Apples to Zucchini: Selecting Fresh Produce

Fruits and vegetables don’t always live up to our expectations — there’s nothing more disappointing than bringing home an avocado to satisfy your intense guac craving and realizing it’s not ripe enough to mash up. Or finding the perfectly colored plum and biting into it expecting sweet deliciousness but instead getting harsh bitterness instead. 

We think you deserve the very best, so we’re arming you with all the information you need to get just that. Since you can’t taste-test your produce before you buy it, sometimes you need to use four of your five senses to discern whether or not it’s fresh and at the perfect stage of ripeness to meet your expectations. Use this guide to choose the best of the best next time you’re at the grocery or farmers market. 

If you’re looking for an apple to bite into or slice up for a salad, you’ll want a ripe (but not too ripe) one. It should be firm (no soft spots), brightly colored, with smooth skin and no wrinkles. The rounder ones sometimes pack more flavor.

If you’re planning on making an apple pie or using the fruit for some other type of baking, look for an apple that’s just past the ripe stage and a bit mushy.



There are different varieties of avocados that come in different shapes and sizes, so don’t use size or shape to determine quality. Ripe avocados should have a little give when you press gently on the skin. Avoid overly mushy and rock-hard ones. If it’s slightly too firm, give it a day or two at home to ripen.



While brown spots and discoloration may indicate poor quality in some fruits, the brown flecks on bananas don’t. Choose plump, firm (but not hard) bananas that are yellow or yellow with brown flecks. If they’re slightly green, they’re not quite ripe — let them rest for a day or two at home.  


Bell peppers

Bell peppers should be firm, glossy and smooth with no wrinkles. Whether you’re buying green, yellow, red or orange, the color should be bright, and the pepper should feel heavy for its size.




A good way to test the freshness of blueberries is to give the container a gentle shake. If the berries remain in place, they’ve probably seen better days. Fresh, ripe blueberries are completely blue, firm and dry. Avoid watery blueberries or blueberries with leaking containers.



Look for broccoli that’s tightly backed and feels heavy for its size. The greener, the better — avoid broccoli that has started to yellow. The stalks should be firm, and the bunch shouldn’t look dried out.




Choose deeply colored carrots — preferably ones that still have brightly colored greens attached. They should be firm with smooth skin and no wilted greens, blemishes or cracks. 



Choosing the best cauliflower is a lot like choosing the best broccoli. You’re going to look for tightly packed bunches that feel heavy for their size. The greens should look fresh — no wilted, yellow or dry greens. Avoid bunches with brown or soft spots.



A fresh bunch of celery is tight and compact with crisp stems and bright green leaves that aren’t wilted. Avoid bunches that have brown spots on the stalks. A good way to test a celery bunch is the scratch-and-sniff test: Scrape a bit of one of the stalks with your nail and smell. If it smells sweet, you’ve found a winner. If it smells bitter, go fish. 



Many people recommend pulling off the husks to inspect the corn for freshness and quality. A less troublesome (and more considerate) way of testing corn is to inspect what you can see and feel with the husks on. The tassels should be brown and sticky to the touch, not black or dry. The kernels underneath the husks should feel plump, and the husks should be green, not yellowed or dry.



The best cucumbers are firm, dark green, with smooth skin and no wrinkles, blemishes or soft spots. Buy the unwaxed varieties, like English or hothouse cucumbers, so you can eat the skin, a good source of vitamin A. 



Check out the eggplant’s skin: It should have no blemishes or soft spots, and it should bounce back after applying some pressure to it with your finger. It should also feel heavy for its size.



Grapefruit should feel firm — avoid any with soft or soggy spots near the stem end. The skin should be yellow, sometimes with a pink tint, and it should feel heavy for its size. 



No matter what color you’re buying, grapes should be deeply colored and plump with crisp stems. If they seem wrinkled or leaky, look for a better bunch. 



Rely on your eyes to pick the best kale. The leaves should be thick and crisp, not wilted or soft. Look for deep green bunches with no yellowing, and avoid kale with holes in the leaves, an indicator of insect damage. The smaller-sized leaves often have a milder taste.



Test the kiwi the same way you would test an avocado. Apply some gentle pressure to its flesh; if it has a little give, it’s ready. If it’s really firm and doesn’t budge, it needs more time to ripen. Kiwis should be plump, with smooth, tight skin. Avoid any with wrinkles, soft spots or bruises. The color should be consistently light green-brown, and it should smell citrusy. 



Look for firm, crisp, brightly colored leaves. Don’t buy bunches with brown ends, wilted greens or slimy areas. Choose the uncut kind for longer-lasting lettuce. 



You’ll want to inspect the shape, color, firmness and smell for the best mangoes. Color is sometimes, but not always, indicative of quality. Choose mangoes that are plump and round (as opposed to flat), that have a little give when you apply pressure to the flesh. Don’t worry about brown spots, but avoid mangoes that look wrinkly. The stem end should give off a sweet and fruity smell. 



Fresh mushrooms are unblemished and firm, with an earthy smell. Don’t buy them if they look slimy. Go for the whole ones, rather than the precut packages, if you want them to last as long as possible.



Choose onions that are firm and dry with tight, intact skin. Avoid onions that have exposed areas, soft spots, mold or green sprouts. To learn about what type of onion — e.g., yellow, red or sweet — to use for different types of dishes, click here.  



Oranges should be firm, with no blemishes or shriveled spots, and heavy for their size. They should smell sweet. Choose navels for eating and Valencias for juicing. 



Peaches are notoriously difficult to gauge when it comes to quality and taste. Check out the color, shape, firmness, smell and the quality of its skin. The sweetest ones have an almost-gold background color; avoid ones that are green. Choose plump peaches that yield slightly to pressure and smell sweet around the stem. Avoid the ones with bruises, wrinkles or discoloration. 



Choose plums that are of medium firmness — not too hard and not too soft. They should have a little give when you gently apply pressure with your thumb. A chalky white powder is OK; shriveled skin, bruising and soft spots are not.


Spaghetti squash 

Spaghetti squash should feel heavy for its size. The yellower, the better — avoid any with white or green hues. The skin should be firm, with no soft spots, cracks or blemishes. Look for dull-looking, not glossy, squash.



Shape doesn’t matter when it comes to strawberries, but color, smell and firmness do. They should be deep red — the more intense the color, the more antioxidants — and should feel firm and dry and smell sweet. Keep an eye out for mold.



The freshest, best-tasting tomatoes are plump and firm (should yield to a little pressure), deeply colored and glossy. The skin should be free of soft spots, wrinkles and cracks. They should feel heavy for their size and smell sweet. Buy the ones on the vine for the freshest, best taste.



Zucchini should be firm, brightly colored and free of cuts. Choose small- to medium-sized zucchini that are less than 8 inches long for the best taste.


Aubergine: An eggplant by any other name

Eggplant is so called because the first varieties known to English-speaking people bore colorful egg shaped fruits. The eggplant is also known in other cuisines by various names, including  aubergine, melanzana, or brinjal,  Probably form the French, then from Catalan albergínia, from Arabic al-bādhinjān,  the eggplant is a mysterious, enigmatic and delicious vegetable when prepared properly.

A staple in cuisines of the Mediterranean region, eggplant figures prominently in such classic dishes as the Greek moussaka, the Italian eggplant parmigiana, and the Middle Eastern relish baba ghanoush. It is also frequently served as a baked, grilled, fried, or boiled vegetable and is used as a garnish and in stews.

Eggplant (Solanum melongena), also called aubergine or Guinea squash, is a tender perennial plant of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), closely related to the tomato and potato. Eggplant requires a warm climate and is grown extensively in eastern and southern Asia and in the United States. It is native to southern and eastern Asia, where it has been cultivated since remote antiquity for its fleshy fruit.  The fruit is a large egg-shaped berry, varying in colour from dark purple to red, yellowish, or white (the color and shape of the white variety is the source of the common name); it is sometimes striped and has a glossy surface.


Why it is so fascinating to me:  Several years ago, i was preparing for a trip to Spain. It was a grand tour, including Barcelona, Granada, Valencia, Cordoba and the charming town of Girona. I thought it was time to brush up on my Spanish, and learn a few more phrases and common items before my trip. Little did I know until much later that they speak Catalan, not Spanish, in Barcelona, but some extra linguistic studying wouldn’t hurt. I’ve always enjoyed the Hispanic markets, and shopped frequently at them for vegetables, staples and unusual items. The items were listed on the shelves in both Spanish and English which made learning the names of the vegetables much easier.

So, I’ve seen carrots (zanahoria), apples (manzana), strawberry ( fresca), garlic (ajo), potato (patata), lettuce (lechuga), onion  (cebolla), but I did not know the word for eggplant. I am wandering the produce bins, and see  beautiful eggplants on the shelves for 3 for $ 1.oo. I’m thinking baba ghannoush, or roasted eggplant, or caponata, or just some delicious Eggplant Parmesan, but I ned to know the name in Spanish. the produce clerk. I ask him in my broken Spanish: Lo que se llama esto? (What is this called in Spanish?) He looks confused, puzzled and looks to the heaven for an answer. Our Lady of Guadalupe knows the word for ‘eggplant’ ?  He is completely stumped. I try to visualize and play a game of charades with him, gesturing and forming an ‘air-eggplant’ with my hands. He probably thinks I’m crazy (loco), and making the image of a Conehead , or some bizarre Flamenco dancer or Quetzecotl human sacrifice altar…I don’t know what he thinks, but clearly he doesn’t have an answer for me. I hold up an eggplant and ask him again, but alI he has to say is: “Yo no lo se.” ( I don’t know). …or care…maybe…I didn’t really know.

I see a trio of Spanish women spanning three generations: a glorious grandmother, dressed completely  in black, probably mourning her late husband who fought with Pancho Villa; her daughter, a stunning Chiquita with 7″ platform red shoes, a dress so tight you could see her freckles, doing her best Shakira/Housewives of Nogales impersonation and exuding a mucho hispanic-ness that would set ICE alarms off at 50 paces; and then there was the poquita nina, a sweet doe-eyed child of 6 or 7 just tagging along for the grocery store visit with mama and nana. It was a combined vision of Goya, Valasquez and modern day  cover of People en Espagnole !  So I still don’t know what the word for eggplant in Spanish is yet, and I reach out to tres generacions for an answer.

I turn to the daughter and ask: Do you know what the Spanish word for eggplant is please?  No se, she responds. I turn to the youngest and ask again. She has no idea, though thoughtful and reflective. Stranger Danger ? Who’s the weird guy in a white coat (chef’s jacket), asking these questions? Finally, I turn to the eldest woman, the dark, mysterious and enigmatic matron of the family. Politely, I ask again:Lo que se llama esto?” She ponders. She pauses. She smiles. She (also) looks to the heavens. She looks at me, she looks at the daughter. The granddaughter. The clerk. and then, again at me. She has a revelation for me. An epiphany? Will I finally know the answer? Does she know? Yes. She pulls away her veil ( yes a black veil, in Rancho Market on a Tuesday), pauses, looks me right in the eyes and feeling my curiosity and tenacity and anticipation, and she says the word. “Eggplant” she states. I could have died laughing. But the joke was on me, afterall. My unswerving quest to master the eggplant was a transnational comedic experience.

Oh, by the way, I did later learn the Spanish word. It is berenjena. Not nearly as funny as eggplant or aubergine, but I am a better chef for knowing. Anyone for Spanish eggplant street tacos?