It's always humorous watching fellow supermarket shoppers perform a series of ritualistic gestures as they grope, squeeze, sniff, knock, cradle, shake and rattle a piece of produce to hedge their bets for selecting a perfectly ripe one. Of course, to get the best out of fruits and vegetables always buy in season, local and organic, where possible.
Remember that some items will ripen further after they're picked (like avocados, stone fruits and tomatoes) while others will not ripen after picking no matter how much prodding (especially berries, citrus and watermelon). Here's an A to Z produce primer on picking winners for all seasons:
Apples, the fragrant forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, and autumn's crisp little darlings have been revered by ancient peoples for millennia. Since that time 7,500 varieties grown worldwide have been pressed into juice, fermented into vinegar, pureed into sauces, and baked in pies, strudels and turnovers. Apples of all manners should be firm with solid heft, and free of bruises, soft spots, worm holes, puckering and wrinkling. Try to select ones with stems attached.
Bananas, a portable potassium powerhouse give a quick energy boost, ease nerves, reduce blood pressure, and amp up immunity. To tell the ripeness of a banana simply look at the colors and spots on its peel. Unripe ones are green-hued containing more starch and less sugar than golden ripe ones, which are conversely sweeter and less starchy, since the ripening process converts the starch into natural sugars, such as fructose, glucose and sucrose. A smattering of brown spots on the peel are still fine for eating, yet black markings indicate bruising, and these should be discarded.
Cucumbers are a refreshing reservoir of water and silica with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to hydrate and rejuvenate. Whether slicing, hothouse, Persian, or pickling varieties choose a dilly. Cukes should be firm without soft spots, blemishes or withering skin, and also have a good heavy feel for its size.
Dandelion greens at their peak during spring months are a Herculean source of protein, calcium, iron, antioxidants and assorted minerals. This high-fiber leafy green adds a pungent nutritional oomph to salads, smoothies or sautéed sides. As these greens tend to be slightly bitter, they balance well with sweet, dense fruits like mangoes, figs, bananas and papayas. Usually sold in bunches, look for dark green leaves free of spots or blemishes. Smaller leaves also tend to be less bitter.
Eggplant is a beloved nightshade throughout the lands, including the exquisite "aubergine" central to many French dishes, and the vibrant "melanzana" incorporated in classic Italian fare. Leave the berry unpeeled as the skin has the greatest source of nutrients, but make sure it's dark purple and glossy, without soft spots or bruises. Also, select eggplants with elongated "belly buttons" for the sweetest flesh, without bitter nuances.
Fungi, the class of marvelous mushrooms once feared by mighty Roman emperors for their poisonous properties, are now treasured as an immune- boosting warrior with remarkable healing properties. Whether choosing beefy, buttery Portobellos, earthy, piney Shiitakes, rich woodsy Porcinis, or floral Chanterelles, make sure the caps and gills are free of moisture and mold, soft spots and blemishes. Stems should be soft, not straw-like. Take a whiff, and if you detect a foul odor, the 'shrooms are spoiled.
Grapes, nature's portable refreshers should have a rich, jeweled color, whether green, red, purple, pink or black varieties. The berries themselves should be plumpish and firm, and strongly secured to a soft green stem. The presence of a white powdery substance called "bloom" is nature's protective mechanism to ward off moisture that can cause mold, and is perfectly safe to eat.
Heirloom tomatoes, so called because of their fine lineage with characteristics passed down from generations, including their gorgeous ugliness, divine Technicolors, patterns, and sweetness make them a rock star of the culinary world. When choosing heirlooms, please don't squeeze these delicate fruits, rather use your olfactory and sniff for a deep fragrant aroma. The bottoms of heirlooms should also be a darker shade than the rest.
— Check out next week's Kitchen Shrink column for the rest of the culinary alphabet.
Recipe: Easy Caprese
• Ingredients: 3 assorted heirloom tomatoes, sliced 1/2-inch thick; 1 pound, oval ball fresh or buffalo mozzarella, sliced 1/4-inch thick; 12 fresh basil leaves; 1/4 cup each virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar or reduction
• Method: On a large platter, arrange tomatoes and cheese in an alternating pattern. Scatter basil leaves, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with oil and vinegar.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org