How serious are you about produce? I sure am, and being an opinionated SOB, I think you should be too. I do 99.9% of the shopping for our household, so when M went for the first time a few weeks ago, she was shell shocked by prices and the general lack of good quality produce, as are a lot of folks – as such, I think it’s absolutely time to discuss it – don’t you?
I took the shopping images you see here today – check out the prices. When I see Serrano chiles at $4 a pound, you damn skippy I’m going to be über picky buying them. Bell peppers $2.50 a pop – Same gig. Small limes .89¢ each – uhhh, yeah – picky. If what you do at the store doesn’t more or less mirror my schtick, then you’re not doing enough, and that’s contributing to why what you buy doesn’t taste as good or last as long as it should. Time to up your game, because some necessary adjustments to our typical way of shopping are necessary.
First and foremost, I think that getting produce shopping done right means changing the dominant American paradigm and adopting a more worldly model. North America is about the only place where people expect to go to one place, one time, to get all their food. Think about it – all those images of local markets? The French and Italians, and their routines of visiting specific local purveyors for various things? That’s something we here need more of.
Taking a more holistic approach to shopping means more planning, and taking more time and care when you’re there. The image above shows you the produce I bought on Saturday. I went farther afield than I could have – to a store with better produce, went early to get the best selection, and easily spent ten minutes choosing five chiles, three limes, and one bell pepper – and I enjoyed myself to boot. This means shopping might entail going to the carniceria for fresh tortillas, the Euro market for moghrabieh couscous, or skipping your first choice for produce because what you needed just wasn’t good enough – that’s what we gotta do.
How about shopping frequency? Americans wanna go as little as possible, and expect things they buy to be good for a long time – and that model doesn’t jibe well with quality produce at home. Just as the rest of the world shops several times a week, so should we – buy less, buy fresher, and use it before you get more. If you don’t use it, preserve it to avoid needless waste. Plan meals around what you’ve got and how soon it needs to be used.
Don’t get your produce from your average big name grocery store if you can avoid it. These days, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are far more common than they used to be – they can range from fairly large scale ops in a city to small one-family affairs in towns and rural areas. Patronize them and you’ll get far better, fresher produce – and you’ll be supporting smaller, local businesses too. Often enough, a CSA will bring an order to your door, and you can often choose what and how much you need. If they don’t offer delivery, incorporate that pickup into your shopping routine.
Farmers markets are still largely seasonal, but you should check out your area to see what and when you have available to you – here there are quite a few folks who grow year round in greenhouses. Like CSAs, you’ll be supporting local farm families, and getting produce directly from the growers.
Wherever you buy, you probably need to get a bunch more discerning in your purchases. I really do get approached all the time in stores about my produce buying habits, so obviously I’m doing something markedly different from the average bear. Yesterday, it was a young 20-something guy who appeared at my shoulder and sort of sarcastically noted, ‘that’s the most time and effort I’ve ever seen anybody spend to buy five peppers!’ In all fairness, I think he wanted at them too, and I was in the way – still, it played out differently than he thought it would.
I pointed to the sign that read $3.99 a pound for Serranos and said ‘yeah? Well at that price, I’m gonna be picky as hell, and you should be too!’ Curious now, he asked what I was looking for, and there it was – I showed him the ones I’d chosen – firm, glossy, good ends, no lesions, smells like a chile. Then I grabbed a soft one and handed it to him, along with one with brown spots and one with a soft stem end, and one that smelled a little off – I watched the light bulb turn on. He thanked me, by the way.
The same goes for small limes at .89¢ a pop – I’m after ones that are firm but not hard, glossy, no lesions or soft spots and that smell good, and I’m testing as many as it takes until I find three I’m willing to spend $3 on. $2.50 for a red bell pepper? I’m gonna take all the time I need to find one as close to perfect as I can get. If I’m in the grocery store, I check organic versus not, and peruse varieties I may not think I’m looking for in order to score the best stuff.
Take lettuce – no, really. Stand and watch how people buy that – 9.9 out 10 folks just grab whatever is on top of the pile and throw it in the basket – and that’s way wrong. Pick up several heads -notice some are really light and others notably heavier. Squish them gently – some are firm, some are mushy. Look at the cut ends – lots of brown and soft tissue? Smell it – if anything, you should get a faint earthy scent – if it smells strongly of anything, that’s not good, so move to the next head.
Potatoes and onions? Here again, pick up a few and you’ll notice weight difference. We want firm, clean veggies with no lesions or soft spots that smell good. Carrots and celery? Both of those should be firm, and resist a gentle bend. The ends should be clean and firm, no visible rot or soft spots. Smell ‘em, and they should smell like what they are. Crush a little piece of celery leaf and smell that – smells good, stronger than celery, kinda peppery? Good news – buy that.
Be it fruit or veggies, this detailed physical, visual, and olfactory inspection is critical to determine whether what they’re selling is worth your hard earned money – Don’t skimp on the process and you won’t go home with crap that spoils quickly and tastes lousy.
How you store produce at home is equally important. In our kitchen, we have several purpose built produce containers, (ours are made by Oxo). They go in the fridge and act like little crisper drawers – because they’re smaller, with vented sides and bottoms and adjustable ventilation, they work better than anything else we’ve used – Lettuce, cabbage, chiles, root veggies and such all last well in them.
Potatoes like to be around 50° F and dry with good airflow, not in direct sun. Garlic and shallots, ditto. Not always easy to achieve, but if you have a cooler spot in your pantry, that’ll do. Oh, and that old saw about storing potatoes with apples? Don’t do that – together they produce ethylene gas, which’ll make both rot faster.
Heard that tomatoes should always be kept at room temp? Wrong – keep what you’re gonna use in the next day or so there by all means – but leave a weeks worth out at room temp longer than that and they’ll start to rot quickly. Refrigerate them in a crisper drawer or veggie holder, and pull them when you want to use them, letting them get to room temp for optimal taste. Almost all fruit will do best under the same rules.
Again, a big key here is not buying like a ugly Amerikan – don’t shop hungry, don’t get the 6 pack of pretty bell peppers unless you can and will actually use or preserve them in the next five days or so. Buy what you really will use, store it properly, and plan meals to use what you have while it’s still good, to reduce overall waste.
What do you do that I missed or got wrong? Let’s hear it, and see if we can’t all get better at this process, ‘cause we sure need to.