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The Secret to Picking Produce

Martha Stewart Living, July 2004

When it comes to choosing fruits and vegetables, become a perfectionist. By knowing how to find the best -- by touch, by smell, by sight -- you can get your money's worth, and plenty of enjoyment. Here's a Printable Produce Guide to help you select the freshest, tastiest produce. Let it (and your senses) be your guide to finding crisp corn, juicy berries, and melon as sweet as the summer sun.

In General:
1. Buy locally. If you can, shop at farmers' markets or farm stands.
2. Take your time. Handpicking items one by one instead of grabbing a plastic or netted bag doesn't cost more -- and the bags often include smaller, inferior produce.
3. Avoid prefab. Bagged salads and precut produce are convenient but not as fresh. It takes only a few minutes to ready your own. The results are worth it.

How to Recognize the Best-Tasting Produce
Apples: Taut skin, very firm when gently pressed. Avoid those with soft spots or punctures. Flavor and texture vary widely among varieties. Seek them out at local farm stands or farmers' markets in the fall.

Avocados: Look for Hass, with bumpy, dark-green to almost black skin. When ripe, they will give to gentle pressure (pressing too hard will bruise the flesh). If you buy a firm one, store it at room temperature to ripen.

Bananas: For flesh that's neither too firm nor too soft, pick those that are yellow all over, with no green, browning, or spots whatsoever, from stem to end. Store at room temperature to ripen further.

Berries: Sneak a taste; watch out for mold and mush. Strawberries: fragrant, shiny, firm, not too big, green stems. Blueberries: firm, no green or red areas. Raspberries: full, just soft, but not oozing juice.

Grapefruit and Oranges: Heavy for their size. Navel oranges: Avoid severe bruises and soft spots. Juice oranges and grapefruit: taut, shiny skin. Through skin, you should be able to feel the sections inside.

Lemons and Limes: Not much more than 3 inches from tip to stem; heavy for their size. Taut, thin skin; avoid those with very hard skin. Through skin, you should be able to feel the flesh inside. Should give slightly when pressed.

Melons: Look for those that are fragrant and heavy. Press end opposite stem to feel for a bit of give. Watermelon: Avoid those with flat sides. Presliced, it should be deep red with about 1 inch of white rind.

Pears: Fragrant, with no soft spots, punctures, or bruises. To eat right away, they should give easily if pressed gently. For coming days, pick those with less give; ripen at room temperature. (Buy Bosc very firm.)

Stone Fruits: Fragrant, with taut skin. Avoid those with wrinkles and bruises. They should have some give when gently pressed; handle carefully, no more than 4 per bag. Leave firmer ones at room temperature to ripen.

Tomatoes: Best in season, from farm stands and farmers' markets. Taut skin, firm flesh, deep and even color (greenish coloring at stem end on heirlooms is okay). Avoid pale ones. Store at room temperature.

Asparagus: Thickness is a matter of taste. Choose bunches with tightly closed tips without flowering. Stalks should be bright green and firm. Avoid those with stalks that are flattened or wrinkled and feel hollow.

Beans Pole: bright, firm, with no soft spots or wrinkles. Should snap when bent, with very small beans. Avoid tough skin. Shell: pods a bit leathery but firm; no yellowing. Beans should be easily felt through the pod.

Corn: Best served the day you buy it; don't refrigerate. Bright-green husks wrapped tightly around ear, with flowing, moist silk (not brown). Pull back husk; kernels should be small, shiny, firm, and tightly packed.

Cucumbers: Look for firm, unwaxed Kirbys (which are nearly seedless) with variegated color from light to dark green, and without wrinkles or soft spots; best no more than 6 inches long. If Kirbys are unavailable, buy English.

Eggplant: Flesh should give a bit when gently pressed, with no hard spots. Skin should be shiny, not shriveled, wrinkled, or mottled. Stems should be green. Use within a day or two. Don't refrigerate.

Mesclun and Lettuces: Mesclun: Dig down into bin for freshest greens. There should be no wilted leaves, or wet, mushy, or yellow spots. Romaine: dark green, narrow, stiff leaves. Butter lettuces: small, round, loosely formed heads.

Onions: Look for dry, papery skins and flesh that is full and firm, especially at the stem end. Avoid any with mold, discoloration, or soft spots, or ones in net bags; select one by one. Store at room temperature.

Peppers: For bell peppers, very firm all over with taut skin. Flesh should be thick without soft spots or wrinkles. Look for bright-green stems. For chiles, any color you choose should be vibrant and wrinkle-free.

Potatoes: Firm, without any soft areas or wrinkled skin; avoid those with sprouting eyes, slits, or a green tinge. Avoid bags; choose individually. Buy all one size to cook evenly. Store at room temperature.

Summer Squash: For yellow and green, choose small to medium, 5 to 6 inches and not bulbous (large ones are watery or fibrous); should feel firm. Skin should be smooth, shiny. Patty pan: no bigger than 4 inches across.

To view the Printable Produce Guide, you need Adobe Acrobat. You can obtain Acrobat for free by visiting Adobe's website.

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