Picking perfect produce

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"Now You're Cookin' " is a new monthly cooking column by Virginia Willis, food stylist for "The Main Ingredient." Virginia has joined the Lifetime team to help us cook a little smarter, a little faster and a little richer! This month, Virginia shows you how to produce the best produce for your shopping cart! Have you ever picked up a cantaloupe at the market and taken it home, only to find it hard, green and tasteless inside? Of course you have! Picking good produce seems to be one of the "unsolved mysteries of the world." But it doesn't have to be! In general, when choosing produce, whether it be a perfect peach, a tasty tomato, or a crisp and refreshing cucumber, there are a few things to look for that should help you in your search. Use the following guidelines and become a renowned produce picker! Fruits and vegetables should be firm and fresh, not limp and flabby. There is a difference between soft and ripe, and "on the way out"! The skin should be unblemished, without indentations or sunken or soft spots that indicate bruising. Eggplants should be firm and shiny, with no dark patches.

Use your nose! A ripe tomato smells like a ripe tomato! When a fruit or vegetable is ripe, its color is rich and plentiful.

In general, the stem end of the produce should be slightly soft, not hard and stiff. A ripened fruit or vegetable doesn't have to be forced from the vine or stem.

A watermelon should have a soft stem end, and the fruit should feel heavy.

Look for a watermelon with a yellow or yellowish bottom, indicating that the fruit was able to mature on the vine, not picked green and sent to the market for sale.

Use your sense of touch when shopping for produce. Don't just pick an item and hope for the best. Make a fist with your thumb aligned to your pointer finger. Do you feel the slight softness between your finger and thumb? That's just the amount of softness you'll want in many fruits and vegetables.

These beta carotene-rich veggies have a shelf life. Don't purchase carrots that are too hard. Also, note that carrots with the stem still attached were just picked and should be eaten within a couple of days.

Nice, juicy apples should be rich in color. Don't pick the bruised ones.

A ripe nectarine is oh, so sweet. Be sure the fruit doesn't feel too soft when you squeeze it.

Zucchinis and squash should have a shiny coat. The tougher the veggie, the less flavorful it becomes. However, if you're looking to brew a stew, the hard ones can come in handy!

A sugar baby watermelon should also feel firm and have a yellowish bottom.

We all know Mr. Potato: He's fast, inexpensive and filling. Be sure to pick ones that have a nice, smooth skin. Bruised and abused potatoes not only don't look good, but could turn out to be a bit aged.

Ah, garlic! The spice that adds flair to food! Squeeze the head in your hand and make sure that it is full and firm.

If you've been staring at these tropical treats and wondering how to pick the freshest one, here's a great tip. Pull a leaf from the center and if it releases easily, the fruit is ripe and ready! © 1997 Lifetime Entertainment Services. All rights reserved.

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