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The squeeze and sniff test

Food editor and “Today” contributor Phil Lempert on what you should look for when picking out fruits and vegetables.
/ Source: msnbc.com

It’s springtime and that means some of the year’s best produce is about to be delivered to your supermarket. Spring means more colors and more interesting fruits and vegetables. It can also mean extra nutrients for your whole family with very little extra work. Food editor and “Today” contributor Phil Lempert has details on what you should look for when picking out fruits and vegetables.

BUYING PRODUCE IN season makes so much sense. When you buy produce which is not in season, it has to be shipped from where it is in season — typically a location closer to the equator or from a hot house, which has a controlled environment. In addition, the produce has to be picked before it’s ripe, so you lose a bit of flavor and nutritional value.

Produce in season tastes better. It’s grown domestically so it is closer to where you buy it and it’s less expensive (because of the lowered transportation costs). You can save anywhere from 10-50 percent.

Twenty years ago, the supermarket produce section had about 50 items. Today they have 300 to 400 items! Ethnic or exotic produce is one of the fastest-growing produce sections of the supermarket. As Americans are more exposed to different cultures, they have become more willing to experiment with new fruits and vegetables. Supermarkets also are doing a better job of sampling their produce to their customers.

While Americans are more open to trying different produce, we still are not eating enough of them. Most doctors and dieticians recommend eating about 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day but the average American is eating only 3.2 servings a day. Fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins, nutrients, and fiber and have a lot of antioxidants properties.

Marketers have found that colored foods get kids excited — and the produce section is one of the most colorful sections of the store. So parents should take their kids to the produce section and once a week have them find a new produce to serve.

FEIJOAS

The feijoa (fay-joe-a) is an aromatic fruit that has a pineapple-spearmint flavor. Native to South America, the feijoa is also called the “pineapple guava.” They are oval-shaped with a slightly bumpy, thin skin that ranges in color from lime-green to olive. The soft interior flesh is a cream-to-tan color that has a gritty texture.

Checking for freshness

Buy feijoas with a full, rich aroma. If they are not as tender as a soft pear, leave at room temperature for a few days (or speed up the process by enclosing them in a paper bag with an apple). Once feijoas are ripe, eat them within a few days.

Preparation

Feijoas are wonderful eaten fresh or sliced and added to salads. They also work well in jellies or used as a garnish.

Nutrition

Feijoas are low in fat, cholesterol free, and a good source of vitamin C.

GOLDEN SOLO SUNRISE PAPAYA

A member of the solo sunrise variety, the golden solo sunrise is unique due to its golden-yellow skin, which is firm and smooth. This variety comes from Brazil and doesn’t get mushy inside. Its sweet red flesh is stringless which makes for a very smooth texture.

Checking for ripeness

Papayas are ripe when they turn all, or nearly all yellow. Avoid papayas that are hard or too soft. Once miradol papayas are ripe, refrigerate up to one week in the refrigerator.

Preparation

Cut it in half and use it as a serving dish. Fill the papaya with other fruits, chicken salad, shrimp, tuna or cottage cheese. Golden solo sunrise papayas are delicious alone or sprinkled with a little lime juice.

Nutrition

Papayas are saturated fat free, cholesterol free, a good source of folate, high potency, with lots of vitamin C.

KUMQUATS

The name kumquat comes from the Cantonese for “golden orange.” They resemble a miniature football in shape and are approximately 1 1/2-2 inches in length. Although they have a golden orange peel like larger oranges, the entire fruit is edible. The skin tastes sweet and the pulp is tart.

Checking for freshness

Select kumquats that are firm with no soft spots and no shriveling. Keep refrigerated up to two weeks or at room temperature if you will be eating the kumquats within a few days.

Preparation

Kumquats can be used to make a glaze for baked ham or a topping for ice cream or custard.

Nutrition

Kumquats are saturated fat free, cholesterol free, high in the antioxidant vitamin C, very low in sodium.

LYCHEE

The lychee has been relished in China for centuries where it originated nearly 2,000 years ago. A lychee tree can be up to 40 feet tall and take 15 years to mature. The lychee is a fruit that is small, round and has a tough, bumpy peel of reddish color. When the skin is peeled back there is a shiny white flesh surrounding a single center seed. Lychees have a very sweet taste and are similar in taste and texture to a grape.

Preparation

Once peeled, lychees can be eaten alone, added to fruit salads or make a great accompaniment to meat dishes. Lychees are only available May through October, so enjoy them now!

Nutrition

Lychees are low fat, cholesterol free, high in the antioxidant vitamin C.

TAMARILLO

The tamarillo is related to the potato and tomato families. It is a fruit that is mostly native to the Peruvian Andes and parts of Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia. Tamarillos are egg-shaped and have a glossy, smooth skin and a golden apricot-colored flesh with seeds and a stem. They have a tart, tomato flavor with a meaty texture.

Checking for ripeness

Look for firm, heavy tamarillos. Tamarillos are ripe when the fruit yields slightly to pressure and comes fragrant. Once ripe, refrigerate for up to one week.

Preparation

Tamarillos, available both in gold and red colored skins, must be peeled either by using a peeler or by setting in boiling water to slip off the skin. They can be baked or used in chutneys, relishes and sweet and sour sauces. Try cooking with bananas to balance the “aspic” flavor.

Nutrition

60 percent vitamin C with 4 grams of fiber

MANGOS

Mangos are the world’s most consumed fruit and were originally cultivated in India over 6,000 years ago. There are several varieties of mangos available during different times of the year. The most common is the Tommy Atkins (red) mango grown in Mexico. Other varieties include the Haden, Kent and Keitt.

Other popular growing regions are Puerto Rico, Haiti and Brazil. Mangos are measured in sweetness by their brix (sugar) content.

Preparation

Mangos can be eaten out of hand, or added to meat dishes, smoothies, pureed for a dessert sauce or make a beautiful presentation when the skin is bent backwards and the flesh is cubed.

Nutrition

Low fat, saturated fat free, cholesterol free, high in the antioxidant vitamin A, good source of the antioxidant vitamin C.

EGGPLANT

While eggplants are thought of as vegetables, they are actually a fruit, as they are a type of berry. White eggplants are 4 to 6 inches long while the Italian variety are more slender than the common American type. Both are mild-flavored and may be prepared the same way. But there are other types of eggplants that are just as delicious but less common:

Thai

Ranges in color from all green to a combo of green and white stripes; about the size of a golf ball.

Checking for ripeness

Select Thai eggplants which are firm and have good color. Refrigerate in a plastic bag 3-5 days.

Chinese Elongated, oval shape and light purple, smooth skin with a soft white flesh.

Checking for ripeness

Select Chinese eggplants that are firm with a glossy skin. If stems are present, select those that are green and not withered. Refrigerate up to one week.

Indian

Small (quarter-sized) deep purple skin.

Checking for ripeness

Select Indian eggplants that are firm with a glossy skin. Refrigerate in vegetable crisper 3-5 days.

Japanese

Long and slender; similar in shape to a cucumber; deep purple smooth thin skin; sweeter than American/regular variety.

Nutrition

Low calorie, saturated fat free, sodium free, cholesterol free, fat free.

SUGAR SNAP PEAS

These were developed in 1979 and are a cross between Chinese snow peas and green peas. This crisp pea pod is filled with tiny, sweet, crunchy peas and is relatively string-less.

Check for ripeness

Select smooth, bright green pods that are filled with peas; refrigerate in plastic bag up to 5 days.

Nutrition

Low calorie, saturated fat free, sodium free, cholesterol free, high in the antioxidant vitamin C, fat free

ASPARAGUS

Asparagus should be fresh and firm with compact tips. Spears should be straight and round, and snap easily when bent. Contrary to popular belief, spears with larger diameters are just as tender as slender spears. Avoid asparagus with a wilted appearance or spreading tips.

Check for ripeness (White)

Choose fresh, firm spears with closed, compact tips; store refrigerated up to 10 days.

Check for ripeness (Green)

Choose fresh, firm spears with closed, compact tips; store refrigerated up to 10 days.

Storage

Refrigerate. To prolong shelf life, stand asparagus, butt-end down, in 1 inch of water.

Preparation

Asparagus must be cooked. Steam lightly and serve as a side dish. Add cooked and chilled asparagus spears to fresh vegetable or whole-meal salads.

Nutrition

Low calorie, saturated fat free, sodium free, cholesterol free, high in folate, good source of the antioxidant vitamin A, good source of the antioxidant vitamin C, and fat free

TOMATOES

Low fat, low calorie, saturated fat free, sodium free, cholesterol free, high in the antioxidant vitamin C, good source of the antioxidant vitamin A.

Check for ripeness

Baby Roma

Select clean and firm Baby Roma tomatoes with shiny, blemish-free skin; store at room temperature up to 3 days.

Roma Red

Select clean and firm Roma tomatoes with shiny, blemish-free skin; store at room temperature up to 3 days.

Roma Yellow

Select clean and firm Roma tomatoes with shiny, blemish-free skin; store at room temperature up to 3 days.

Teardrop Red

Select plump, firm, unblemished Teardrop tomatoes; store in a cool, dry place up to 1 week.

Teardrop Yellow

Select plump, firm, unblemished Teardrop tomatoes; store in a cool, dry place up to 1 week.

Yellow Grape

Select plump, firm, unblemished Grape tomatoes; store in a cool, dry place up to 1 week.

BELL PEPPERS

Named for their peppery taste, these bell-shaped vegetables come in a variety of colors including green, gold, red, yellow, white, purple, and chocolate. Store refrigerated up to 5 days.

Choose bell peppers that are firm and shiny with smooth skins. Avoid any that are soft or wrinkled. All sweet peppers are green at the immature stage. As the peppers mature, they change colors. The most predominant color for a mature sweet pepper is red. Because the sugar content increases as a sweet pepper matures, colored peppers tend to be sweeter than green peppers.

Check for ripeness

Orange, red, gold, purple

Choose peppers that are firm and shiny with smooth skins. Avoid any that are soft and wrinkled. Refrigerate up to 5 days.

Preparation

Use as a shell for dips, roast and peel, grill with meat, sauté with other vegetables or stir-fry.

Nutrition

Red bell peppers contain nine times more vitamin A than green peppers. They also have twice as much vitamin C as their green cousins. Low calorie, saturated fat free, sodium free, cholesterol free, high in the antioxidant vitamin C, fat free

BRUSSEL SPROUTS

Choose brussel sprouts that are fresh in appearance with good green color. Texture should be firm, leaves compact, and butt ends clean. Avoid puffy, wilted, or yellow sprouts.

Preparation

Brussel sprouts must be cooked and are often served as a side dish.

Nutrition

Low fat, saturated fat free, cholesterol free, high in the antioxidant vitamin C, good source of fiber, good source of folate, very low sodium.

CANTALOUPE

Cantaloupe comes with its own serving bowl. Storage — uncut — countertop; cut — refrigerate. Avoid shriveled or bruised fruit or cantaloupe with punctured or cracked rinds.

Checking for ripeness

When ready to eat, cantaloupes will take on a yellow background appearance, acquire an aroma and soften. The blossom end should yield to gentle pressure when ripe. Ripen at room temperature and refrigerate once cut.

Preparation

Just cut them in half through the middle and scoop out each half with a spoon. Or you can make spears of fruit by attaching strawberries, grapes, melon slices, or pineapple chunks onto small skewers and dip into low-fat or non-fat yogurt.

Nutrition

Saturated fat free, cholesterol free, high in the antioxidant vitamin A, high in the antioxidant vitamin C, good source of folate, fat free, very low sodium.


Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: Supermarketguru.com.