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17 tips to pick the freshest veggies and ripest fruit

Refusing to eat broccoli or skipping the salad bar aren’t just habits exhibited by picky kids; turns out, most grown-ups aren’t eating their fruits and veggies, either. Federal guidelines recommend adults eat at least 1 and 1/2 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables a day. But only 12 percent of adults meet the requirement for fruit and just 9 percent of adults eat enough vegetables, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Making sure you’re getting your daily fill isn’t the only problem; finding the best, ripest and tastiest fruits and vegetables isn’t as intuitive as you might think. It’s a task that requires all five senses to decipher the quality of your supermarket produce. Regardless of what you’re shopping for, start with these three rules:

1. Beautiful doesn’t mean delicious

Sub-par conventional produce is bred to look waxy, glistening, and perfectly symmetrical, while prime fruits and vegetables are often irregularly shaped, with slight visual imperfections outside but a world of flavor waiting inside.

2. Use your hands

You can learn more about a fruit or vegetable from picking it up than you can from staring it down. Heavy, sturdy fruits and vegetables with taut skin and peels are telltale signs of freshness.

3. Shop with the seasons

In the Golden Age of the American supermarket, Chilean tomatoes and South African asparagus are an arm’s length away when our soil is blanketed in snow. Sure, sometimes you just need a tomato, but there are three persuasive reasons to shop in season: it’s cheaper, it’s better and it’s better for you.

To dig even deeper into our hunt for perfect produce, Eat This, Not That! asked Aliza Green, author of “Field Guide to Produce,” and Chef Ned Elliott of Portland’s Urban Farmer restaurant for the dirt on scoring the best of the bounty. Use the tips and tricks that follow and you’ll bring home the best fruits and vegetables every time, just like an Italian grandma.

1. Apples

Perfect pick: Firm and heavy for its size with smooth, matte, unbroken skin and no bruising. The odd blemish (read: wormhole) or brown “scald” streaks do not negatively impact flavor. The smaller the apple, the bigger the flavor wallop.

Peak season: September to May

Handle with care: Keep apples in a plastic bag in the crisper away from vegetables. Here, they should remain edible for several weeks.

The payoff: These fall and spring favorites are packed with quercetin, a flavonoid linked to better heart health, plus the soluble fiber pectin, which keeps cholesterol in check.

2. Artichokes

Perfect pick: An artichoke with deep green, heavyset, undamaged, tightly closed leaves is the best bet. The leaves should squeak when pinched together.

Peak season: March to May

Handle with care: Store in the fridge in a plastic bag for up to five days.

The payoff: Aside from being a good source of protein, artichokes have a higher total antioxidant capacity than any other common vegetable, according to USDA tests.

3. Asparagus

Perfect pick: Look for vibrant green spears with tight purple-tinged buds. Avoid spears that are fading in color or wilting. Thinner spears are sweeter and more tender.

Peak season: March to June

Handle with care: Trim the woody ends and stand the stalks upright in a small amount of water in a tall container. Cover the tops with a plastic bag and cook within a few days.

The payoff: Asparagus are potent sources of folate, a B-vitamin that protects the heart by helping to reduce inflammation.

4. Avocados

Perfect pick: Avocados should feel firm to the touch without any sunken, mushy spots. They should not rattle when shaken — that’s a sign the pit has pulled away from the flesh.

Peak season: Year-round

Handle with care: To ripen, place avocados in a paper bag and store at room temperature for two to four days. To speed up this process, add an apple to the bag, which emits ripening ethylene gas. Ripe avocados can be stored in the fridge for up to one week.

The payoff: The green berry (yes, we said berry!) packs plenty of cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat. Bonus: A diet rich in monounsaturated fat may prevent body fat distribution around the belly by down regulating the expression of certain fat genes. Simply put: It can whittle your waist by zapping away belly fat.

5. Bananas

Perfect pick: Ripe bananas have uniform yellow skins or small brown freckles indicating they are at their sweetest. Avoid any with evident bruising or split skins.

Peak season: Year-round

Handle with care: Store unripe bananas on the counter, away from direct heat and sunlight (speed things up by placing green bananas in an open paper bag). Once ripened, refrigerate; though the peel turns brown, the flavor and quality are unaffected.

The payoff: Bananas are a good source of vitamin B6, which helps prevent cognitive decline, according to scientists at the USDA.

6. Beets

Perfect pick: A beet that’s in its prime should have a smooth, deep-red surface that’s unyielding when pressed. Smaller roots are sweeter and more tender. Attached greens should be deep green and not withered.

Peak season: June to October

Handle with care: Remove the leaves (which are great sautéed in olive oil) and store in a plastic bag in the fridge for no more than two days. The beets will last in the crisper for up to 2 weeks.

The payoff: Beets serve up a hefty dose of folate, which may help regulate cholesterol levels and boost heart health.

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