Let's keep on with our back-to-the-basics approach of the last week or two and talk about some of the simple, basic skills that everybody should learn if they want to improve the way they eat and cook. Today, the topic is going to be fruit--specifically, how to choose the best fruit from that big, appealing pile at the market.
This is a skill that you have to practice, but it definitely gets easier with time. Whether you decide to choose local, organic, or conventional is a decision I will leave up to you. This is about making sure that when you go shopping, you find the best, ripest, tastiest fruit out there.
When it comes to shopping for produce, you have a huge starting advantage: you are made to be good at choosing good produce! The human body is a hunting-gathering machine, and picking good fruit out at the store is, at its most basic, just a question of learning how to use and listen to the senses you already have.
Remember, fruit will never taste as good out of season. Just because you can get strawberries from Mexico at Christmastime doesn't mean you should. They won't taste as good as you want them to.
Sadly, unless you are fortunate enough to be shopping at a market that regularly gives out samples, this is the sense you will use least. The best best best way to choose good fruit is to taste it first. You know better than anybody what tastes good to you, but I personally look for fruit that is sweet without being too sweet, tart without making me pucker, and juicy without tasting watery.
I never buy anything without touching it first. That goes for everything at the grocery store, but also books, fabric, home accents--you name it.
There are a couple of different kinds of fruit, and there are different touch guidelines for each type, so I'm going to break it down simply and explain how I personally categorize these.
Hard fruits: This mostly includes things like watermelon and honeydew, but also apples and some varieties of pear and nectarine. These should be quite firm to the touch. Don't worry about bumps or veins on the surface of melons--they won't get through to the meat. Soft spots mean trouble here, in the form of bruises, which will lead to rot.
Soft fruits: Soft varieties of pear, cantaloupe, tomatoes, mangoes, avocados, peaches, plums, and anything else similar that I'm forgetting right now. You will notice that most of these are stone fruits. When you touch them, these should not be too firm. When you pick up one of these fruits, it should feel instinctively obvious to you that if you poked it with your finger, it would dent the fruit and possibly break the skin. If you can't dent it with very light pressure, it isn't really ripe yet. If the skin splits or has already split, it is too ripe.
Note: Peaches are among the fruits most likely to contain high levels of pesticides due to their soft skin. If you eat conventionally grown peaches, be sure to wash very well with soap and water.
Citrus fruits: I love citrus fruits. If you are picking citrus fruits, make sure again that there are no soft spots. These should be softer than hard fruits but firmer than soft fruits. Pick several that are all the same size and weigh them in your hands--the heaviest one will almost always be the juiciest and best.
This is such an important part of the selection process! Good fruit will have a lot of rich color to it. If something looks pale and washed-out, it will probably taste that way as well, except for citrus fruits which are better judged by smell and feel. Buy fruit that you love to look at because it is beautiful--you love it because something in your brain is hard-wired to respond to the sight of good fruit with pleasure.
Even if you don't think about it, this is something you are already good at doing if you have ever chosen a banana by its spot on the green to yellow spectrum.
Check for brown spots, bruises, and mold. Bruised fruit will always rot sooner than undamaged fruit, and one piece of bad fruit can ruin a bagful. Don't be afraid of irregular shapes.
Good fruit smells good. Smell everything (although for the sake of your fellow shoppers, try to avoid actually smashing your nose into the fruit). Under-ripe fruit will not have a strong scent yet. Over-ripe fruit will smell strong and sometimes kind of gross.
It may take you some time to get used to really identifying when a fruit smells its best. I still can't do it with some fruits that I rarely buy, like kiwi. However, nearly all fruits will smell good when they are ripe. Don't be afraid to get up in there and start sniffing out the best ones. You will be rewarded with delicious flavor.
That's right. Even your sense of hearing can help you pick better food in some cases.
Mr. Scrimp is a master melon buyer. I have never known anybody better than he is at picking the best melon every time. And he does it by listening.
What do I mean? Well, a good melon will sound hollow when you tap it with your fingers. Again, don't be afraid--get right up in there, put your ear to the melons, and tap away. Find the one that satisfies all five of your senses and I promise you will be happy with the result.
You know how to do this!
You may not realize it, but you already have the instinctive skills to be good at this, even if they are untrained and uncertain. Now get out there and start practicing!
This blog post is part of the Traditional Tuesdays linkup at Real Food Whole Health