How To Pick The Best Veggies
The globe artichoke is the large, unopened flower bud of a plant belonging to the thistle family. The many leaf-like parts making up the bud are called "scales." Produced domestically only in California, the peak of the crop comes in April and May.
Avoid: Artichokes with large areas of brown on the scales and with spreading scales (a sign of age, indicating drying and toughening of the edible portions), grayish-black discoloration (caused by bruises), mold growth on the scales and worm injury.
California, New Jersey, Washington and Michigan are the chief sources of domestically grown asparagus.
Look for: Closed, compact tips; smooth, round spears; and a fresh appearance. A rich green color should cover most of the spear. Stalks should be almost as far down as the green extends.
Avoid: Tips that are open and spread out, moldy or decayed tips or ribbed spears (spears with up-and-down ridges or that are not approximately round). Those are all signs of aging, and indicate tough asparagus and poor flavor. Also avoid excessively sandy asparagus, because sand grains can lodge beneath the scales or in the tips of the spears and are difficult to remove in washing.
Snap beans, produced commercially in many States, are available throughout the year. Most beans found in the food store will be the common green podded varieties, but large green pole beans and yellow wax beans are occasionally available.
Look for: A fresh, bright appearance with good color for the variety. Get young, tender beans with pods in a firm, crisp condition.
Avoid: Wilted or flabby bean pods, serious blemishes, and decay. Thick, tough, fibrous pods indicate overmaturity.
Beets, available year-round, are grown in most parts of the nation. Many beets are sold in bunches with the tops still attached, while others are sold with the tops removed.
Look for: Beets that are firm, round, with a slender tap root (the large main root), a rich, deep red color and smooth over most of the surface. If beets are bunched, you can judge their freshness fairly accurately by the condition of the tops. Badly wilted or decayed tops indicate a lack of freshness, but the roots may be satisfactory if they are firm.
Avoid: Elongated beets with round, scaly areas around the top surface -- these will be tough, fibrous and strong-flavored. Also avoid wilted, flabby beets -- they have been exposed to the air too long.
A member of the cabbage family, and a close relative of cauliflower, broccoli is available throughout the year. California is the heaviest producer, although other states also produce large amounts of broccoli.
Look for: A firm, compact cluster of small flower buds, with none opened enough to show the bright-yellow flower. Bud clusters should be dark green or sage green -- or even green with a decidedly purplish cast. Stems should not be too thick or too tough.
Avoid: Broccoli with spread bud clusters, enlarged or open buds, yellowish-green color, or wilted condition, which are all signs of overmaturity. Also avoid broccoli with soft, slippery, water-soaked spots on the bud cluster. These are signs of decay.
Another close relative of the cabbage, Brussels sprouts develop as enlarged buds on a tall stem, one sprout appearing where each main leaf is attached. The "sprouts" are cut off and, in most cases, are packed in small consumer containers, although some are packed loose, in bulk. Although they are often available about 10 months of the year, peak supplies appear from October through December.
Look for: A fresh, bright green color, tight fitting outer leaves, firm body and freedom from blemishes.
Elongated beets with round, scaly areas around the top surface -- these will be tough, fibrous, and strong-flavored. Also avoid wilted, flabby beets -- they have been exposed to the air too long.
Three major groups of cabbage varieties are available: smooth-leaved green cabbage; crinkly-leaved green Savoy cabbage; and red cabbage. All types are suitable for any use, although the Savoy and red varieties are more in demand for use in slaw and salads.
Cabbage may be sold fresh (called "new" cabbage) or from storage. Cabbage is available throughout the year, since it is grown in many states. California, Florida and Texas market most new cabbage. Many northern states grow cabbage for late summer and fall shipment or to be held in storage for winter sale.
Look for: Firm or hard heads of cabbage that are heavy for their size. Outer leaves should be a good green or red color (depending on type), reasonably fresh and free from serious blemishes. The outer leaves (called "wrapper" leaves) fit loosely on the head and are usually discarded, but too many loose wrapper leaves on a head cause extra waste.
Some early-crop cabbage may be soft or only fairly firm, but is suitable for immediate use if the leaves are fresh and crisp. Cabbage out of storage is usually trimmed of all outer leaves and lacks green color, but is satisfactory if not wilted or discolored.
Avoid: New cabbage with wilted or decayed outer leaves or with leaves turned decidedly yellow. Worm-eaten outer leaves often indicate that the worm injury penetrates into the head.
Storage cabbage with badly discolored, dried or decayed outer leaves probably is over-aged. Separation of the stems of leaves from the central stem at the base of the head also indicates over-age.
Freshly harvested carrots are available year round. Most are marketed when relatively young, tender, well-colored and mild-flavored -- an ideal stage for use as raw carrot sticks. Larger carrots are packed separately and used primarily for cooking or shredding. California and Texas market most domestic carrots, but many other states produce large quantities.
Look for: Carrots which are well formed, smooth, well colored and firm. If tops are attached, they should be fresh and of a good green color.
Avoid: Roots with large green "sunburned" areas at the top (which must be trimmed) and roots which are flabby from wilting or show spots of soft rot.
Although most abundant from September through January, cauliflower is available during every month of the year. California, New York and Florida are major sources. The white edible portion is called "the curd" and the heavy outer leaf covering is called "the jacket leaves." Cauliflower is generally sold with most of the jacket leaves removed, and is wrapped in plastic film.
Look for: White to creamy-white, compact, solid and clean curds. A slightly granular or "ricey" texture of the curd will not hurt the eating quality if the surface is compact. Ignore small green leaflets extending through the curd. If jacket leaves are attached, a good green color is a sign of freshness.
Avoid: A spreading of the curd -- a sign of aging or overmaturity. Also avoid severe wilting or discolored spots on the curd. A smudgy or speckled appearance of the curd is a sign of insect injury, mold growth or decay and should be avoided.
Celery, a popular vegetable for a variety of uses, is available throughout the year. Production is concentrated in California, Florida, Michigan and New York. Most celery is of the so-called "Pascal" type, which includes thick-branched, green varieties.
Look for: Freshness and crispness in celery. The stalk should have a solid, rigid feel and leaflets should be fresh or only slightly wilted. Also look for a glossy surface, stalks of light green or medium green, and mostly green leaflets.
Avoid: Wilted celery and celery with flabby upper branches or leaf stems. You can freshen celery somewhat by placing the butt end in water, but badly wilted celery will never become really fresh again.
Celery with pithy, hollow or discolored centers in the branches also should be avoided. Celery with internal discoloration will show some gray or brown on the inside surface of the larger branches near where they are attached to the base of the stalk.
Also avoid celery with blackheart, a brown or black discoloration of the small center branches; insect injury in the center branches or the insides of outer branches; and long, thick seed stems in place of the usually small, tender heart branches.
Chard (see Greens)
Primarily a salad vegetable, Chinese cabbage plants are elongated, with some varieties developing a firm head and others an open, leafy form.
Look for: Fresh, crisp, green plants that are free from blemishes or decay.
Avoid: Wilted or yellowed plants.
Chicory, endives, escarole
These vegetables, used mainly in salads, are available practically all year round?but primarily in the winter and spring. Chicory or endive has narrow, notched edges, and crinkly leaves resembling the dandelion leaf. Chicory plants often have "blanched" yellowish leaves in the center which are preferred by many people. Escarole leaves are much broader and less crinkly than those of chicory.
Look for: Freshness, crispness, tenderness and a good green color of the outer leaves.
Avoid: Plants with leaves which have brownish or yellowish discoloration or which have insect injury.
Note: Witloof or Belgian endive is a compact, cigar-shaped plant which is creamy white from blanching. The small shoots are kept from becoming green by being grown in complete darkness.
Collards (see Greens)
Sweet corn is available practically every month of the year, but is most plentiful from early May until mid-September. Yellow-kernel corn is the most popular, but some white-kernel and mixed-color corn is sold. Sweet corn is produced in a large number of states during the spring and summer, but most mid-winter supplies come from south Florida.
For best quality, corn should be refrigerated immediately after being picked. Corn will retain fairly good quality for a number of days, if it has been kept cold and moist since harvesting. Therefore, it should be refrigerated as soon as possible and kept moist until used.
Look for: Fresh, succulent husks with good green color, silk-ends that are free from decay or worm injury and stem ends (opposite from the silk) that are not too discolored or dried.
Select ears that are well-covered with plump, not-too-mature kernels. Sweet corn is sometimes sold husked in overwrapped film trays.
Avoid: Ears with under-developed kernels which lack yellow color (in yellow corn), old ears with very large kernels, and ears with dark yellow or dried kernels with depressed areas on the outer surface. Also avoid ears of corn with yellowed, wilted or dried husks, or discolored and dried-out stem ends.
Although cucumbers are produced at various times of the year in many states, and imported during the colder months, the supply is most plentiful in the summer months.
Look for: Cucumbers with good green color that are firm over their entire length. They should be well developed, but not too large in diameter.
Avoid: Overgrown cucumbers that are large in diameter and have a dull color, turning yellowish. Also avoid cucumbers with withered or shriveled ends -- signs of toughness and bitter flavor.
Eggplant is most plentiful during late summer, but is available all year. Although the purple eggplant is more common, white eggplant is occasionally seen in the marketplace.
Look for: Firm, heavy, smooth, and uniformly dark purple eggplants.
Avoid: Those which are poorly colored, soft, shriveled, cut, or which show decay in the form of irregular dark-brown spots.
Endive, escarole (see Chicory)
A large number of widely differing species of plants are grown for use as "greens." The better known kinds are spinach, kale, collard, turnip, beet, chard, mustard, broccoli leaves, chicory, endive, escarole, dandelion, cress and sorrel. Many others, some of them wild, are also used to a limited extent as greens.
Look for: Leaves that are fresh, young, tender, free from defects, and that have a good, healthy, green color. Beet tops and red chard show reddish color.
Avoid: Leaves with coarse, fibrous stems, yellowish-green color, softness (a sign of decay) or a wilted condition. Also avoid greens with evidence of insects -- especially aphids -- which are sometimes hard to see and equally hard to wash away.
Kale (see Greens)
Among the leading US vegetables, lettuce owes its prominence to the growing popularity of salads in our diets. It's available throughout the year in various seasons from California, Arizona, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and other states. Four types of lettuce are generally sold: iceberg, butter-head, Romaine and leaf.
Iceberg lettuce is the major type. Heads are large, round and solid, with medium-green outer leaves and lighter green or pale-green inner leaves.
Butter-head lettuce, including the Big Boston and Bibb varieties, has a smaller head than iceberg. This type will have soft, succulent light-green leaves in a rosette pattern in the center.
Romaine lettuce plants are tall and cylindrical with crisp, dark-green leaves in a loosely folded head.
Leaf lettuce includes many varieties -- none with a compact head. Leaves are broad, tender, succulent and fairly smooth, and they vary in color according to variety.
Look for: Signs of freshness in lettuce. For iceberg lettuce and Romaine, the leaves should be crisp. Other lettuce types will have a softer texture, but leaves should not be wilted. Look for a good, bright color -- in most varieties, medium to light green. Some varieties have red leaves.
Avoid: Heads of iceberg type which are very hard and which lack green color (signs of overmaturity). Such heads sometimes develop discoloration of the inner leaves and midribs, and may have a less desirable flavor. Also avoid heads with irregular shapes and hard bumps on top, which indicate the presence of overgrown central stems.
Check the lettuce for tip burn, a tan or brown area around the margins of the leaves. Look for tip burn of the edges of the head leaves. Slight discoloration of the outer or wrapper leaves will usually not hurt the quality of the lettuce, but serious discoloration or decay definitely should be avoided.