Produce primer: a refresher course in selecting the ripest, best-tasting fruits and vegetables from the market
Picking through produce is a pleasure for some. But many are overwhelmed by the task of choosing that perfect fruit or vegetable from the pile, judging its ripeness, color and smell, and trying to decide whether it should be refrigerated or not. Too often, that perfectly dyed, waxed, buffed and sprayed specimen turns out to be dry and flavorless.
However, choosing ripe fruit and vegetables isn't just luck of the draw. Whether you're stocking up your pantry or shopping for something succulent for a Labor Day picnic, some general guidelines for buying ripe fruits and vegetables can help.
Most fruit tastes best softened at room temperature and eaten within a few days of purchase. Once ripened, it can be stored in a cool place such as the refrigerator, where some varieties may keep for several weeks. If you're in a hurry for it to be ripe, that old hint about putting fruit in a brown paper bag really works. The bag traps ethylene gas, naturally released during ripening, that helps soften the fruit. Most fruit should not be kept in plastic bags because the plastic holds moisture, which will cause mold to grow. Most experts say washing produce with water is sufficient for cleaning, especially if it is grown without pesticides.
Like fruit, vegetables are best eaten within a few days of purchase and washed just before preparation. But unlike fruit, most vegetables should be wrapped tightly in plastic and stored in the refrigerator crisper. Keep only vegetables in your crisper. If they're sitting with fruit, the ethylene gas from the fruit can cause premature brown spotting on the vegetables. The "flop and fuzz" test is a good rule of thumb for determining ripeness. According to the flop rule, vegetables, such as broccoli and lettuce heads, that flop to one side when held vertically should probably be reserved for soup stock, not eaten whole. Flopping indicates lost moisture and flavor. And if produce is covered with bluish-gray fuzz, toss it.
Do avoid fruits and veggies that are shriveled, wrinkled, bruised or gashed, but don't be too swayed by appearance. Organic produce, grown regionally and without chemicals, doesn't get waxed, polished or dyed to hide cosmetic blemishes. It often looks imperfect compared to its conventional counterparts, but the flavor is vastly superior, despite the apple's brown spots or the orange's green tinge. Finally, ask the produce manager for guidance. He or she knows which fruits and vegetables are at their peak and will gladly help you make a selection.
Apples: To avoid mealy apples, choose those that are firm to the touch and free of bruises or gashes. Many think an intact stem is a good indicator of freshness, but most varieties have their stems cut off so they don't puncture other apples during shipment. Apples will keep for two to three weeks in the refrigerator. In season August through December.
Apricots: Apricots should be eaten when they are deep yellow to reddish-orange in color, which is probably why thousands of years ago the Persians called them "eggs of the sun." They should be plump and give slightly when squeezed. Apricots can last in a fruit basket for two weeks and even longer in the refrigerator. In season May through July.
Cherries: There are many types of cherries, ranging from dark purple to bright red, sweet to tangy. All should be plump and richly colored with stems intact. The best eating cherries are crisp with flesh that clings to the pit. When buying dark cherries, look them over very carefully as the color can hide signs of decay or mold. Cherries should be refrigerated immediately, stored in a plastic bag and used within a couple of days. In season July through August.
Berries are popular during the summer and fall months, but don't let your enthusiasm allow you to buy the first quart you see. They taste best in mid- to late summer. When buying berries, take a good look at the container. If it's stained with juice, chances are the berries sitting at the bottom are mushy or smashed. Most varieties are easily damaged, so remember you will probably never get a container with every berry in perfect condition.
Unlike most fruit, berries should be refrigerated as soon as you get them home. Before storing, throw away those that are already damaged and put the rest in a flat container to avoid any further damage. Use care when washing them. Best May through August. Blueberries: Their smaller, wild cousin has a lavender tinge, but domestically grown blueberries are dark blue and have a silvery tinge. Choose those that are plump and free of stems and leaves. Blueberries can be stored in a sealed container and frozen.
Blackberries and Raspberries: Should be purchased when plump and have inch color for their variety. Look for blackberries that are black with a bright, purplish tinge. Most raspberries sold in the United States are red, but some varieties are yellow, purple or black. Blackberries and raspberries are even more susceptible to damage than other berries, so treat them with extra care when washing.