Shopping for produce can be confusing. You sniff, poke and shake, yet you can still end up with less-than-tasty fruits, limp greens and bland vegetables. Here are some tips on choosing the freshest produce at the market, getting the most for your money and making the best of fruits and vegetables that are past their prime.
The Fruit Files
- Apples The color of apples can range from yellow to green to red. When shopping for them, look for firm fruit that has a rich color. Apples will keep in the refrigerator crisper for up to a month.
- Bananas The best bananas have a solid yellow color speckled with brown. Greenish bananas ripen well at home, so they're worth buying if you plan on eating them later. Store bananas at room temperature—not in the fridge—since they age more quickly when cold. Mash overripe bananas to use in cookies and pancakes.
- Blueberries Look for firm, brightly colored blueberries. Skip those that look mushy and always examine the container. If it's stained or leaking, chances are the berries are beginning to spoil. Blueberries freeze very well, but don't wash them beforehand. Spread them on a cookie sheet, place in the freezer until solid and then transfer to a freezer-safe container.
- Cantaloupes These melons should have a sweet smell; to the touch, the end should have a little bit of give. Store ripe, whole cantaloupes in the fridge, where they'll last for a week. Cut melons will keep for a few days. Overripe cantaloupes make a fine soup.
- Cherries Buy cherries when you have time to choose them one by one, not by the handful. The best are plump and dark red, with fresh stems. Cherries should be refrigerated and eaten within a few days of purchase.
- Grapefruit Heavy, firm grapefruit are the super juicy ones. Grapefruit can keep in the fridge for two weeks. Tired of eating them raw? Put brown sugar on a grapefruit half and broil it. Or cut fresh fruit into chunks and use to top a chicken dish.
- Oranges The heavier the fruit for its size, the juicier it's likely to be. Avoid oranges with thick, coarse or spongy skin. Oranges will keep in the fridge for a few weeks. Squeeze the juice from leftover oranges and use to flavor sauces and salad dressings.
- Peaches Tree ripened peaches taste best of all. Fresh peaches have a short season and are fairly perishable, so don't buy more than you plan to use in a couple of days. Use slightly overripe peaches in sauces.
- Pears There are several varieties of pears. Anjous (oval with white flesh and green skin) are delicious to eat out of hand and to use in cooking. Bartletts (golden and bell shaped) are good raw or cooked. Aromatic Boscs (tapered and russeted) are delicious raw. Comice (round and sweet) is the best dessert pear. Not as sturdy as apples, pears should be used within a week after ripening. Prepare them simply by coring, adding a little sugar and cinnamon, then baking—in a pan with about a half inch of water and wine—until slightly soft. Or poach pears in a bit of red wine until they take on a beautiful red color.
- Pineapples Good ones have a fragrant aroma and should feel heavy for their size. The leaves should be green and crisp. Store underripe pineapples whole at room temperature, but away from sunlight. Keep whole ripe ones in the fridge in a perforated plastic bag for a few days.
- Strawberries Look for firm strawberries with the cap stem still attached. Avoid those with large, uncolored seedy areas. Never wash strawberries vigorously. Just rinse under running water before using. Overripe berries are great in smoothies. You can also freeze them (unwashed) to use later in muffin batter.
- Watermelons This fruit may or may not have seeds, and comes with flesh that runs from pink to orange to gold. Shop for a cut melon with rich-colored flesh, dark seeds and no white streaks. If you buy a whole melon, it should be symmetrical with a smooth surface, pale green color and well-rounded ends. Store ripe watermelon in the refrigerator, but be sure to remove it an hour or so before serving for the sweetest taste.
- Asparagus Look for smooth, dark-green spears and closed, dense tips. Asparagus is perishable, so use within a day or two of purchase. Store in the fridge, with the cut ends of the spears submerged in a pitcher of water.
- Bell peppers Red peppers are riper, sweeter versions of the green, and both contain a number of disease-fighting chemicals. Look for smooth, heavy peppers, and don't be afraid to shake one. If you hear seeds rattling, the pepper is past its prime. Once cored and seeded, peppers can be stuffed and baked, roasted or pureed to use as a spread. Those past their prime can be diced, sautéed in oil and added to a casserole.
- Broccoli Look for bright, compact heads; avoid those that look bruised. The bud clusters should be dark green or green with a purplish cast. The buds should not be open, which is a sign of overmaturity. Microwaving broccoli retains more nutrients than boiling. Leftover broccoli is delicious in a salad topped with an Asian dressing of peanut oil, rice vinegar or fruit juice, and a dash of dark sesame oil.
- Cabbage Choose cabbage with a dense, heavy head and with red or green leaves. Cabbage will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge. If you make coleslaw, vary the ingredients by tossing in some chopped almonds, diced apples, shredded carrots and pineapple chunks. Besides traditional slaw dressings, cabbage also pairs nicely with a blue cheese dressing.
- Carrots Look for firm carrots with a rich orange color; avoid those with soft or flabby roots. Store carrots in the veggie bin, where they'll last for a few weeks. Slightly limp carrots are fine for soup or stew.
- Cauliflower Look for compact curds and don't worry about green leafy bits throughout the bunch. Avoid heads that are discolored or blemished. If the cauliflower still has its green outside leaves, you can bet it's fresh. Store cauliflower in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper, where it will last for up to a week. Puree leftover cauliflower and serve as you would mashed potatoes.
- Corn Look for corn with green, moist-looking husks; avoid brownish husks. When you peel back the husks, the kernels should be plump. If you apply slight pressure to a kernel with your fingernail, juice should squirt out; this is a sign of freshness. Corn on the cob should be used soon after buying. Leftovers can be stirred into casseroles and used in Southwestern-style dishes like quesadillas.
- Cucumbers Select hard cucumbers; avoid those that appear yellowish. Cucumber skin has a natural sheen to it. Cucumbers will last for a week in the fridge and are excellent cut into thin strips and tossed with rice vinegar, sugar and toasted sesame seeds.
- Mushrooms Before buying mushrooms, look at the underside to make sure the gills (the row of paper-thin tissue located under the caps) aren't open, a sign that the mushrooms are past their prime. Chose those whose gills are lighter in color. Remember, raw mushrooms don't freeze well, so cook them first.
- Potatoes Store potatoes in a cool, dry place. If you use a plastic bag, poke holes in it so air can circulate. Baking potatoes are good baked or mashed. Red-skinned potatoes make great hash browns. Use leftover mashed potatoes to make potato pancakes. Mix with an egg, milk and chopped garlic. Panfry in olive oil until golden-brown on both sides.
- Spinach Fresh spinach has healthy-looking, dark-green leaves; avoid those that are wilted and discolored. Get rid of sandy residue by soaking then gently rinsing in cold water. If you're making a salad, wash only the amount of spinach you plan to use. Spinach that has wilted in the veggie crisper is best served sautéed.