Fresh Produce 101

I’m so fed up with Southern Indiana’s freezing, snowy, and slosh-y winter. It has been below 32 degrees for over two months, and I’m having major cabin fever. I want to go outside and take a walk, go to the grocery on foot, open my windows to enjoy the fresh air, and have something other than gray, cloudy weather. Most of all, I want my local farmer’s market to open back up.  I miss browsing fresh fruits and veggies, homemade whole grain breads, and quirky hand-made merchandise all for pennies and dimes. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for the overcrowded and overpriced grocery stores I’ve come to despise in my wintery imprisonment.

There are definite skills to making sure that grocery store produce is the best quality. As you begin to create your own meals and experiment with new foods, you will learn fairly quickly how to discern that the food your buying will give you the most bang for your buck. There is nothing worse than biting into an under ripe tomato or creating a pesto from rotten basil.

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Basic Tips for Judging Produce Freshness

Very rarely will you find bad raw produce from a qualified farmer at a market, but it’s at the produce section of the store that you should use the best judgment.

  • Smell : The easiest way to tell if just about any food is fresh or not is to smell it.
    • No smell: If it doesn’t have a thick outer skin, it’s most likely a little under ripe. These you can store for a few days before they begin to go bad. I will buy these kinds at the beginning of the week to use in meals later in the week.
    • Smells like fruit/veggie: If it smells the way you think it’s supposed to, it’s at its prime edibility. These need to be consumed within the next two days.
    • Rancid/bitter/strong odor: It’s bad. These foods are beyond ripe and are most likely not safe to consume. If you are confused about what constitutes a “strong odor,” the citrusy bitter odor of an overripe grapefruit can be smelled from five feet away.
  • Touch: Very useful if the produce has little to no odor
    • Very firm/little to no give: unless it is a naturally hard fruit, like acorn squash or avocado, a firm outer layer means it is still under ripe. You can buy these and store for a few days for them to ripen and be ready for dishes.
    • Some give but holds shape: it’s ripe and ready. These need to be consumed within the next two days.
    • Squishy/bruises/no shape: These are overripe and not safe to eat. No produce should ever “goosh.” An easy test is to take your thumb and gently press on the skin. If it bruises, becomes very dark in that area, or leaves and indent, it is overripe. Even a tomato will hold the majority of its shape when gently squeezed.
  • Appearance: When all else fails, does it look fresh?
    • Different color/appearance: Lettuce is yellow before it turns green. Oranges are green before they turn orange. Tomatoes can be green or orange before turning red. Grapes can be the size of tic tacs before they plump up. If it looks different than what you know it to be, it’s most likely under ripe. Most produce will turn to its natural color shade when stored, but avoid produce that is completely different to what it should look like. Don’t buy a barrel of green tomatoes to store until they all turn green.
    • Natural color and shape/no dark spots/no mold: it’s ripe and ready. These need to be consumed within the next two days.
    • Unnatural color/dark spots/mold: It’s most likely overripe and no good. Squashes won’t bruise, but they will develop “freckles” or little dark spots that will become bigger and bigger over time. No produce should have a wrinkly or loose skin.

For more detailed descriptions of the quality of produce, click here 

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How to Store Fruits and Vegetables

“The main way to lengthen shelf life is by using cold temperatures to slow food’s respiration, or ‘breathing’ process,” explains Marita Cantwell, PhD, a postharvest specialist at the University of California, Davis. In general, the warmer the temperature, the faster the rate of respiration, which is why refrigeration is critical for most produce. But while you want to slow it down, you don’t want to stop the breathing altogether. “The worst thing to do is seal fruits and vegetables in an airtight bag,” says Barry Swanson, a food scientist at Washington State University. “You’ll suffocate them and speed up decay.”

Cold-sensitive fruits and veggies lose flavor and moisture at low temperatures. Store them on the counter, not in the fridge. Once they’re fully ripe, you can refrigerate them to help them last, but for best flavor, return them to room temp. Never refrigerate potatoes, onions, winter squash or garlic. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry cabinet, and they can last up to a month or more. But separate them so their flavors and smells don’t migrate

Some fruits emit ethylene, an odorless, colorless gas that speeds ripening and can lead to the premature decay of nearby ethylene-sensitive vegetables. Put spinach or kale in the same bin as peaches or apples, and the greens will turn yellow and limp in just a couple of days. So the first trick is to separate produce that emits ethylene from produce that’s sensitive to it.

REFRIGERATE THESE GAS RELEASERS:

• Apples
• Apricots
• Canteloupe
• Figs
• Honeydew

DON’T REFRIGERATE THESE GAS RELEASERS:

• Avocados
• Bananas, unripe
• Nectarines
• Peaches
• Pears
• Plums
• Tomatoes

KEEP THESE AWAY FROM ALL GAS RELEASERS:

• Bananas, ripe
• Broccoli
• Brussels sprouts
• Cabbage
• Carrots
• Cauliflower
• Cucumbers
• Eggplant
• Lettuce and other leafy greens
• Parsley
• Peas
• Peppers
• Squash
• Sweet potatoes
• Watermelon

There are also some innovations to help extend the life of your fruits and veggies. Some products actually absorb ethylene and can be dropped into a crisper, such as the E.G.G. (for ethylene gas guardian) which is shaped like an egg, and ExtraLife, a hockey puck-like disk. A variety of produce bags are also on the market, such as those by Evert-Fresh and BioFresh, which both absorb ethylene and create an atmosphere that inhibits respiration.

At least as important as how you store produce is when you buy it. Do all your other shopping first so that your berries and broccoli don’t get warm— while you’re picking up nonperishable items. Get the produce home and into the fridge as soon as possible. If you’ll be making several stops between the market and kitchen, put a cooler in the car. Shop farmers’ markets soon after they open: Just-harvested greens wilt quickly once they’ve been in the sun for a few hours.

Even under optimal conditions, fragile raspberries will never last as long as thick-skinned oranges. Eat more perishable items first. And if you still find yourself with a bushel of ripe produce —and a business trip around the bend—, just improvise. Make a fruit pie, a potful of soup or a great big vat of tomato sauce, and throw it in the freezer.

For more info on how to store specific items, click here

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Reasons Buy Raw Produce That is in Season

Easy on the Wallet

When produce is in season locally, the relative abundance of the crop usually makes it less expensive. Think of the packaged herbs you see in a grocery store during the winter. A few limp sprigs of basil, all too frequently with black speckles and moldy leaves, cost about $3 per half ounce. In contrast, the gorgeous, bright green, crisp basil you see in both grocery stores and at farmers’ markets in the summer when basil is in season often sells for as little as $1-2 for an enormous bunch. It’s the basic law of supply and demand, and when crops are in season you’ll be rewarded financially by purchasing what’s growing now.

It’s the Taste That Counts

When food is not in season locally, it’s either grown in a hothouse or shipped in from other parts of the world, and both these variables affect the taste. Compare a dark red, vine-ripened tomato still warm from the summer sun with a winter hothouse tomato that’s barely red, somewhat mealy, and lacking in flavor. When transporting crops, they must be harvested early and refrigerated so they don’t rot during transportation. They may not ripen as effectively as they would in their natural environment and as a result they don’t develop their full flavor.

 

Save Nutrients, Save Flavor, and Save Gas

According to Brian Halweil, author of “Eat Here: Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket,” “If you harvest something early so that it can endure a long distance shipping experience, it’s not going to have the full complement of nutrients it might have had.” In addition, transporting produce sometimes requires irradiation, applying the produce with radiation to kill germs, and preservatives, such as wax, to protect the produce which is subsequently refrigerated during the trip. There is good reason to believe that eating local is really the safer option. Loomis shares his concern and adds, “We have become terribly cavalier about quality, flavor and texture.” She prefers to buy her produce locally, and preferably from a farmer she knows.

In My Backyard or Not Too Far

Because of limited growing seasons in most regions, it’s virtually impossible to eat locally and in season all of the time. If possible, grow it and pick it yourself . You’ll know exactly what went into growing those vegetables and you can enjoy them at their peak the day they are harvested. If gardening isn’t your thing, visit a local farmers’ market weekly or join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, some of whom even deliver the weekly harvest to convenient distribution locations. While it might not always be possible to purchase your seasonal produce locally, the next best thing is to purchase what’s in season somewhere else,  and hopefully not too very far away to minimize shipping time and subsequent damage.

Quick Reference to Cooking Vegetables

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