Heavy is the weight that grocery and produce stores bear: To provide consistently fresh and ripe vegetables and fruit, year round. To accommodate the ever-growing appetite for a low-fat, healthy diet, fruits and vegetables are shipped from all four corners of the earth. This makes “seasons” obsolete but, like when you’re buying apples in the summer, you often lose flavor and quality for this convenience. To find what produce is fresh near you during the year, this is a good website.
You have to enter into the produce agreement with one thing in mind: choose at your own risk of ruining a fabulous recipe or healthy snack. And don’t be entranced by pretty produce. Once upon a time, a friend excitedly bought some gorgeous peaches for a Peach Melba, but failed to smell the fruit at the store. What’s a peach without peach flavor? Like a water chestnut in a can – bland and crunchy. Why? Usually the grower — in order to get the produce to market quicker — harvests the fruit before it’s ripe and artificially enhances the color using whatever means possible… gas, colorants, etc.
To win at this game, all you need are three senses: sight, smell and touch. A little knowledge of what fruits and vegetables are grown in your area would be helpful as well, because your local vendor or U-Pick (find one near you) can be your best friend. In a short amount of time, you can acquire the right acumen to use only the best and ripest produce and it makes all the difference. Here are a few of the tidbits I have picked up during my 20 years of cooking (I started young).
- Artichoke (spring)
Buy these guys deep green, and the leaves should squeak like your fingers on a clean, wet plate when pressed together. If it’s brown all over, don’t go there because it’s past its prime, but a bit of discoloration on the leaves is okay.
- Asparagus (spring)
Green asparagus should be firm and bright green when ripe. Tips should be tight and not wilted or have any odor. The size difference in asparagus comes from when they harvested. Each spear grows eight to ten years; the older the spear, the thicker the asparagus. There is debate on whether the narrow stalks are better than the thick ones. Talk amongst yourselves.
- Broccoli/Cauliflower (fall/spring)
Choose selections that lack brown or yellowing spots as well as those that have tightly bunched florets. Broccoli should be dark green and cauliflower, creamy white. Try and bend a stalk… it shouldn’t give.
- Cabbage (fall/winter)
Cabbage heads should be firm, dark green and compact. Avoid heads those with loose, wilted, or brown leaves. The stem (where it was cut from the ground) should be white and slightly moist, not cracked and dry, a sign of age.
- Carrot (not seasonal… grown year round)
A good carrot is firm and smooth, bright orange and is without cracks. If your carrots have become limp, you can “recrisp” them by putting them in a bowl of ice water.
- Celery (not really seasonal but best in spring)
Fresh celery should have happy-looking leaves, light green colored stalks and be free of bruised or damaged skin. You can re-perk celery just like carrots — cut off the bottom of the stalk and stand them up in a glass or bowl of water.
- Corn (season = summer)
Look for ears with bright green, tightly fitting husks and golden blonde silk or “hair.” Don’t be afraid to pull down the husks and check out the inside. The kernels should be plump, not shriveled, give slightly to the touch, and spread all the way to the ear’s tip; the rows should be tightly spaced.
- Cucumber (season = summer)
As a cucumber matures, its seeds become bitter, hard and large. Thus, to increase the enjoyment of this vegetable, it’s important to know the signs of age. The skin should be bright green and the body and ends should be firm with no soft or shriveled spots. “English” or “seedless” cucumbers follow the same rules.
- Eggplant (summer)
Did you know eggplants are actually part of the berry family? To test an eggplant for ripeness, its weight should be heavy for its size, and the skin free of bruises and brown spots. Another test is a thump to the outside, which should sound somewhat hollow.
- Green Beans (late spring, summer)
Also known as the string bean and snap bean, these pod vegetables have been around thousands of years. Pick beans that don’t have any dark spots on them and are still crisp to the touch. Avoid those with big beans inside them (unless you’re buying peas). If they are flimsy, don’t buy them.
- Green Onions/ Leeks (spring)
Green onions are also called scallions and spring onions. Both green onions and leeks should have crisp, bright green stems and firm white bases. Avoid the slime and inspect around the rubber bands that binds them for bruising.
- Lettuces (fall and winter)
There are endless varieties of lettuce, from frisee to red leaf to spinach, but all of these tender, highly perishable leaves should be free of dark spots and bruises. Whole heads keep fresh longer than the bagged kinds.
- Mushroom (fall)
Today, there are literally thousands of varieties of mushrooms. The most commonly found are the button mushroom (white mushroom), portobello, shitake, porcini, morel (if you’re lucky!), chanterelle and cepe. To test their ripeness, mushrooms as a whole should be firm to the touch, not slimy and evenly colored. Look under the caps if you can and notice if the “gills” are tightly sealed in. If they are visible or darkly tinged, then the specimen is past its prime.
- Peppers (summer)
Peppers range from mild (Bell) to fiery (Habanero) and choosing the best ones is the same for all. The skin should be smooth, with no bruises, wrinkling or marks. When green bell peppers ripen, they turn red, purple, orange or yellow, depending on the variety.
- Tomato (summer)
Unfortunately, the best and ripest tomatoes are frequently found in home gardens, but you can find good ones them in specialty stores and labeled “vine-ripened.” Real vine-ripened fruit is very perishable, so often they are picked green and turn red by a process of ethylene gas in special warming rooms. This label, however, can be misleading so you need to be able to detect the best tomatoes. Good tomatoes will have loads of fragrance, will be free of bruises and give slightly to pressure.
- Yellow Summer Squash (summer)
Squash are very perishable and bad ones are easy to spot. They will have dark bruises on the skin, which should be bright yellow and firm to the touch. Smaller squash are better because the flavor is softer and the texture is less chewy.
- Zucchini (summer)
Smaller zucchini are better because the bigger ones tend to have tougher skin and less tender flesh. Look for vibrant color in the skin and choose ones that are free of bruises.