How to Pick the Best, Freshest Veggies Part One

September 09, 2010

We all know that it’s important to eat our veggies - at least five servings a day - to ward off cancer, improve our cholesterol levels and stay as healthy as we can.

We all know that it’s important to eat our veggies - at least five servings a day - to ward off cancer, improve our cholesterol levels and stay as healthy as we can. But few things will do more (bad cooking, perhaps) to put us off this important food group than vegetables that are not at their best; either because they were purchased in bad condition or were not properly handled and stored. And that’s a pity, because the produce departments of supermarkets are providing temptations of all stripes: organic, pre-washed, pre-packaged greens, and exotics from Asia, and Italy.

So how can you tell when veggies are fresh? SupermarketGuru has some tips:

Choose vegetables for color, cleanliness, smoothness in the skins and few blemishes. Vegetables do not age well, so avoid those that have flowered, wilted or have dark spots on them. Skins should be smooth and without wrinkles (except natural ridges in squash and bumps in cucumbers) and the colors of all skin/peels should be vibrant. There should be no mold, no cracks or tears, and no dark spots. To get the best value for your dollar, purchase only what you can eat for three or four days always remember to buy in season and locally produced if possible.

Keep them carefully after you bring them home. Use greens-keeper bags (available in produce sections) rather than plastic bags, which tend to keep moisture in and speed up the time for wilting and rotting. Another technique is to wrap veggies in paper towels and store them in airtight plastic containers. Except for tomatoes and mushrooms, store everything in the refrigerator.

Wash your vegetables only before using, to avoid wilting and mold. To clean, hold vegetables under cold running water or soak them in cold water, then remove wax, dirt, bugs and, most important, pesticide residues, with a produce brush, usually sold in the produce department. Pre-packaged salad greens usually do not need another rinsing, but check them over carefully to make sure. Pre-packaged crudités do not need additional washing. Mushrooms should not be soaked in water; instead, lightly brush off the dirt with a soft-bristle brush or damp paper towel.

Now, let’s talk specifics! Here's the freshness 101 on some of Supermarket Guru’s favorite veggies:

Beans: Fresh beans have many variations, from the two-foot long Chinese beans (aka “long beans”) to their French cousins, haricots verts. In between, you’ll find green beans, yellow wax beans and fava beans. Look for shiny or smooth and firm skins with no browning or black spots.

Broccoli, broccolini and cauliflower: Look for clear colors with no browning or yellowing, which indicate age. The florets should be tightly together, without any wilting or softness.

Greens: Leaf lettuce, cabbage and spinach should be solid and slightly heavy for their size, with no holes, wilting, or discolorations. Endive, frisse, iceberg, butter lettuce and cabbages (such as brussels sprouts or savoy or green cabbage), should be very pale green to yellow; spinach, arugala, romaine, watercress, and mustard or collard greens should be dark green. Some kales and chards range from green to purple to deep red. Radichio is a burgundy-and-white small Italian bitter cabbage; purple cabbage looks and taste like its green relative. Bok choy, an Asian cabbage, should look very white on the stem and deep dark green in the leaf for both regular and baby-sized types. Most cabbages, when cooked, lose their crispness along with their slight bitterness and become rather sweet.

Beets: These are now offered in both golden and the classic deep red variety in both baby and regular sizes. The greens are edible when cooked, and the beet roots can be baked or boiled then served warm or cold. Look for firmness and weight for the size; some residual dirt is common and can be washed off easily.

Fennel (sometimes known as anise): This vegetable has a white bulb that has the texture of celery which can be eaten raw or cooked, and frothy green tops that make a wonderfully aromatic garnish to entrees or salads. Look for firmness and no wilting.

Eggplants: An increasing variety of colors and sizes, from tiny Asian ones of white and purple to the classic French and Italian plump large ones. Look for glossy smooth skin, with no dimpling or soft spots.

Mushrooms: Ranging from the modestly priced button and crimini brown mushrooms to the wildly expensive but incredibly flavorful portabello, shitake and oyster. If using white mushrooms for a salad, look for smooth white caps that fit tightly over the stem. Otherwise, a slight opening away from the stem is okay and some chefs believe this adds richness to stews or sauces. Avoid plastic bags even to bring them home; opt for paper bags to avoid sweating and mold. The enoki, a Japanese mushroom, has a tiny head and long thin stem and should be creamy white and firm; they are sold in packages and can be refrigerated. Most other mushrooms are white to brown and some are deep orangey yellow. They should have a deep pleasantly musty smell. Truffles, in white or black, are the premier mushrooms with prices in the hundreds of dollars. They are knobby tuber-shaped and should be intensely aromatic.

Stay tuned for part two next week!