Thursday, January 22, 2009

How to tell if fruit is awesome or if it will make you cry: Part 1 in the Produce Series

Dear Tricia, I need a fruit lesson! I have the recipe for Jason's Deli Fruit dip and I am wanting to try all the dip/fruit combos. But how do I know what is in season when? How do I know if the fruit is good or not? Do I thump it? Shake it? Ask it? Kick it?!

What an awesome question! I am definitely a fan of asking fruit if its in season. I do it all the time. It doesn't always answer me, but I like for it to know that I value its feelings. Shaking and kicking... not the greatest ways of checking to see if its good.
This question is like opening up pandora's box on this blog because I totally geek out over produce. It's my favorite section of the grocery store and I have been known to get pretty misty-eyed over perfectly-ripe peaches. (Its true. It was cute, fuzzy, it smelled good... like a puppy, except peaches don't shit on your carpet and chew up the couch. Peaches probably taste better than a puppy too.) Because the topic is pretty broad, I'm going to post it in different sections and start with winter, since that's what we're in the dead of right now.
Winter time is best suited for citrus fruit. Weird, right? You think lemons and oranges, and you think summer. But no... winter is when citrus in season. Limes, lemons, grapefruits, oranges, tangerines, kiwi; these are all your basic citrus fruits. When you're shopping for oranges and all of their weird hybrid orange friends (like tangelos, tangerines, clementines, kumquats), you want to pick the orange that is heavy for its size. A heavy orange means there's plenty of juice in it. Oranges from Florida (Valencia) tend to have more juice in them, but not be as attractive as oranges from southern California. Kind of like people, eh? People from LA and those damn Housewives from Orange County have the style, but Floridians have the substance. You'll probably notice most of your orange juice is marketed as Valencia orange juice from Florida. Here's a cool secret about picking oranges. You know how some of them are green at the ends? That's a GOOD thing. Buy those oranges. That means they stayed on the tree for a long time to fully ripen. The chlorophyll from the tree is what turns the starch into sugar to give you a really sweet orange. But when there's no starch left and its all sugar, the chlorophyll had no where to go but to the peel. It's called re-greening and its telling you "Holla! Pick me!"
With lemons, limes, and grapefruits, same thing. Go for a heavier fruit so that you know its juicy. Have you ever tried to make a cocktail with a lime and its all dried up when you cut it open? Its heart breaking. It ruins your cocktail. Don't worry about any brown spots on limes. Sometimes they just get a little sunburn.
With kiwi, you want to pick a soft one, depending on when you plan on eating it. If you don't want to eat it for a few days, pick one that is firm so that it'll be ripe by the time you want it. If you want to eat one soon, find a soft kiwi that yields to gentle pressure and doesn't have soft spots from being squished or dropped by the produce guy. I saw him do it. He dropped one. Don't get that one, get the one next to it.
Also in season in the earlier months of winter are apples and pears. With apples, you want to choose one that is firm, doesn't have spots from being dropped, and doesn't have any mold on the bottom of it where that little brown nub is. If you're cooking with apples, pick a crisper apple to holds up well to heat like Granny Smith or Gala. Macintosh aren't great for cooking with; they tend to get mealy and no one likes applesauce when its not supposed to be applesauce.
Pears are tricky because they're never ripe in the grocery store. I usually buy one and don't get to eat it until like 4 days later. Pears are just like kiwi: if you want to wait to eat it (like you have a choice), choose a firm one and it'll ripen up at home on the counter. If you want one right away, choose the softest one you can find. Just give it a little squeeze and make sure that same produce guy didn't drop it right after he dropped that kiwi. Also, avoid pears that have soft brown spots on them from being dropped. Those spots grow really fast and before you know it, the entire pear is one giant soft brown spot. No fun.
Another way to check apples and pears for ripeness is to smell them. If you can find a pear that really smells like a pear, it's good as gold.
If you want to know what else is in season while you're shopping, check the stickers on the fruit and see what country they're from. If they're from South America, they're likely not in season. But if they're from the United States or Mexico, they're closer to home and closer to being in season. They'll also probably be easier to understand when you ask them if they're in season.

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