How to Choose the Perfect Piece of Produce
by Andy Johnston, Produce Manager
t’s Friday. You have friends coming over for dinner. You’re planning a Mexican theme—tacos, enchiladas, and all the fixins, including your famous guacamole that your friends rave about. You’ve done your shopping and some prep the day before, and now you’re ready to put it all together. You grab your avocados, and cut one in half only to find it’s grey and stringy. You go for another, and this one has a soft spot which reveals a blackish, slimy fruit. You can scrape off the nasty stuff and make just enough guacamole to tease your guests. Instead, you go without because you’re a good host.
This happens to the best of us—even me and I’m supposed to be the expert. When shopping, my wife always says, “You get the produce. You pick the best stuff.” Like it’s some natural ability I was born with. Actually, it’s the thirteen years I’ve spent working with some of the best food you can find here at the Co-op. Some might call me a food snob; I call it getting the most for my money and not disappointing my guests.
Here in the Produce department, we try to take the guesswork out of choosing a good quality product. We purchase products from vendors and farmers who we trust to handle our food with care and integrity. Staff is trained on how to properly handle and store product. We cull displays—removing sub-par product—on a daily basis to ensure that our customers are getting the best quality product available.
Certainly, buying locally grown product in season helps guarantee you’re getting the highest quality product. But what if you want a fresh tomato in the middle of February? You know it wasn’t grown locally, so how do you know if it’s good? Here are some tips and techniques we use in the Produce department every day!
Let’s start with something easy, lettuce. Lettuce comes in three distinct varieties, cabbage-type (iceberg and Bibb), cos (romaine), and loose leaf (green and red). Look for good color and crisp leaves. Browning and wilting leaves are signs of old product. Yellowing is often a sign of disease. A fresh, properly handled and stored head of lettuce should keep in your crisper for a couple of weeks. I’ve found trimming the stem end, submerging the entire head in lukewarm water, draining, and storing it in a plastic bag with a paper towel, I can revive even the most wilted of lettuces and store them for up to a month. This technique, referred to as “crisping,” comes in handy when we forget we purchased last week and now it’s not looking so hot.
Salad mix is a bit of a bugger. We find the baby red leafs in this product to be the first to show signs of age. The receivers in the department use this to determine whether or not we’re getting fresh product. During winter months when we’re getting product from California, we tend to see a little less appealing red leaf in the mix. If we see a lot, it goes back on the truck.
Bunched greens include spinach, arugula, mustard, and dandelions. They should be chosen like the lettuces. Look for fresh, crisp leaves, and bunches with no rot around the twist tie. Your hearty winter greens, such as kales, collards, and chards, should be chosen with the same criteria. If it’s wilted, it’s not worth it.
The highest quality leafy greens will be found in spring, summer, and fall, when they’re supplied locally. During winter months, some imperfections are inevitable. The product has traveled 2000 miles! Buy products you plan on using soon, not next week. This ensures high quality, and you’ll be getting more nutrition out of your purchases.
Broccoli and cauliflower
One’s green, the other’s white. Both have tiny flower clusters that form “heads.” Although the stem is edible and contains most of the nutrients, we commonly discard most of the stems and use the heads. We look for firm stalks and compact heads. Often with broccoli, we’ll see bruised heads. These heads have an area of darker green where the flowers have been crushed due to poor handling in the packing facility. Bruised heads on cauliflower often produce brown spots where the product has been damaged. Fresh cauli should be creamy white with firm, compact heads.
Peppers are another easy one. If they’re firm and have good color, they’re good!
When buying root crops such as beets, carrots, turnips, potatoes, etc., choose firm products. They should be hard, not spongey. I pick artichokes the same way. If the leaves are wrapped tight and the artichoke is firm, it’s going to be good. If you give it a little squeeze and it gives, that is usually a sign of age.
Green beans and peas
When purchasing peas with edible pods, try them. They should have good color and feel crisp. The best quality green beans should be dark green and crisp.
When purchasing asparagus, look for tight buds and crisp stalks. And remember, don’t overcook. Asparagus needs to be warmed. I’ve seen perfectly good asparagus destroyed by overcooking. If your asparagus is tough and stringy, it’s been overcooked!!
Apples are a no-brainer. We look for bruises and blemishes.
Choosing quality citrus is as easy as asking a staffer what’s good at the time.
Stone fruit, now that’s a challenge. Last year’s stone fruit season was particularly bad. Peaches and nectarines that looked beautiful on delivery began to rot before they ripened. Plums were okay, though some were not as flavorful as others. When choosing stone fruit, look for product that is free of bruises and blemishes. I like to buy product before it’s reached peak ripeness to avoid bruising between the store and home. It also helps to ask the staff if they’ve been mealy. We’ll give you an honest answer.
When receiving pears, receivers look for cosmetic blemishes and bruising. Often, quality cannot be determined until the product has had time to ripen a bit. This is commonly the most frequently asked question concerning all fruits that ripen, “How do I know if this is ready to eat?” This is somewhat of a fine art, as over-ripe is rotten! Determining that moment when fruit has reached its peak texture and flavor requires a delicate touch. Gentle pressure applied with the thumb should yield to a bit of give. I liken it to butter that’s just about room temperature. I use this method for mangoes and avocados as well, and I have yet to hear a complaint.
When shopping the avocados, feel for pockets of air. This is usually an area that was bruised prior to ripening. We do our best to cull these out of the displays, but we occasionally miss one or two.
Strawberries are usually sold with the calyx attached. The calyx is the stem and leaves that remain after the fruit is removed from the vine, often seen on tomatoes as well. The calyx should look fresh, not wilted and dried out. We also look at the area directly around the calyx, the shoulders. Strawberries with white shoulders are immature. They are typically tasteless and hard. Old berries dehydrate; they loose their shine and their skin tears easily. Look for uniform color and a fresh calyx.
Use the same indicators as strawberries to choose a good tomato, too. Often, tomatoes are picked green, and blemishes tend to show up only after the consumer has purchased and taken it home to ripen. These blemishes are indicators of a diseased crop. Choose tomatoes that are nearest to ripe to avoid these unseen problems!
I hope all of you who eat pineapple came in and got some while it was on sale recently. It was fabulous! In fact, it was so good we ran it on a bi-weekly sale in November and December. Pick a pineapple that shows some gold in it and odds are it’s going to be great!
Indulge your senses
The ability to choose quality produce brings gratification to your wallet and your palate. Take time to look at what you’re buying, get your hands on it and feel it. Put it up to your nose and smell it. Indulge your senses and reap the rewards! It’s what we in the Produce department do, and we love it!