Shopping for produce at your local grocery story can be a major hassle. Not only are you fighting for time in front of the green peppers and sweet potatos with the rest of the post-work shopping crew, but then you're standing there squeezing, sniffing, and shaking hoping to figure out the method to the madness that is picking out the perfect piece.
The good news? While we can't divert everyone away from their favorite grocer, we can give you the necessary tips to selecting the best seasonal fruits and veggies. And now that fall is rearing its head any day now (at least we hope so), now is as good of a time as any to get the lowdown on how to pick your purchases wisely.
“It’s not a coincidence that we have some of our best produce and our biggest food holiday in the fall," says Chris Romano, Whole Foods Market’s Global Produce Coordinator. "The warm days and cold nights of autumn make for ideal growing conditions. This brings us a wide range of intense flavors and textures to choose from -- crisp, tart apples, creamy sweet potatoes, bright and intense cranberries and the nutty flavors of hard winter squashes like acorn, delicata and butternut. And, one of the best things about autumn produce is that Mother Nature really offers us the types of fruits and vegetables we crave during the cooler months like hearty root vegetables, gratifying pears and filling squashes. It's a natural time to celebrate Mother Nature's harvest with food oriented holidays and the gathering of family and friends.”
We caught up with Romano to get his expert tips for picking fall produce:
Apples: To make sure you’re picking the best of the orchard, choose apples that are firm and free of blemishes or bruises. Apples emit ethylene, which speeds up the process of ripening so it’s important to store them in a cool place away from other ethylene-sensitive produce, such as avocados, bananas or citrus fruit. If you’re storing cored or peeled apples, a squeeze of lemon will help to prevent browning.
Pears: From Anjous to Bartlett to the Sugar Pear, this fall favorite offers a wide range of varieties and flavors from tart to sweet. No matter the type, pick your pears while they are still firm and allow them to ripen at room temperature for a few days. They ripen from the top down so you know they are ready to eat when they give a little at the stem. It also helps to know your varietals – bosc are better a firm while comice are best soft. In some cases you should also look for changes in color, like with the Bartlett, which turns from green to yellow. Opt to store them in the fridge to slow the ripening process, or use them up within five days. Just like apples, lemon juice can help prevent your cut pears from browning.
Grapes: Whether sprinkled in salads, mixed into salsa or eaten by the handful, grapes are at their best flavor in fall, when we can enjoy them fresh from the vine (including many varieties you can't get other times of year like champagne, concords and Holiday seedless red grapes). Look for fruit that is plump and firm. When it comes to color, green grapes should have a yellowish hue (known as amber) and red grapes should be a bright shade of crimson. Avoid wilted stems or wrinkled grapes when browsing for the perfect bunch. Unwashed grapes can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
Persimmons: Persimmons are a delicacy originally from East Asia. Golden orange, in color and packed with nutrients, they look similar to small tomatoes. Persimmons can be extremely tart until they become ripe, when the fruit becomes sweet and spicy. There are two varieties: Hachiya persimmons are acorn-shaped and remain tart and chalky until they are extremely ripe, while Fuyu, the squat, tomato-shaped persimmons are sweeter and can be eaten when still firm. When picking persimmons, avoid any specimens with brown spots or bruises.
Cranberries: Thanksgiving would not be the same without these tiny, tart berries. Look for brightly colored berries and check each bag for any shriveled or discolored berries, which should be discarded. To maximize freshness and flavor, keep the bag tightly wrapped in the refrigerator (they can stay good up to two months!), or freeze them for increased longevity. When cooking cranberries, remove them from heat as soon as they begin to pop. Overcooking could result in mushy or bitter fruit.
Leafy Greens: Ironically, while leaves are changing from green to yellows, browns and reds, autumn is actually one of the best times to enjoy leafy greens – both in terms of variety and flavor. Kale's popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years, and for good reason – often touted as a superfood, kale is an excellent source of vitamin K, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and fiber, and a good source of manganese. But there are lots of other powerhouse greens that are at their best in fall, like chard, watercress, leaf lettuce and mustard greens, arugula, raddichio and chicory.
Beets: These nutritious root vegetables come in a variety of colors besides their classic fuchsia hue. Whether red, pink, white, or orange, beets are delicious when roasted, pureed or used raw. Choose beets that are firm and smooth; if the beets still have the leaves attached, look for greens that are bright and spry. Do not wash beets until you are ready to use them, as this can water down the flavor. I also recommend grabbing a pair of gloves so that color does not stain your hands!
Sweet Potatoes: These naturally sweet root vegetables are equally delicious in desserts and savory dishes. Choose uniform sized sweet potatoes (for even cooking) that feel heavy in your hand and buy them shortly before you plan to use them. Store whole potatoes in a cool, dark place and toss any sprouted tubers.
Winter Squash: From acorn to butternut to delicata, you can choose from a range of hearty gourds and squashes in fall that are perfect for roasting, mashing and pureeing. Choose squash that remains firm when pressed, contains an intact stem, and feels heavy for its size. Winter squash can be stored in a cool, dark place for several weeks if kept in its tough exterior. Kept refrigerated for a few days if cut or raw.
Mushrooms: From Oyster to Portobello, all mushrooms should feel firm and dry when you’re selecting a perfectly earthy bunch. They can be stored in a paper bag between layers of damp paper towels in the fridge. If your mushrooms are prepackaged, make sure to remove them from the store packaging to maintain freshness.