A Hausfrau's Kitchen - How To Choose

How do you know how to choose the best fruits, vegetables, fresh fish and meats?

The first thing you need to know is, you have a nose. It knows. The nose knows. It knows a lot more than you're giving it credit for.

Start with training your nose, if you need to. Do you love peaches? When you get an especially good peach, smell it. Pay attention to the aroma. Start learning what the foods you love smell like when they are at their very best. I'll include some tips that would apply more to a farmer's market, too, where the produce may be grown and harvested very differently than what you'll find at the local supermarket.

Fruit:

  • For honeydew, crenshaw, cantaloupe and that sort of melon there are two things to look for: the stem end should be an innie and not an outie. :-) When melons are ripened on the vine, the fruit kind of pops off the vine, rather than having to be cut off. If the melon has a little bit of vine still attached (an outie) it will not be as sweet as one with an innie. Now spin it around and check out the other end: the blossom end. The melon should be a little tender when pressed lightly around the blossom end, and when you smell it there, it should smell like melon. Fruity, not sour, moldy, sharp or odorless. 
    • If you don't really know the blossom end from the stem end, let me help you out. Don't read this if you're easily embarrassed. The blossom end looks kind of like it has a pasty on it. Sorry, Burlesque Queens. The stem end should be a little dish-shaped and actually look like a little scar.
  • Watermelon. Again, smell the blossom end. Look for a concave stem end. Knock on it...does it sound hollow? If it sounds like you're knocking on the skull of a Presidential Candidate, like it's dense or full of bricks, it isn't ripe.
Unlike melons, a bit of stem on other fruits doesn't matter at all. 
  • Stone fruit (peaches, apricots, nectarines pluots, etc.) should have smell like the fruit they are, not be too soft under your hand. Look for a pleasant blush of color unless they're the white variety. Avoid any fruit that is shriveled, wrinkled, deeply bruised or has mold at either the blossom or stem end. 
  • Apples. Look for firm, unshriveled skins. Areas of what look like eczema are actually OK, they peel right off. Check for holes, especially around the blossom end of the apple. A single bore hole looking thing usually signifies a house guest who may still be in there. A little bit of bee sting or bird bite is no big deal. They cut right off. Red Delicious and Golden Delicious are really only suitable for snacking, in my opinion. Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, Fuji and Jonathan and Macintosh.... there are so many apple varieties that it really is worth your time to try them all and discover your own preferences.
  • Pears. Just look for fruit that is tender to the touch, without being too soft. It should smell good and have the right color for its type. Pears can be green, red or brown. If the whole pile of pears is brown, that doesn't mean they're all bad. 
  • Kiwi, avocados, tomatoes and mango should yield to a little pressure (don't smash it!) and have a pleasant aroma and undamaged skins. Many of these come in several colors, too, so that isn't a good way to tell.
  • Berries. Most berries now are sold in clamshell packages, and here is where your nose will do the most work. Sniff the bottom of that clamshell to check for the odor of mold. Look for bright colors, no mold, pleasant aroma. It helps if you turn the package all the way upside down and right it again, and then smell. Stirs up the scent. Look all around, all six sides if you can, and check for mold. Nothing should be dripping out, either.
Vegetables:
If you are not really familiar with some vegetable you are planning to buy, I suggest you run a quick image search and look at what model-quality examples look like. Put that firmly in your mind. Then get your nose out.
  • Soft skinned veggies like eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, peppers of all kinds: look for bright skins without cuts, bruises or shriveling. Stems should be plump, not shriveled. Peppers (OK, I know peppers are actually a fruit) should smell nice and fruity, Chili peppers should feel meaty. All of these things should feel rather heavy for their size.
  • Artichokes: First, Be careful handling artichokes as you select them. They have stickers on their leaf tips and some are really sharp. Look for artichokes that feel quite heavy for their size, and on which the leaves are tightly closed. An artichoke is actually a thistle, and if it is opening up like it's getting ready to bloom, it is past its prime as a veggie. Little brown striations along the stem and lowest leaves are acceptable but not preferred. If you feel you can get away with it, turn it upside down and tap it on the edge of the produce case and see if anything falls out. Artichokes can get little bugs that move in between the leaves. If you get brown bits (bug poop) or actual little bugs fall out, move on. This is one place where your nose is fairly clueless.
  • Cabbages of all types (napa, savoy, red, green, brussels sprouts and bok choy) should also be heavy for their size, with unwilted leaves. Look at the bottom end of the cabbage. Does it look like very many leaves may have been cut off recently, rather than at harvest time? This can be a clue that the produce department has been pulling off wilted outer leaves and the cabbage is one of the older ones. Some kinds of cabbage keep very well and this may not be a big deal, but for napa and bok choy, avoid those. Choose napa and savoy cabbage for a mild cabbage flavor, red and green cabbage are stronger, but also delicious.
  • Cauliflower and broccoli: little to no discoloration, tightly closed florets, stems that are not dessicated, droopy, blackened or splitting.
  • Allium vegetables (Onions, garlic, shallots, chives, leeks, scallions and green onions): look for onions, garlic and shallots with papery skins that show no damp areas, no mold forming around the root end, with a fresh onion smell and nothing musty going on. No sprouting. Chives, scallions and green onions should all be bright in color, not limp or overly sharp smelling. Leeks should be quite pale at the root, without any visible signs of abuse. Choose plain yellow onions for dishes that can stand up to a stronger onion flavor: soups, stews and hearty pasta and meat dishes. Shallots are wonderful, with a milder onion flavor that tastes like there's already a little garlic in there. Great with fish, lighter pasta, chicken. Leeks are fabulous. If you aren't familiar with leeks, please do try some today. Use them in soups, especially cream soups and other milder ones, wonderful in Bacon Tomato Capellini. Any place you might want to use a green onion to cook with, try a leek. They're also very nutritious. Garlic: well, you already know the uses of garlic. But do try Elephant Garlic. It's delicious!
  • Potatoes: always best to choose potatoes by hand, one at a time. But if you buy them prepackaged in a bag, please do smell carefully for any bad ones in there. Avoid potatoes with obvious bad spots, shovel marks, etc. Some things can be cut out of you aren't planning to make baked potatoes. Russet potatoes are best for baking: they cook with a rather mealy texture that is what you think of in a baker. They also have the very best skins for Potato Skins, Twice-baked, and just for munching on when you've eaten the insides. Red potatoes are great for smashing, as are yellow potatoes like Yukon Golds. Any variety works fine in potato bread. I know chefs disagree with me, but I actually like any variety of potato for mashing, roasting, boiling, soups, stews, etc. For potato salad, you really have to choose your own preference for texture. There are good recipes for any kind of potato in a salad.

I hope this will give you a clearer idea of what all those people are doing in the produce section, when you see them fondling and sniffing the food.

When it comes to fish, meat and chicken, absolutely everything must pass the sniff test. Whole fish should have nice, round eyes that are not shrunken. Meat should have no areas of discoloration and not too much liquid in the bottom of the tray. Avoid fresh meats that have that rainbow-glistening kind of areas. First and foremost, buy from a reputable seller.

We may need to do a whole post just on choosing cuts of meat!


Meanwhile, Happy shopping!