It's my ardent belief, backed up by lots of scientific research, that the more fruits and vegetables you eat the healthier you will be. Did you know that there are compounds called phytochemicals and antioxidants in fresh fruits and vegetables that help reduce your risk of disease? Taking supplements with these nutrients don't work as well as eating fresh produce. There are so many micronutrients, phytochemicals, and compounds in fruits and vegetables that food scientists are discovering every day.
So do you know how to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables? Did you know that you should wash a cantaloupe before you slice it? Or that there are two kinds of peaches and only one kind you should buy to serve fresh? This list of some popular fruits and vegetables will give you tips about buying, storing, and preparing them so you can easily add them to your daily diet.
Apples should be firm and heavy for their size, with no soft or brown spots or indentations. Wash them well and just eat out of hand. To core them, cut in half, then in quarters, and using a knife make a circular cut around the seeds and seed casings. Make sure you get those little transparent seed casings out because if you're cooking the apples in a pie or other recipe, the casings won't soften much and are unpleasant to bite. Or you can stand the apple up and cut along the core on all four sides; discard the core.
Cut in half and remove the pit. Apricots may be eaten skin and all. To peel, blanch for 10-20 seconds in boiling water and plunge immediately into cold water. The peel will slip right off. Most apricots are sold canned or dried.
- Apricot Salsa
Yes, avocado is a fruit! This is the way I prepare them. Wash, then cut in half lengthwise, going around the pit. Twist the two halves gently to separate. Some people then hit the pit with a knife to remove it, but I like to cut the avocado in half lengthwise again and gently pry out the pit. I find the fruit bruises less this way. Then just pull off the skin with your fingers and slice. Sprinkle with lemon juice if you aren't serving it immediately to stop enzymatic browning.
Blackberries, raspberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, and loganberries are all extremely perishable. Use them the day you buy them for best quality. Wash them very gently in cool water, sort them and place them on paper towels to drain. Use right away after they have been washed.
Blueberries are not as perishable as most other soft fruits. They are usually sold in 1-pint containers. Sort them carefully and make sure to pull off any attached stems. Wash and dry on paper towels, then eat or use in recipes.
- Blueberry Bundt Cake
To check for ripeness, gently press against the vine end of the melon (larger indentation). The melon should give gently and should smell sweet. Make sure to wash the cantaloupe before you cut it, to prevent food poisoning from spreading with the knife. Gently scoop out seeds with a spoon and cut the fruit into wedges or use a melon baller. Because cantaloupe has been linked to Listeria and Salmonella outbreaks recently, I put the whole melon in a pot of water heated to 169 degrees F for three minutes. That kills the bacteria but doesn't affect the fruits' texture or flavor. Dry off and slice.
- Cantaloupe Popsicles
- Chicken Melon Salad
I feel that a cherry pitter is a wonderful tool. Be sure to pit the cherries over a bowl so you can make hear the pit click into the bowl and be sure that each cherry is successfully pitted. Look for heavy, firm cherries with a tight skin.
Cranberries are typically in season in October and November. These little fruits are super tart and usually used in baking and sauces. Look for plump fruits that are not wrinkled; sort through them and wash before using. Cranberries freeze very well, so buy a bunch in the fall and freeze them for use throughout the year.
- Cranberry Brownie Pie
- Cranberry Oatmeal Bread
Be sure to wash grapes very thoroughly before using. Look for bunches with the grapes held tightly to the stems. Make sure to buy seedless varieties and store covered in the refrigerator. Just pull off the stems and use. If you can find champagne grapes, you're in luck! These little jewels are full of flavor and color.
- Honeydew Melon
The melons should be heavy for their size and give slightly when pressed with your fingers. They should also smell sweet and, well, like honey. Wash them well before slicing and gently scoop out the seeds, then cut into wedges, or cut off the peel and slice. You can also use a melon baller for a fancier presentation.
- Honeydew Salad Wedges
- Texas Melon Soup
Make sure to try the recipes that are listed after each fruit or vegetable description. They are some of my favorites that highlight each fruit or vegetable.
- Kiwi Fruit
Kiwis taste like a combination of strawberries and melon and are a delicious source of Vitamin C. The black seeds are edible. Peel the skin and slice or chop to serve.
- Key West Salad
- Glazed Beef with Pineapple Kiwi Salsa
- Lemons and Limes
Lemons should feel heavy for their size. To get the most juice, gently roll them on the countertop to break down the cell structure. Or you can prick them with a knife and microwave them for 30 seconds on high, then slice and juice.
- Lemon Meringue Dessert
- Lemon Tarragon Scalloppini
- Lemon Truffle Pie
This luscious fruit tastes like a wild peach. They should smell sweet and be soft when pressed with the fingers, but not wrinkled. Color isn't a reliable indicator of ripeness. To prepare mangoes, hold them upright and cut down along one of the fat sides, curving your knife to avoid the large oval pit. Repeat on the other side. Then score the flesh with a knife in a crisscross pattern. Gently press the scored halves to turn inside out and cut off the chunks of fruit from the peel. Trim the rest of the fruit off the pit, peel, and use in the recipes.
- Baked Sole with Mango
- Mango Tomato Salad
The large black papaya seeds are edible, although I've never really enjoyed the peppery taste. Simply test the fruit to make sure it gives slightly with pressure from your palm, then wash, peel, scoop out the seeds, and slice.
- Passion Fruit
These strange looking exotic fruits are delicious. A wrinkled skin is a sign of ripeness. Just wash them, cut them in half and scoop out the soft, sweet flesh with a spoon. They're excellent as a topping for ice cream or meringues.
Ripe peaches are a wonderful treat. They should be firm, yellow with a red or pink blush, smell sweet, and give slightly to palm pressure. Unless you are canning them, be sure to select freestone peaches, not cling. Peaches can be blanched for 30 seconds in boiling water, then plunged into cold water. The skins will slip right off.
Pears are a fabulous fall fruit, but available year round. Purchase pears that are firm, smooth, and heavy for their size. Ripen them by letting them stand at room temperature for a few days, until the flesh yields to gentle pressure. Bosc pears (the brown-skinned pears) are best for cooking; Anjou and Bartlett are best for eating fresh.
- Pear Stuffed Chicken with Walnut Rice
- Grilled Blue Cheese Pear Sandwiches
Fresh pineapple is a wonderful treat. The ripe fruit should smell ripe and give very slightly when pressed at the bottom. To prepare, wash, then firmly grasp the leaves and twist off. Cut the pineapple into four sections, and using a curved knife, cut the flesh away from the prickly peel. Remove the hardcore and slice the fruit or cut it into chunks.
These strange globes are in season during the winter months. They are hard-shelled fruits with tiny edible seeds coated with a red fruity glaze. The seeds are the part you eat. To easily remove the seeds, cut the pomegranate in half and, using a spoon, whack the back of the fruit so the seeds come out in a shower. Then squeeze the empty halves to juice.
Raspberries need no preparation - just wash gently and quickly and serve. Be sure to carefully check packages before you buy so there are no squished or moldy fruits in the bottom of the container.
Starfruit is ripe when yellow and give slightly to pressure. The entire lemony fruit is edible. Just wash and slice - and the slices will look like stars!
Fresh strawberries should be red, firm and plump. The best are harvested yourself from pick-your-own farms, or from farmer's markets. To prepare, wash thoroughly, then cut out the leaves (hull) and any white part at the top, or shoulder, of the strawberry. Then slice or chop.
- In Love with Strawberries
- Strawberry and Gooseberry Salad
Seedless varieties of watermelon aren't really seedless but have very small, tender, edible seeds. Watermelon is best to cut into large wedges, then sliced. When ripe, the watermelon will give a hollow thud when thumped and will smell sweet. Watermelon rind is a popular ingredient for people who love to pickle fruits.
- Watermelon Hors-d'oeuvres
- Watermelon with Berry Salsa
- Chicken Crisp Salad
Vegetables are the workhorses of the nutrition world. They usually are inexpensive, available year-round, store well, and are packed full of nutrients. Here's how to buy and prepare vegetables for better health.
If you squeeze an artichoke and it squeaks, it's fresh! Artichokes should be compact, firm and heavy for their size. A slight brown tint in the artichokes is actually desirable - it's called "winter kiss" caused by frost, and increases sweetness. To prepare, cut off the top 1" of the artichoke, then use a scissor to cut off all sharp tips, cut off the stem and rinse in lemon water. If you want to remove the choke before cooking, gently pull apart the leaves and scrape out the hairy choke. Artichokes can be boiled or steamed until the leaves can be easily pulled off. Eating them is an art; pull off each leaf and scrape the tender bottom between your teeth. Dipping sauces enhance the artichoke's flavor. Marinated bottled artichokes are an easy way to add this vegetable to your repertoire.
- Feta, Cheese and Rice Salad
- Artichoke and Chickpea Salad
Thick or thin? There is an ongoing controversy about which is more tender. It really doesn't matter - just go with your own preference! Choose firm stalks with tightly closed tips. Asparagus can be peeled if you wish, using a swivel-bladed peeler. Just make sure to stop peeling about 2" from the tips. Rinse the spears well, since they can be sandy. Then hold the spears in both hands and bend until they snap. The spears will break naturally at the point where they are tender. Steam or roast them until tender.
Most legume beans like limas, cranberry beans, black-eyed peas, and fava beans are sold canned. If you find fresh, make sure to pick plump, firm pods. Shell them just before using, then steam or boil until tender. Just boil the whole pods in lightly salted water for 5 minutes, then cool. Shell as you eat. String beans are best prepared simply. Just wash and sort, then cut off the ends with a sharp knife. Drain and toss with a bit of olive oil or butter and serve.
Fresh beets should be firm, round and smooth with no soft spots. They can be roasted or steamed. If you roast them unpeeled, they can be eaten like a baked potato. The red stain from beets is permanent, so cover your work surface with waxed paper as you work. Cut off the stem and root, wash and scrub thoroughly, then cook by boiling, roasting or steaming. After cooking the skins will slip off easily.
Broccoli has so much fiber and so many nutrients, including those valuable phytochemicals. Choose firm, plump heads with no yellow florets and firm leaves. Separate the florets from the stalk, wash well and cook by steaming or boiling. If you don't undercook or overcook it, there won't be an unpleasant sulfur smell. The stalks can be peeled and cut into thin pieces. Begin cooking the stalks a few minutes before the florets so they are done at the same time.
- Broccoli Rabe
This leafy green vegetable is popular in Italy and is becoming more available in the United States. It is not a member of the broccoli family, but part of the larger brassica family. Choose firm stalks with crisp leaves. Some yellow flowers are perfectly acceptable. Wash well and cook very thoroughly. Most recipes call for simmering the rabe in water, then draining and sauteeing. The bitter flavor may be an acquired taste.
This variation of broccoli is actually a cross between Chinese broccoli and regular broccoli. It is trademarked by the Mann Packing Company. It has thinner stalks and more florets than regular broccoli and is slightly sweeter. Steam it or use it in stir-fries.
- Brussels Sprouts
Wash the little cabbages under cool running water. Trim off the very bottom of the stem and remove any soft or damaged leaves. Then saute, steam, or roast them until tender.
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts
- Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
Cabbages should be firm and heavy, with leaves tightly attached to the stem and the head. Wash the head, then remove the outer tough leaves. Cut or shred the cabbage as directed in the recipe.
- Cabbage Tortellini Salad
- Tomato Cabbage Bisque
Smaller carrots are sweeter! These are a special variety of large carrot which has been thoroughly trimmed to be a uniform small size. If you are buying carrots with green tops, make sure the tops aren't wilted. Remove the tops before storage to increase the carrot's shelf life. Wash, peel if necessary, and cook by steaming, roasting, or boiling.
Cauliflower is fairly perishable, so buy it only 2 to 3 days before you eat it. Choose firm, heavy heads with creamy white florets that have no brown spots. The stem isn't edible. Wash well, cut off the florets, and serve raw or steam them lightly until tender.
Fresh corn on the cob is one of the joys of summer. Stopping at a farmer's stand is the best way to get the freshest, sweetest corn. Choose firm, heavy ears that have bright green, tightly attached husk and light, dry silk. Husk the cobs right before cooking and pull off the 'silk'. To remove the kernels from the cob, hold upright and cut down using a large chef's knife, being careful to cut only the kernels and not the tough casing.
Cucumbers you buy in the grocery store are almost always waxed to prolong freshness. Cut in half and use a spoon to scrape out the seeds, which can be bitter. Then slice or chop and use in recipes. Cooked cucumber has a delicate taste and tender texture.
Fennel looks like a fat bunch of celery. The delicate licorice taste and crunchy texture is delicious. Choose firm, heavy bunches with fresh leaves and no flowers on the stalks. To prepare, wash, then remove the stalks. Cut off the top and bottom of the bulb, then peel if necessary and cut into wedges, slices, or dice. Fennel can be served raw or steamed or boiled.
- Lemon Chicken
Fresh greens are very perishable. If you buy loose bunches, choose crisp, tight heads. Wash the individual leaves carefully and dry them thoroughly on paper towels. I love the prepacked prepared salad greens sold in most grocery stores.
Jicama is a fresh, crisp root or tuber with a sweet apple-y flavor that is delicious sliced raw in salads. Choose heavy tubers with no soft spots. Wash, peel, and slice to serve. It is sliced and served with lime and chili powder in Mexico.
Kohlrabi is a very nutritious, delicious root vegetable. Choose kohlrabi that is smaller than 3" in diameter. Wash and peel before slicing. It can be served raw in salads or cooked by steaming or boiling.
Fresh mushrooms are wonderful in salads, especially pasta salads. There is something about the tender, soft texture with a bit of crunch that is delectable. Choose mushrooms that are firm and creamy white, with no brown spots. Only buy mushrooms from reputable sources, and if you hunt your own, make sure you know what you're doing! Store them in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Rinse quickly to wash. Don't soak the mushrooms in water, or they will absorb lots of liquid and be watery. Cut off the ends of the stems, then slice or chop. The thin membrane under the cap that encloses the gills is called the veil. Mushrooms are still fine if the veil is open, revealing the gills. Open veil mushrooms won't last as long but have a richer flavor. Wonderful exotic mushrooms varieties like portobello, crimini, morels, and oyster mushrooms are now available to add a rich, smoky flavor to your recipes.
- Bacon Mushroom Meatloaf
- Fish Fillets with Mushroom Sauce
- Onions and Leeks
Buy firm, solid onions and leeks with no wet spots. Leeks should have crisp, dark green leaves and feel heavy for their size. Don't store onions in the refrigerator, or they will soften. Peeling onions under water is really the only way to avoid tears. When you cut an onion, you release sulfur compounds that irritate your eyes. Holding a match or piece of bread in your mouth just doesn't work. Make sure you rinse leeks very well, as they are grown in sand and the sand really can hide in between the leaves.
These veggies are all delicious and so good for you. Read through this list and learn how to prepare them, then eat up!
Bell peppers are sweet and smoky, while peppers like jalapenos and habaneros are very spicy and hot. Choose firm, brightly colored peppers and store them covered in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. Wash them, cut in half, and remove seeds before slicing or chopping. Roasting peppers, then placing them in a paper bag and removing the skin makes the peppers smoky, soft and sweet. The seeds and membranes in hot peppers store most of the capsaicin, so remove them for less heat. Be very careful when preparing hot peppers to not touch your eyes, nose or mouth or your skin will burn. By the way, drinking milk or eating bread is the best way to reduce the heat taste of hot peppers on your tongue.
- Marinated Vegetable Salad
- Dilled Coleslaw
Potatoes store very well, so buy them in bulk! Make sure to store them away from onions, however, as they each release a gas that shortens the other's shelf life. Don't store potatoes in the refrigerator, as the starch will convert to sugar and the taste will be unacceptably sweet. Potatoes should be firm, heavy, and smooth with no soft spots or bruises. I almost never peel them before adding them to a recipe, but you certainly can peel if you prefer.
Fresh baby spinach is a wonderful addition to salads. It is soft and sweet with a wonderful nutty flavor. Cooked spinach has more available nutrients, however. Purchase spinach with crisp, deep green leaves with no bruises or soft spots. Wash thoroughly because it tends to be sandy. Steam the spinach with just the water that clings to its leaves for moisture, until it wilts and turns very deep green.
- Spinach Salad
- Spinach Chicken Enchiladas
Winter squashes are hard-skinned, heavy fruits (yes, fruits!) that should be firm, with a dry, attached stem. Winter squash is almost always baked. Pumpkins, butternut squash, delicata, Hubbard, acorn and spaghetti squash are common varieties. Summer squashes are more like cucumbers, with tender, soft skin and delicate flesh. Choose firm, small summer squashes with no brown spots. Peel if you like, wash, and slice. Summer squashes are wonderful cooked in a little butter, with salt and pepper. Varieties include yellow summer squash, crookneck, and scalloppini.
If you are lucky enough to grow fresh tomatoes yourself, you know how wonderful they are right off the vine. Tomatoes should be firm but give gently when pressed. If you can buy them from a farmer's market or roadside stand, so much the better! To seed tomatoes, cut in half and gently squeeze to remove the seeds and tomato jelly. To peel tomatoes, dip briefly in boiling water until the skin begins to split. Cool by plunging into ice water, and the skin will slip right off.
Zucchini becomes so prolific in backyard gardens during the summer months. It's best if eaten when fairly young; the large football-like zucchini becomes tough and bitter. The skin is edible, so you can peel it or not as you like.