A Primer for Picking Ripe

It’s that time of year again, when people stop me in the grocery store to ask how I can tell if a particular fruit or vegetable is ripe. With the July 4th holiday approaching, now is a good time to revisit a topic that I posted about last summer– the low-down on methods and secrets to picking perfect produce.

Artichokes. These majestic orbs have a mysterious quality to the uninitiated. The key to finding one with a soft and flavorful heart is the tightness of the leaves. The overall look of the vegetable should be rounded, not spiked. (A hint about cooking — they are done as soon as a leaf can be easily pulled from the heart.)

Berries. Avoid berries that are stuck together. Like the presence of mold, this is a sure sign that they’re not still fresh. Similarly, stay away from raspberries with black edges and strawberries dotted with blemishes.

Cantaloupe. Use your nose for this one. Take a sniff at either end of the melon, and if there’s a fragrant aroma, it’s ready to be eaten. Check to be sure the stem end has a smooth indentation.

Cherries. My mother taught me at a young age how to sift through the box of cherries to find the juiciest and sweetest among them. I was often left with the assignment of painstakingly picking each one while she finished shopping. Dark and firm ones, she told me, were the juiciest and firmest. These days grocers pre-bag cherries, not giving consumers an opportunity to handpick.

Corn. The entire ear should fill out the husk–make sure that the ends are not thin, an indication that the corn was picked too early.  Peel back the husk just a tad to check that the kernels are tight, but plump, and bug-free.

Green Beans. Go for the skinny ones. Beans that are large and thick are usually overgrown and tend to be stringy and tough.

Peaches, nectarines and plums. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, look for stone fruits that are not too hard and not too soft. Too hard and they may not ripen, too soft and they tend to be mushy or overdone. If you can find even a hint of softness, they’ll undoubtedly ripen to perfection after a couple of days in a paper sack or on the windowsill.

Peppers—Like a baby’s bottom, peppers should be firm and smooth, with no wrinkles. Whether spicy or not, the most flavorful of peppers have the deepest color.

Tomatoes. It’s tempting to gravitate towards the prettiest tomatoes in the box, but beauty may only be skin deep –the tastiest tomatoes are typically misshapen and imperfect. They should be fully colored when picked—that’s when they have the ambrosia quality that we all crave.

Watermelon. Thump it with the palm of your hand to determine whether it sounds hollow. Also, check to see if there’s a yellow spot where the melon sat on the ground in the garden. If not, it was picked too early and may not be sweet and juicy. Finally, make sure the stem at the end is brown and came off the vine because the fruit was ripe, not because someone pulled it.

Friday Food Critics 8/21

Tune in on Friday to hear the Food Critics, on KCUR’s Walt Bodine Show at 10:00 AM. That’s  89.3 FM, or you can listen on your computer at http://www.kcur.org/waltbodine.html.IMG_0290

The second half discussion will be about fresh fruit–where to find the best local fruit as well as what menus around town are using summer fruit to maximum effect. Though I am not one of the panelists this week,  fresh fruit is one of my favorite foods, so I want to add my own list here.

Several restaurants have  great fruit dishes on the menu, and not just for dessert! Not surprisingly, these are the same restaurants that buy much of their produce from local farmers and purveyors. 1924 Main serves a wonderful watermelon salad, often side by side with tomatoes (an unexpectedly delicious combination), as well as peaches with pork. Room 39 is currently featuring peaches in their salads, and I recently had tasty grilled shrimp on chunks of watermelon and feta at Zest in Mission Farms. If watemelon gazpacho is one of the featured soups when you’re dining at Trezo Mare in Briarcliff Village, give it a try. It’s refreshing and has a touch of very appealing sweetness.

For a tasty dessert using fresh fruit, don’t miss the pies at The Farmhouse in River Market. They are exceptional.

Favorite Farmer’s Markets:

  • Downtown Overland Park–2 blocks West of Metcalf between 79th and 80th, Wednesday  and Saturday mornings.
  • Brookside Market–63rd and Wornall, Saturday mornings, featuring organic produce and hormone/antibiotic-free, humanely-raised meats and free-range eggs.
  • Lee’s Summit–2nd and Douglas, Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

A tip to help decide which vendors to buy from–look behind the tables to the truck. If there are stacks of cardboard boxes with “homegrown tomatoes” or peaches stamped on them, move on. You want to find a farmer that picked his produce the day before and brought it in baskets. And seek out misshapen, ugly tomatoes,  not pretty and perfect ones. They are the most flavorful and probably haven’t been treated with pesticides.

It’s always better to buy local. It’s better for our economy, the environment and, if it’s organic, our  health. But if I can’t get to a farmer’s market on a Wednesday or Saturday, I go to Cosentino’s Brookside Market. They are very particular about where the fruit comes from and how it’s packaged to ensure proper ripeness and quality.003

By the way, though typically thought of as a vegetable, the tomato is botanically a member of the fruit family. However, in 1893, as vegetables and fruits were subject to different import duties, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the tomato’s classification. Because the tomato was commonly eaten as a vegetable, the Court unanimously decided to give it that designation. This was undoubtedly one of the juiciest decisions in the Court’s history!

New Age Grilling

IMG_0245For those of you who bookmarked this blog to read my take about restaurants about town, please bear with me. I don’t dine out as much at this time of year because  cooking with the abundant fresh produce is too hard to resist.

Summer is a great time to be adventurous in the kitchen (or outside).  Why not bring the flavor of the grill to a conventional Caesar salad? Brush romaine lettuce leaves with olive oil, grill for two minutes (one on each side), plate, drizzle with your favorite Caesar salad dressing and sprinkle with homemade croutons and Parmesan shavings. For a fun appetizer,  don’t chop the leaves– lean them against the side of a bowl and eat with your fingers.

Fruit is great on the grill, too. Peaches, plums, pineapple, and even watermelon all get a bump in flavor from a few minutes above the coals (or gas briquettes). Caramelizing occurs as the sugars from the fruit are released, and the result is scrumptious!  Top with a scoop of  ice cream and you’ve got a light and appealing dessert. It’s impressive enough to serve to friends, but easy enough to make for your family on a week night.

Tomato Time

IMG_0242Heinz seems proud to boast of 57 varieties of ketchup, but did you realize that there are actually 10,000 varieties of tomatoes? My favorite is the Sungold, a tiny, orange sphere of heaven. Popping them in my mouth like grapes, they burst with summer and a profound sweetness not found in common cherry red tomatoes. While most recipe books and magazines focus on large, beefy tomatoes, which now grow in a myriad of colors and sizes, the cherry tomato always seems to be the less favored relative. The month of August is the perfect time to pay homage to these little jewels.

No matter the size or the type of tomato, there is one unwavering rule — NEVER put any of them in the refrigerator. Storing a tomato under 55 degrees will zap its flavor. If you have a big batch and they are going to rot, eat them quickly. Make a tomato sauce, salsa or gazpacho. Give them away to your friends or neighbors. Just DO NOT put them in the refrigerator.

To make a cherry tomato even sweeter, try drying them in the oven to imitate the sun-dried version found in the store. Cut in half, (horizontally, not through the stem), put each half side by side on a cookie sheet, and roast in a 200-degree oven for 5-6 hours, or until dried (but not completely shriveled). It takes twenty pounds of fresh tomatoes to make one pound of oven-dried tomatoes, but even having a few on hand to throw into pastas or salads makes it worth the effort.

The best way to eat a cherry tomato is, of course, “straight up”, freshly picked from the vine and warmed by the sun. If one isn’t enough, which it certainly isn’t for me, try one of the other 10,000 varieties!

Sniff, thump or squeeze your way to ripe fruit

Here’s the low-down on methods and secrets to picking perfect produce.

Artichokes. These majestic orbs have a mysterious quality to the uninitiated. The key to finding one with a soft and flavorful heart is the tightness of the leaves. The overall look of the vegetable should be rounded, not spiked. (A hint about cooking — they are done as soon as a leaf can be easily pulled from the heart.)

Berries. Avoid berries that are stuck together. Like the presence of mold, this is a sure sign that they’re not still fresh. Similarly, stay away from raspberries with black edges and strawberries dotted with blemishes.

Cantaloupe. Use your nose for this one. Take a sniff at either end of the melon, and if there’s a fragrant aroma, it’s ready to be eaten. Check to be sure the stem end has a smooth indentation.

Cherries. My mother taught me at a young age how to sift through the box of cherries to find the juiciest and sweetest among them. I was often left with the assignment of painstakingly picking each one while she finished shopping. Dark and firm ones, she told me, were the juiciest and firmest. These days grocers pre-bag cherries, not giving consumers an opportunity to handpick.

Peaches, nectarines and plums. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, look for stone fruits that are not too hard and not too soft. Too hard and they may not ripen, too soft and they tend to be mushy or overdone. If you can find even a hint of softness, they’ll undoubtedly ripen to perfection after a couple of days in a paper sack or on the windowsill.

Peppers—Like a baby’s bottom, peppers should be firm and smooth, with no wrinkles. Whether spicy or not, the most flavorful of peppers have the deepest color.

Tomatoes. It’s tempting to gravitate towards the prettiest tomatoes in the box, but beauty may only be skin deep –the tastiest tomatoes are typically misshapen and imperfect. They should be fully colored when picked—that’s when they have the ambrosia quality that we all crave.

Watermelon. Thump it with the palm of your hand to determine whether it sounds hollow. Also, check to see if there’s a yellow spot where the melon sat on the ground in the garden. If not, it was picked too early and may not be sweet and juicy.

Previously published in the Independent magazine.