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Crunch! How to pick the best, freshest veggies

To get the best eating experience, you need to select the best vegetables. Food editor Phil Lempert has a produce section 101.

We all know that it’s important to eat our veggies — at least five servings a day — to ward off cancer, improve our cholesterol levels and stay as healthy as we can.

But few things will do more (bad cooking, perhaps) to put us off this important food group than vegetables that are not at their best, either because they were bought in bad condition or became that way through poor handling and storage.

And that’s a pity, because the produce departments of supermarkets are knocking themselves out these days to provide temptations of all stripes: organic, pre-washed, pre-packaged greens, and exotics from Asia, Italy and Japan.

So how can you tell when these selections are fresh and how can you keep them that way? Here are some tips:

Choose vegetables for color, cleanliness, smoothness in the skins and few blemishes. Vegetables do not age well, so avoid those that have flowered, wilted or have dark spots on them. Skins should be smooth and without wrinkles (except natural ridges in squash and bumps in cucumbers) and the colors of all skin/peels should be vibrant. There should be no mold, no cracks or tears, and no dark spots. To get the best value for your dollar, buy only what you can eat for three or four days, buy in season, buy locally and buy organic whenever possible.

Keep them carefully after you bring them home. Use greens-keeper bags (available in produce sections) rather than plastic bags, which tend to keep moisture in and speed up the time for wilting and rotting. Another technique is to wrap veggies in paper towels and store them in airtight plastic storage boxes. Except for tomatoes and mushrooms, store everything in the refrigerator.

Wash your vegetables only before using, to avoid wilting. To clean, hold vegetables under cold running water or soak them in cold water, then remove wax, dirt, bugs and, most important, pesticide residues, with a produce brush, usually sold in the produce department. Pre-packaged salad greens usually do not need another rinsing, but check them over carefully to make sure. Pre-packaged crudités do not need additional washing. Mushrooms should not be soaked in water; instead, lightly brush off the dirt with a soft-bristle brush or damp paper towel.

Now, lets talk specifics! Here's the freshness 101 on some of my favorite veggies:

Asparagus: These spring favorites are sold as either pencil thin or thick stalks. Which one you choose is a matter of personal preference. Look for sturdy stalks that are not limp, tips that are closed and a consistent Kelly-green color (except for the exotic white variety).

Beans: Fresh beans have many variations, from the two-foot long Chinese beans (aka “long beans”) to their French cousins, haricots verts. In between, you’ll find green beans, yellow wax beans and fava beans. Look for shiny or smooth skins and no browning or black spots.

Broccoli, broccolini and cauliflower: Look for clear colors with no browning or yellowing, which indicate age. The florets should be tightly together, without any wilting or softness.

Greens: Leaf lettuce, cabbage and spinach should be solid and slightly heavy for their size, with no holes, wilting, or discolorations. Endive, frisse, iceberg, butter lettuce and cabbages (such as brussels sprouts or savoy or green cabbage), should be very pale green to yellow; spinach, arugala, romaine, watercress, and mustard or collard greens should be dark green. Some kales and chards range from green to purple to deep red. Radichio is a burgundy-and-white small Italian bitter cabbage; purple cabbage looks and taste like its green relative. Bok choy, an Asian cabbage, should look very white on the stem and deep dark green in the leaf for both regular and baby-sized types. Most cabbages, when cooked, lose their crispness along with their slight bitterness and become rather sweet.

Beets: These are now offered in both golden and the classic deep red variety in both baby and regular sizes. The greens are edible when cooked, and the beet roots can be baked or boiled then served warm or cold. Look for firmness and weight for the size; some residual dirt is common and can be washed off easily.

Fennel (sometimes known as anise): This vegetable has a white bulb that has the texture of celery and can be eaten raw or cooked, and frothy green tops that make a wonderfully aromatic garnish to entrees or salads. 

Eggplants: An increasing variety of colors and sizes, from tiny Asian ones of white and purple to the classic French and Italian plump large ones. Look for glossy smooth skin, no dimpling or soft spots.

Mushrooms: Ranging from the modestly priced button and crimini brown mushrooms to the wildly expensive but incredibly flavorful portabello, shitake and oyster. If using white mushrooms for a salad, look for smooth white caps that fit tightly over the stem. Otherwise, a slight opening away from the stem is okay and some chefs believe this adds richness to stews or sauces. Avoid plastic bags even to bring them home; opt for paper bags to avoid sweating and mold. The enoki, a Japanese mushroom, has a tiny head and long thin stem and should be creamy white and firm; they are sold in packages and can be refrigerated. Most other mushrooms are white to brown and some are deep orangey yellow. They should have a deep pleasantly musty smell. Truffles, in white or black, are the premier mushrooms with prices in the hundreds of dollars. They are knobby tuber-shaped and should be intensely aromatic.

Onions, garlic and shallots: These vegetables are excellent for adding seasoning to any dish and a great balance for fat in the diet. Look for hard-to-the-touch selections where the skins are tight to the bulbs, and no green shoots are growing, which indicate age and bitterness. Onions are white, red or yellow; garlic comes in small or gigantic bulbs, and shallots are mild smaller members of the onion family with a reddish-brown skin and a bulb the size of a very large clove of garlic. Green onions and leeks are onions that have been allowed to sprout. The green stems on green onions (aka scallions) are edible; the greenest part on leeks and spring red onions are not.

Peas: These are best in springtime. Their pods should be a bright deep green, and the peas should be noticeable. They are shelled, then eaten either raw or steamed. Snowpeas, an Oriental cousin, are stripped of their stringy edge and sautéed or steamed whole. The peas should not be apparent and the pod should be flat. Avoid any that are limp or have yellowing on the pods.

Peppers: Whether round bell peppers or chile versions, these should look glossy and smooth, and be without wrinkling, black spots or tears. Fresh chiles should be refrigerated, unwrapped; bell peppers come in mini and regular sizes in white, yellow, purple, green, red, chocolate, and orange, and should be refrigerated unwrapped. The green ones are “immature” and are much less sweet than the older varieties.

Radishes: Root vegetables that add tang and crunch. Daikon is a Japanese-style white radish shaped like a parsnip; red and white radishes are small and round or oblong. All should look clean with smooth skins; they should be firm without any soft spots or browning.

Other root vegetables: Parsnips, turnips and rutabagas should be creamy white to pale yellow, with smooth skins and a heavy firmness to the touch. Carrots, now available in mini, regular and maxi sizes, are also showing up in classic orange, pale yellow and deep red versions. Bumps or ridges are normal, but avoid those that are cracked, split or otherwise showing rough handling.  An old or overgrown vegetable will have an elaborately hairy root; avoid these.

Sprouts: These gossamer threads “sprout” from various seeds or veggies and include daikon, alfalfa, mung bean and broccoli, although there are legions available. Look for clean, substantial sprouts with no wilting or softness.

Squash and gourds: Tough-skinned vegetables with a core that becomes soft and mildly flavorful when baked or steamed. The category has many varieties, but the sausage-shaped zucchini and the yellow and green ridged-edged pattypan squash are summer favorites. Fall favorites include white or orange mini to max pumpkin, and Hubbard and acorn squashes; a few similar ones are grown for winter consumption. Look for smooth skins, heavy weight for the size, and no soft spots. Spaghetti squash is one anomaly because its meat is not solid mashable pulp but strings or “spaghetti” strands that can be sauced just like a pasta (though it tastes like a squash). 

Tomatoes:  These have been tossed back and forth between categories as a fruit then a vegetable, and vegetable it is today. The varieties are legion: mini cherry-sized tomatoes in yellow, orange or red are great alone or in salads; elongated red romas ideal for sauces; and round ones in red, orange, yellow, green, and variegated colors in both heirloom styles grown from ancient preserved seeds, hothouse ones raised in greenhouses, and vine-ripened. They produce a more flavorful richer taste when eaten at room temperature. Avoid those with white mold, black spots, withering or softness; they should be firm but not hard to the touch.

Tubers: Yams, sweet potatoes and potatoes (known in the trade as white potatoes) are available in tiny to large sizes. The smaller they are the less time they take to cook. Skins should be clean, fairly smooth and without signs of mold, greenish overcast or dark bruises or cuts. “White” potatoes come in white, golden yellow and purple, with skins that are brown, beige, red, and purple. Considered the Mexican potato or yam bean, Jicama are round brown-skinned vegetables that are pure white inside and eaten raw; they add crispness and crunch to salads and have a mild sweet taste. Jicamas should feel heavy for the size, show no softness, and be hard as a baseball. Store at room temperature; store in the refrigerator after it has been cut, and cover with plastic to avoid browning and wilting.

NEXT WEEK: Choosing your fruits 101

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent