the risk of stroke and certain cancers and improves memory function.

Chard and blackberries are two of many crops worth seeking out at a farmers market or working into your plan for next year's garden, but they are only the beginning.

Now's the time to explore the wonders of the produce world, whether your treasures come in the form of a weekly delivery from a farm's community supported agriculture share, or from wandering through one of the many farmers markets around the city, or from the new crops you've added to your garden this year.

Not only can you savor these fruits and vegetables at their summer peak, you can freeze or preserve them, allowing you to relive the exquisite flavors of summer all year round.

Kitchen inspiration

Here's what to do with chard and blackberries in the kitchen:

Chard • While it looks pretty and is good for you, what exactly can you do with chard? The young, tender leaves can be combined with fruit and blended into breakfast smoothies, used raw in salads, or cooked into various entrees and sides, adding lemony flavor and interesting texture to many summer meals. Chard can be substituted in any recipe that calls for spinach, such as quiche, lasagna, omelets, gratins and soups. Its leaves and stems tend to hold up better to longer cooking times, minimizing the soggy texture that can plague spinach-laden recipes. As a side dish, chard can be sautéed with any combination of garlic butter, onions, lemon juice and parmesan cheese, or with toasted sesame oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce for Asian flair. In a stir-fry, served over rice or noodles, it can complement a host of other meats and vegetables. And for an unusual appetizer, you can lightly steam the leaves and stuff them with rice, raisins, walnuts, onions and herbs.

Blackberries • Although blackberries lend themselves naturally to crisps, fruit tarts, pies, cakes, smoothies, sorbet, and jams, they can also add flavor and contrast to savory dishes. Caramelized onions and fresh blackberries can enhance the flavor of a pork loin, the firm, sweet-tart berries playing well with the briny undertones and delicate texture of pork. Roast chicken sparkles when you use a blackberry rub and enhance the sweetly acidic flavor of the berries with lime, sage, thyme and rosemary. Using a sprinkling of blackberries as a finish to seafood, chicken, pork or lamb dishes provides a spot of color and a deliciously unexpected contrast in flavor. You can make tangy blackberry vinegar for use in vinaigrettes or marinades, create a syrup base for spritzers and other summer coolers, or fashion a subtly sweet, piquant barbecue sauce to use in grilling chicken, salmon or shrimp. A chilled savory soup of blackberries, cucumbers, cilantro, mint, and thyme is perfect for a hot day.

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