Back when the word "blackberry" brought to mind notions of lunch instead of text messages, knowing how to spot fresh fruit was vital: knowledge ensured survival.
Though it's nice we modern-day Americans don't have to run from sabertooth tigers, we are at a bit of a disadvantage: when it comes to picking out primo produce, many of us just don't have the knack that our predecessors did.
But that's no reason to let an otherwise delightful trip to the farmers' market go to seed. Here are a few tips on how to pick out some of summer's best fruits and veggies. With these in hand, you'll be squeezing, sniffing, and thumping your way to a juicy plum or a crisp green bean, just like your great-great-great-great...(you get the picture)...grandmother did.
How to Pick 'Em: Apricots should be plump-looking and firm to the touch.
Tip: If you're planning to use them in sauces or baked goods, squishier apricots are not a problem and are usually sold at a cheaper price. Less ripe apricots can be ripened more quickly if stored in a paper bag for two to three days at room temperature.
How to Pick 'Em: Look for peppers that are firm, glossy, and deeply colored. Skin should be smooth and without wrinkles.
Tip: The less greenish coloring you see on a pepper, the sweeter it will taste.
How to Pick 'Em: Berries that are blue through-and-through, with no tinges of red, are what you should aim for. Berries should be firm to the touch, with a bit of give when squeezed. Look for stains on the container; they indicate berries have begun to soften.
Tip: Do not rinse berries until you're ready to eat them—water hastens their deterioration. Even if you plan to freeze the berries, do not wash them first; water will make their skins harden. Wait til you're ready to eat them, and wash them then.
How to Pick 'Em: The ticket to buying a ripe canteloupe is to smell it. Ripe ones should smell sweet, not musty or grassy. The skin of the fruit should have no greenish hue to it, and the fruit should feel heavy for its size.
Tip: Look for the spot where the vine was attached to the fruit. There should be no remaining vine, because ripe melons drop from the vine naturally. On the side of the melon opposite the vine, the fruit should have a slight give to it when you press it with your fingers.
How to Pick 'Em: Examine the husk. It should be moist and bright green, and you should be able to feel individual kernels beneath its surface. The silk (the stringy stuff at the pointy end of the ear of corn) should be dark and somewhat matted.
Tip: Corn stores well frozen and will still have its fresh taste when it thaws. Boil it as you normally would, then slice from end to end to get as many kernels off as possible. Store kernals in the freezer.
How to Pick 'Em: When you're paying a set price regardless of size, it can be tempting to think "the bigger the better." Resist that urge with cucumbers. Slimmer, smaller cucumbers will be crisper than their larger counterparts and will have fewer seeds. Examine the skin for "stress points"—soft, wrinkly spots on the surface of the cuke—and try to pick cucumbers without them.
Tip: The skins of cucumbers are rich in nutrients. Avoid cukes that have been waxed so that you can eat the skin.
How to Pick 'Em: Fresh green beans will be stiff; if a bean snaps when you bend it, you're in good shape. Pick out brightly colored beans and check for smooth skin—woody or tough beans are past their prime.
Tip: To prolong the freshness of your beans, store them in a bag in the fridge. They can last up to five days.
How to Pick 'Em: With a lot of produce, color consistency is a good thing. Not necessarily for limes. Juicy limes will be at least partially yellow with a shiny skin (fully yellow is no good either—shoot for a mostly green fruit with a tinge of yellow). Like canteloupe, you can give them a smell test: a lime should smell like a lime! If it doesn't, it may not be ripe.
Tip: Limes last about a week longer if stored in the fridge instead of at room temp.
How to Pick 'Em: Plums that are ready to eat should be soft to the touch (not to be confused with mushy) and fragrant. Plums come in different colors, but whatever variety you're choosing, it should be deeply colored.
How to Pick 'Em: Radishes at farmer's markets are often displayed with the roots still attached, which is great because roots are a good incidator of freshness. Leaves should look and feel crisp and have a healthy green color to them. Radishes themselves should be firm, with few cracks in the skin (cracks indicate lost nutrients).
Tip: If you're not going to eat your radishes right away, lop their roots and store them in the fridge in an air-tight container.
How to Pick 'Em: When choosing raspberries, follow the same advice as with blueberries: look for firm, full, deeply colored fruit, and steer clear of stained cartons, which indicate spoilage.
Tip: If you find moldy or mashed berries in your bunch when you arrive home, pluck them out so they do not contaminate the others. Raspberries perish quickly.
How to Pick 'Em: Watermelons have a lot of tell-tale signs to guide you as you select a melon. Start by prssing your fingers into various places on the surface. If the melon is ripe, it should not have soft spots. Another thing you can do is give the melon a little thumb; a hollow sound indicates a ripe melon. You can also check the base of the melon for a discolored spot where the melon met the ground—if that spot is still greenish in color, the melon isn't ripe; shoot for a yellowish white color.
Tip: Unlike other fruits, watermelons do not continue to ripen once you've brought them home. Be sure to get a good one from the get-go.
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Have any other farmers' market produce tips—or disagree with ours? Share your ideas in the comments section.