Summertime is over, and for our parents that meant that eating delicious fruits was put on hold till next summer.
Thanks to advances in packaging and shipping — and enterprising vendors around the world — we now enjoy berries in February, melons in springtime and exotics like guava and golden raspberries practically year round.
That’s the good news. The less good is that because many of these fruits are picked before they ripen (to allow for the time it takes to transport them to grocery stores throughout the country) it is sometimes difficult to know if they are at the peak of ripeness.
America’s most popular fruits are still bananas, apples, grapes and oranges. Choosing the best means avoiding brown spots, dents or bruises in apples and soft dimpling in oranges. All should feel heavy for their size. Although bananas are often sold green, they should not be eaten until they are yellow. The brown spots indicate that the banana is converting its pulp to sugar. For some people this means it’s too sweet to eat; for others, it’s just right. Grapes (green or red) are one of the few other fruits, like bananas, whose sugar content continues to intensify as they age.
To ripen or not?One of the most important facts to know about selecting fruit is to remember which ones continue to ripen after they are picked. This helps us choose based on when we expect to eat the fruit. For example, if you do your weekly shopping on Saturday and buy bananas for consumption the following week, you will want to select those that are still a little green and without any brown spots.
Fruits which ripen after picking include bananas, melons, kiwi, papaya, pears, and stone fruit such as apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums.
Those fruits that do not ripen after they have been picked include apples, grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges, pineapple, tangerines and watermelons.
Ripe stone fruit should give slightly when squeezed, smell like the fruit they are, and be heavy for their size. Ideally, apricots, nectarines and peaches should be eaten as close to picking as possible.
Color and smellColorful fruits aren’t just aesthetically pleasing; the colors are a guide to condition. Generally, the deeper and more intense the color, the better the fruit.
Meanwhile, unlike vegetables, fragrance is your most likely indicator to ripeness in most fruits. Let your nose do the walking!
Treat it correctlyOK, you’ve picked out some great fruit. How do you keep it in great condition and ensure that it’s in the best condition to eat?
Many people are concerned about the amount of pesticides that are used in our fields as well as on the crops in foreign countries. As a result, many now buy certified organic produce. But whether you buy organic or conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, be sure to wash them before you consume them.
For berries, wash them only prior to eating to avoid growing mold. For core or stone fruit, wash prior to eating. Most stone fruit can be kept at room temperature for a day or two, but apples or fruit at its absolute prime should be refrigerated if not eaten that day.
So let’s head to the produce department and go pickin’:
Avocados come in seven varieties, each with a slightly different size and shape, although most are pear-shaped. Unripe, the skins are a rough green, and turn black to indicate ripeness. The pulp is buttery and creamy, easy to digest, and is one of the few fruits that contains saturated fat (although it has no cholesterol and is loaded with other healthful nutrients, vitamins, and minerals). California produces much of the world’s supply, year-round. Store at room temperature until they ripen; refrigerate if not using within one or two days.
Berries are very vulnerable to moisture, which causes mold (that white to gray soft fuzz you can see on the bottom of some cartons). When purchasing, look at the top and the bottom of the package carefully to make sure you don’t see any mold. Buy in small quantities, eat promptly, and wash them only prior to eating, and very gently. Dry in paper towels then serve. Among the most popular berries are strawberries, blackberry, blueberries, marionberries and red or golden raspberries. Their flavors are best if unrefrigerated. Because strawberries are among the fruits most heavily sprayed with pesticides, I recommend that you buy organic strawberries.
Citrus fruits — such as lemons, limes, tangerines, grapefruit, oranges and tangelos — have a long shelf life and store well, and as a result choosing these is relatively easy. Loaded with vitamin C, citrus adds a sparkle to many recipes from its strong acidity. Among the growing number of varieties available are pummelos, a large pear-shaped, green-yellow fruit with flesh that can range from sweet to tart and be white to pink to rosy red. They taste a little like a grapefruit and are low in calories and high in vitamin C.
Melons have two ends, one where the stem of the fruit attached to the plant and the other where the blossom was. The blossom end is the important one in determining ripeness — it should move slightly when you press in your thumb and is where you should sniff for a whiff of sweetness. Major varieties are honeydew, Crenshaw, cantaloupe and watermelon.
Pineapples. One trick is to pull a green spike or two out of the top. If they don’t move out easily, the pineapple is not ripe. Or, if it has lots of sugar crystals or brown spots on the rind, it may actually be rotten. Again, the sniff test is the best indicator. It should definitely smell like a pineapple — sweet, light and exotic.
Guavas are oval to pear-shaped, small and creamy in texture when fully ripe. Choose solid, unblemished fruit, which has a two-week shelf life if refrigerated. (Shelf life is decreased to a week if left at room temperature.) The pulp can range from white to pink to red, or yellow, and some emit a rather musky odor. Peel, seed, and slice them or cook them with added sugar for thick sweet nectar.
Kiwifruit (sometimes known as the Australian gooseberry) is a small furry green-brown skinned fruit with a green pulp. It tastes a little like a berry and a little like citrus. Choose solid, unblemished fruit. With a very long shelf life, kiwis can be refrigerated for two or three weeks and then ripened for a few days until yielding to gentle pressure. They continue to get sweeter at room temperature.
Kumquats are small football-shaped orange fruit that are entirely edible. Their skin is sweet and pulp is tart, so the combination is a little startling and satisfying. Limequats are round and have an acidic flavor (somewhat like the limes they are named after). They should look glossy, be firm, and be eaten at room temperature. If not consumed within two days, refrigerate them for up to two weeks. Bring to room temperature for best flavor.
Mangoes and papayas are tropical fruits with deep yellow orange pulp and sweet perfume (and are marvelous for the digestion). Mangoes are tricky to peel, but very juicy and sweet. Their skin should be a smooth red tipped with golden yellow. Papayas are a bulbous pear-shaped fruit with deep yellow skin and black seeds (both of which should be removed). If either are green, they should be allowed to ripen and come to their red or golden color before eating.
Starfruit (carambola) resembles a star when sliced crosswise. Ripe starfruits have thin, glossy yellow-green skins with some brown spots indicating sugar development. Store at room temperature until ripe, then refrigerate, covered.
Persimmons are a bright orange with a smooth, shiny skin. They are one of the few fruits that should be soft to the touch because it’s a sign that their custard-like pulp is at its peak (although some people like the fruit when crisp and solid).
Pomegranates are a messy delight. Good quality pomegranates should be predominantly red in color and show no signs of deterioration. Store pomegranates at a temperature of 32º to 36º. To eat, you crack open the hard shell and eat the tangy-sweet juicy seeds. To avoid squirting the staining red juice when opening, put the pomegranate under water, break it open, and the force of the water will loosen the seeds. Sieve the seeds through a strainer, toss them into a spinach or tuna salad, or eat them as they are.
Phil’s Bottom Line: Be sure to make fruits a part of your diet, with two to four servings every day. Yes, they do contain sugar (fructose), but that is far outweighed by the fact that they’re full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. In other words, they’re a much more healthful alternative to high-fat, high-fructose, corn syrup-laden desserts.
Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent