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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Understanding Fruits & Vegetables Part 1 - From Selecting, to Handling & Storing

 Part 1 – Choosin

Fruits and Vegetables make up the most ingredients in cooking. It is therefore essential that you understand these ingredients, how to select them, handle them and Store them. For this reason I am writing this 2-part post to explain fruit selection, handling and storage in order to make your job easier, especially for those who are just starting in their kitchens, and getting aquainted with the different foods. As requested, here is a dedicated 2-part post on FRUITS and VEGETABLES.

To begin with, there is absolutely nothing like a fruit or vegetable that is picked now and cooked right away. Nothing matches the flavour of freshly picked fruits. It is important to opt for the freshest fruits and vegetables.  Shopping for those that are in season is the best way to go. After all, the quality of produce determines the quality of your cooking and hugely affects the flavours of your food.

Once harvested, vegetables start to change. Usually, they deteriorate with the passing of time. The only exceptions are vegetables that hibernate after harvest like onions and potatoes. Plant cells are different from animal cells in that they may survive for weeks and sometimes months. But taken away from their source of nutrition they start to perish – slowly – which affects their texture and flavour. Like for example, the crispy and crunchy lettuce or celery, which will dry out of their water and become limp and chewy. Fruits are different in that some fruits actually become better tasting after harvest, as they ripen more. However, even those will soon stop ripening and start deteriorating. Eventually, fruits and vegetables alike will run out of energy and start to decay.

The conditions that you keep your fruits and vegetables in after harvest - if you have access to your own fresh produce- or after purchase will determine the longevity and goodness of your fruits and vegetables. However, before we jump into storage, let’s start by: 

Choosing the best fruits and vegetables.
How To choose your fruits and vegetables?

The general rule with fruits and vegetables is: “the fresher, the better”. The best are those picked straight away from the source, and eaten or cooked right away. But since not many have access to fresh produce, we pick what providers are supplying us with.

General guidelines to follow when shopping for fruits and vegetables:
  • The best guideline is to buy fruits and vegetables that are in season as this guarantees freshness.
  •  Inspect the fruits and vegetables before buying. Check every one out. Don’t just grab groups of vegetables or fruits. Just because it looks good on the top as its placed on the shelf does not necessarily mean it is as good at the bottom. Hold your fruit or veg. turn it around and check it all over.
  • Always look for plump, crisp, and bright-coloured vegetables (relative to their colour), which look fresh to your eye and smell good (fruits and vegetables must smell like they taste. The ones that have a smell are always better than the ones that have no aroma.). I always smell my fruits and vegetables, your nose won’t trick you. While waxed surfaces might trick your eyes!
  • Go for the fruit and/or vegetable that feels heavy for its size. This means the fruit is moist. This applies especially well to lemons and oranges. As that means they are juicy inside.
  •  Avoid bruised, mouldy, blemished or shriveled vegetables as these are signs that these are not fresh and have been stored for a while.
  • Fruits should be free from bruises, cuts, mould, mildew and blemishes.
  • Some fruits are picked and shipped while still unripe and might require a bit longer to ripen, like in the case of avocados, bananas...etc. That doesn't make them bad, you just need to allow them time to ripen properly.
  • If you can only find over-ripened fruits, buy a small quantity to be consumed quickly (like a day’s consumption).

A General guideline on How to Choose the Most Commonly used Vegetables

Asparagus Choose firm, straight stalks with closed tips. You want your asparagus to be of good size not too thick or too thin. Hold one stalk in your hand and try to see how far has the stiff part (hard bottom of the stalk) reached. It has to be the length of the tip of your index finger. Any longer is an indication of less fresh.

Green Beans Choose fresh beans that are bright coloured and crisp. Avoid scarred, bruised or brown spotted streaky beans. Bulges and leathery skin mean the beans are old.

Beetroots (Beets) Go for small or medium beets. The large beets are tough, pithy and less sweet.

Broccoli  Avoid heads that are light green or becoming yellow. Go for deep green or purplish-green heads that are tightly packed, not loose. The stalks should be firm.

Brussels Sprouts

Brussels Sprouts Choose the smaller sprouts that are bright green. Larger sprouts are more bitter.

Cabbages The leaves should be bright, unwithered and without brown spots. It should feel heavy for its size.

Carrots The carrots should be rigid and firm, not soft and bendy. They should be bright orange.

Cauliflower  Choose the solid heavy heads. The leaves should be bright green. Avoid heads that are browned or bruised.

Celery   The stalks must be firm and not bendy. They must be brightly coloured, unwilted, and not blemished.

Cucumbers  Go for firm cucumbers without dried up spots or soft spots. Cucumbers can be waxed*, it is best to opt for fresh. However, despite being less preferrable, waxed is still OK (check out edible wax below).

Eggplants Skip the ones that are bruised. Go for plump glossy eggplants. The eggplant cap (green bit on top) is indicative of freshness. It should look fresh, very green and must not have mould on it.

Fennel Select the ones that are white to pale green which are fragrant and have fragrant leaves. Fennel bulb should be smooth without any blemishes or cracks. The stalks should be fresh, firm and have fresh fragrant leaves.

 Leeks These should be firm and tight. Go for the ones that are with clean white ends and have fresh green tops.

Mushrooms must be firm, plump and fresh. They must not have any strange aromas. The fresh mushrooms are not bruised, not slimy or spotted with brown blemishes (avoid those). Size is a matter of preference and doesn’t affect freshness.

Onions  Go for firm, onions that are not sprouting. They must be dry and do not squeeze in the middle. They must not have a strong humid aroma, skip those. They should also be free from blemishes.

Peas and Pea Pods (snow peas, sugar snap peas, or fresh peas) They must be crisp and brightly coloured, avoid spotted or drying out peas.

Peppers (Sweet & Hot)  Sweet or hot peppers should be firm and not dried up and wrinkled. Peppers must be brightly coloured and have a good shape within their variety. Skip smelly, bruised and broken ones.

Potatoes Look for fresh clean potatoes that have smooth unblemished skins. They should be firm and have a shape typical for their variety. Avoid dried up ones that feel soft. Also avoid mouldy potatoes or ones with green spots.

Parsnips  They must be smooth-skinned and heavy for their size. They could be waxed* to extend storage.

Turnips  They must be smooth-skinned and heavy for their size. They could be waxed* to extend storage.
winter squash

Shallots Go for firm, shallots (oblong onions) that are not sprouting. They must be dry and do not squeeze in the middle. They must not have a strong humid aroma, skip those that are sprouting. They should also be free from blemishes.

Winter Squash  Avoid cracked or bruised squash. It has to be firm to the touch, fresh looking and heavy for its size. It must not have any strange aromas and its tips must not be mouldy.

Summer squash
Summer Squash  Go for firm squash. Discard broken, bruised or ones with soft spots. Opt for smaller ones as they are better tasting.

Sweet Potatoes**  Choose small to medium sized potatoes that are firm and free of soft spots. The skin should be smooth and clean.

Tomatoes Pick firm tomatoes that are not bruised, cut or soft. They must be plump, well shaped and heavy for the size. The caps should be fresh, green and mould-free. The colour of the tomato depends on the type. They are most commonly known as red, but there are yellow and green tomatoes too.

Sweet Potatoes
Yams**  Choose small to medium sized yams that are firm and free of soft spots. The skin should be smooth and clean.

Zucchini has a very tender skin, which is why it is hard to be free of blemishes. But go for smaller ones as they taste better and avoid, broken, cut or ones with soft spots. The tops should be fresh and mould free.

 * Waxed vegetables and fruits: 
This is a very common commercial treatment that slows down water loss and decaying in vegetables and fruits (to make them store for longer). This treatment is most commonly used in apples, oranges, lemons, cucumbers and tomatoes as well as parsnips and turnips..etc

Waxed fruits and vegetables are often coated with oils or edible wax before packing for shipping. Wax can be natural, like bees wax, rice-bran waxes or a petrochemical by-product like paraffin and polyethylene...etc.

These are all harmless treatments, but can make the surface hard and too waxy which is unpleasant. In order to have all varieties of fruits and vegetables all year long, these treatments come in handy. If you have a choice, choose fresh, un-waxed produce whenever possible. If you must get the waxed ones then remove the waxed skin before cooking.

    **Sweet Potatoes VS Yams: 
Many confuse yams with sweet potatoes and some new recipes use yams to refer to sweet potatoes and vice versa. Although they belong to the same plant family (Roots and Tubers) but sweet potatoes are different from yams. Yams are exotic tubers that are purple coloured on the inside and light skinned on the outside. Another yams type is a dark brown coloured hard skin that looks like wood barks which can grow up to 6 feet long. While sweet potatoes are either orange or light coloured on the inside and dark coloured on the outside. Sweet potatoes are harder and flakier on the inside (same qualities of regular potatoes) while Yams are softer when cooked and sweeter than sweet potatoes. They have been brought to the US and grown there which made them become more widely used in modern American recipes. Sweet potatoes can be substituted for Yams when those are unavailable, but they are separate and different plants.

Guideline on How to Choose the Most Common Fresh Fruits 

Apples Select the apples that are firm, without any soft spots or bruising. The varieties are many and you can choose according to preference or recipe.

Apricots Go for plump, relatively firm skin that is yellowish-orange in colour not greenish.

Avocados   If in a hurry to use select soft avocados. Hard avocados will require time to ripen. Opt for avocados without any broken skin, bruises or gouges

Bananas   For sweeter bananas choose yellow ripened ones. But these will over ripen very fast. For longer shelf life go for greener bananas as they will not perish fast.
Star Fruit

Blackberries, Raspberries, Strawberries, Blueberries & Boysenberries  When picking your own, select the ones that are ripened and separate easily from the stems. If selecting pre-packaged berries from the supermarket: if you can see through the packaging make sure non of the berries are mouldy. Make sure that they look fresh and plump, not wilted and too soft. Strawberries for instance, should have a good strawberry smell. As a general rule if you can smell the berries they will taste like the smell. The milder the smell, the milder the taste. Choose the ones that are bright.

Cantaloupe Choose the one that smells sweet. A strong smell usually indicates over ripeness, and these should be consumed fast.
The best ones are the ones that feel heavy for their size. Avoid wet, broken, cracked or bruised cantaloupes.

Star Fruit    Go for the shiny-golden skinned fruits that are firm.

Cherries Go for fresh looking, relatively firm cherries that are not too soft or bruised. The brightly coloured cherries are fresher.
Honeydew Melon

Cranberries Choose the ones that appear firm, and tight. Don’t go for the ones that appear dry, soft, mouldy or bruised.

Grapefruit Choose the fruits that are heavy for their size. Go for the ones that are round-shaped and totally yellowish orange not green.

Grapes Avoid bruised, mouldy or grapes with soft spots. The white cast is ok and does not affect the quality. Choose plump grapes that appear relatively firm and fresh.

Honeydew melon Choose the one that smells sweet. It should feel heavy for its size. Avoid wet, broken, cracked or bruised cantaloupes.

Lemons   Avoid bruised and wrinkled lemons. Instead, go for smooth, well-shaped lemons that feel heavy for their size, and are totally yellow coloured.

Limes   Avoid bruised and blemished limes. Instead, go for firm, well-shaped ones that are brightly coloured and feel heavy for their size.

Oranges   Avoid bruised oranges with soft spots. Instead go for firm ones that feel heavy for their size. A slight green bit on the surface will not affect the quality. But very green ones are not ripe.

Peaches and nectarines Choose the ones that are not green, instead, they should be golden yellow. Go for sweet smelling ones, but over sweet aromas indicate over ripeness. Soft fruits could be over ripe, but ripe fruits yield slightly under gentle pressure. 

Pears  Like apples, the skin colour of the pears is not an indicator of ripeness. Some pears remain green, but that doesn’t mean they are not ripe. Choose the pears that are not broken or bruised. Ones that are firm.

Pineapples   Pineapples have a sweet smell close to the end of the stem. That is you indicator of sweetness as it will taste as it smells. They should be relatively soft to the touch and heavy for their size. Avoid fruits with brown yellowish leaves, as the leaves should be a deep green colour.

 Plantains Again the skin colour is not indicative here, it depends on what you are using your plantains for. A little bruising is ok as the skin is tough enough to handle it. Avoid broken ones.

Plums Choose firm, well-shaped plums that appear and smell fresh. The gray cast is OK and does not affect quality. Plums, like nectarines, will give slightly to gentle pressure.

Rhubarb Go for firm stalks and avoid the thick stalks. It should appear firm and crisp.

Watermelon It should be heavy for its size. The rim had to be smooth and hard without any soft spots. It should smell fresh. Avoid, wet, broken water melons. You can ask your provider for half a watermelon, and can get to taste it.

Figs Fresh figs are very delicate. Go for relatively firm, teardrop shaped ones with bright colours relative to their type. They should have a sweet smell, and any sour aroma indicated that they began fermenting. Avoid: overly dry, very hard, very soft, bruised, or broken figs.

Guava Go for the fragrant guava. Avoid very soft, bruised ones.

Kiwi (green) Choose the ones that do not have soft spots or bruises. Like peaches it should yield under soft pressure. Hard Kiwis mean they haven’t ripened. These will need to be kept at room temperature till they ripen.

Papaya The skin should be smooth and without bruises. It can range from green to yellow to orange. For sweet flavoured, choose the one that is at least half orange and not green throughout. Papaya has to be soft to the touch but not soft.

Pomegranate Choose large ones that feel heavy for their size. They must have a smooth brightly red skin and be well-shaped. Avoid the ones that show signs of dryness.

Mango A ripe mango should smell sweet and be firm to the touch. Avoid very soft , mangoes and ones that appear bruised, broken...

Passion Fruit Choose small, firm with shriveled and dented skin. Smooth skinned passion fruits are ones that haven’t ripened yet. Keep those at room temperature till it looks dented, that’s when its ripened.

Organic Fruits and vegetables:
When talking about fruits and vegetables we cannot forget about Organic ones. Organic foods are foods that are cultivated free of any chemical additives like pesticides, hormones...etc. These foods have to be made according to specific standards in order to be considered organic. The name organic reflects the process where different living organisms are used to control pests instead of chemicals. Such as the use of worms in some cases for instance.

Throughout the vast majority of human history, agriculture could be described as organic. It is only during the 20th century that a large supply of new synthetic chemicals was introduced to agriculture in order to get rid of plant diseases and pests...etc. In today’s economy, and in the attempt to produce more products in shorter periods of time, producers resort to many chemicals to enable these results as well as exponential growth . This procedure is merely economic, but not necessarily healthy. It can in fact affect your health negatively, as you are eventually consuming these chemicals.

Organic foods are not only better for the environment, but may also contain more antioxidants than conventional produce. They are therefore healthier in the sense that they do not contain any of the chemical toxins which non-organic produce contains.

The matter of Organic VS Non-Organic is vastly debated and too big to be covered here. There are many articles that you can read on the web to learn more, and I do advise you to look through this subject as it is very important to know what you are consuming. At the end of the day food is supposed to be healthy and nurturing, if it fails to do that, then it fails to deliver on its most essential purposes. That is to say the least, but the philosophy of organic is multi-layered and very interesting to learn.
I personally do advise you to switch to organic which is what I use in my kitchen, but I leave the matter totally up to you.

There is a world of fruits and vegetables out there. Every area of the world is known for specific produce. These amazing treats of nature make up the varied food compositions, and the different cuisines. If you want to keep a varied and healthy diet, you must go for different fruits and vegetables rather than sticking to any one kind. If you want to make impressive dishes, then opt for different and more exotic produce. These can elevate a dish and make your food more interesting. With that said, I always advise my trainees to try out the recipes before committing to them. Experimentation is the only way to know.

If you find everyday cooking to be a boring chore, then this is your experimental ground. Use everyday cooking to try out new recipes, new produce and new combinations. You already know how a button mushroom tastes like. Why not experiment with Oyster, Shitake or Portobella mushrooms the next time you make a mushroom sauce?

Now that you know how to choose your vegetables, Check out Understanding Fruits and Vegetables Part 2 - that covers Proper Handling and Storing.

Thank you for reading this post, hope you found the information useful. Would love to hear from you, so leave a comment :)