Best of the best: picking out your produce

banner-programs-farmersmarketIt’s summer, and our Farmer’s markets are bursting at the seams with ripe, beautiful, delicious veggies!

12654364-largeOne thing I’m constantly reminding our subscribers of is this: when shopping for fresh produce, keep in mind your end goal…you’re wanting to prepare a delicious, nutritious dish…not shoot a magazine ad.

In other words, the best produce isn’t always the sexiest.

Imperfections can be attractive, hinting at surprising sweetness and depth of character. Unfortunately, most supermarkets today sell produce bred as much to withstand shipping, as for flavor, and while it might be pretty…it may not be particularly flavorful.

Use Your Senses

woman-smelling-fruit-400x400The best tasting produce is often irregularly shaped and blemished (because the more ripe the plant, the easier it is to bruise).

The freshest produce should feel solid and sturdy with taut skin. Leaf veggies should feel crisp and firm.

A lot of veggies and fruits can be sniffed for ripeness, and should smell strongly of what they are, without being cloying or overripe.

How to shop for vegetables

Okay, so here are some tips on how to pick good produce while shopping for a few of my favorite veggies…

Artichokes: Compact, plump, heavy, with thick, green, tightly closed leaves. Avoid if leaves are dry, spreading, or hard-tipped.

Asparagus: Straight stalks with closed, compact tips and full green color, except for white ends. Avoid if shriveled or have spreading tips. Thicker stalks should be peeled before cooking.

Avocados: Shiny green or mottled purplish-black (depending upon variety); yield to gentle pressure. Ripen in a paper bag at room temperature.

Beans: Firm, crisp, bright color.

Broccoli: Dark green, firmly clustered buds on firm, but not thick, stalks.

Cabbage: Firm, heavy, with brightly colored (green or red) outer leaves and no black blemishes.

Carrots: Firm, straight, with bright orange color, preferably with fresh green leaves attached. Avoid if limp or cracked.

Cauliflower: Firm heads with tightly packed creamy white clusters and fresh-looking green leaves. Avoid those with black spots.

Cucumbers: Medium to small, with bright green color. Avoid any with soft ends, or wax coatings.

Garlic: Firm heads with tight, compact cloves. Papery skin should be soft, not brittle.

Leeks: Firm, white base with fresh-looking green leaves.

Mushrooms: Firm, plump with tightly closed caps and fresh-looking stems. Select carefully, avoiding mold.

Onions: Clean, dry, firm with papery husks, and no sprouts or soft spots.

Peas: Firm, bright or light green, with well-filled pods. Avoid swollen, wrinkled, or immature dark green pods.

Peppers: Firm, shiny, with bright color, green, red, orange, or yellow. Avoid soft spots, or darkened stem ends.

Potatoes: Firm, smooth skinned, well shaped, with no sprouts.

Spinach: Bright green, fresh, tender leaves with no yellowing or wilted ends.

Squash: (zucchini, yellow, straight neck, patty pan) Smooth, bright skin, bright color, green or yellow, heavy and firm.

Sweet potatoes: Firm, uniform shape with even color. Avoid very large ones (it’s a sign of age).

Tomatoes: Firm, plump with unbroken skin; color and size depends on variety.

Turnips: Firm, unblemished, heavy for their size with fresh-looking tops.

Turnips: Firm, unblemished, heavy for their size with fresh-looking tops.


Cooking Veggies

Now that you’ve picked out some great veggies…what do you do with them?

We (should) be getting the majority of our daily vitamin content from vegetables, so we need to be sure that how we cook them does not drain away all the vitamins and benefits of eating them in the first place.

Cooking vegetables can be tricky. Over cooking can make vegetables bland and soggy.

Personally, I think that veggies seldom benefit from being boiled. Boiling leeches out vitamin content, and is the main culprit in turning vegetables to a lifeless, tasteless glop.

So, how do we proceed?

SCeB8Depending on the veggies, I prefer steaming, roasting, or sauteing.

All three of these cooking methods leave vegetables full of life. They will be crisp and colorful. It will also not deplete the vegetables of their vitamin content.

By rule of thumb, vegetables will only need a few minutes of heat…ie: take them off BEFORE they look done. If you wait until the looked cooked through, they’re gonna be soft and soggy when you serve them.

So, get out there and pick up some fresh, beautiful (or even not so beautiful) veggies at your local farmer’s or produce market, and enjoy them at their seasonal best!

Chef Perry