Back before I got in touch with my inner vegetable, I brought home disappointing produce on the regular. I’d fork over a few quarters only to chomp into some mealy apple, and I’d think, What for? (Fiber.) To what end? (Doctor-prevention.) Subpar fruits and vegetables offended my sense of financial justice: If I was going to pay three Snickers bars’ worth of dollars in exchange for some beets, it only seemed fair to expect a similar level of consistency as I got in my candy bars. Produce was highway robbery! And yet, since toaster strudel jam did not provide enough vitamin C to prevent me from getting scurvy like a common pirate, I had to learn the ways of my herbaceous nemeses. I became the Produce Whisperer.
In the process, I collected a bounty of tips for gathering the ripest, freshest, crispest and/or juiciest fruits and vegetables in all the land. Today I am going to share them with you. Maybe one day we’ll meet cute squeezing cantaloupes side by side at Safeway. Probably not, though, because that’s an important moment and I wouldn’t want to interrupt.
One thing I want to get out of the way—the best produce is probably in your garden or at the farmer’s market, but sometimes that’s not an option. Maybe your farmer’s market is too expensive. Maybe you don’t have space for a garden. Maybe it’s February and you live in Wisconsin and let’s be realistic about what the possibilities of local food movements are when you live in the TUNDRA. (I’m talking to you, Ms. Fancy Year-Round-Avocadoes Alice Waters.) For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that you are not in a farmer’s market and so you need to be in Constant Vigilance mode, though these tips will fine at an organic stand, too.
1. Apples: Use the snap test. Press lightly on an apple with your thumb and listen for a tiny snapping sound and a little pop-crunch beneath your finger. If you’ve got it, you’re golden! Though hopefully you’re not getting a golden delicious, the second-worst apple. (Red delicious is the first-worst.)
2. Avocadoes and mangos: Use the finger press test. This is the opposite of the apple snap test—you’re looking for some give when you press on the skin, enough to leave a very slight indent. That yield is the key to the buttery avocado and smooth mango of your dreams. If there’s not much resistance when you press down, the fruit is probably past its prime. Avoid avocadoes with skins that are either dark brownish (too ripe) or bright green (not ripe enough). Mangos can be red or yellow or green in whatever combination, let their freak flags fly.
3. Bananas: Just kidding, I’m not going to tell you how to pick a banana. Everybody likes them different ways (Spotted! Slightly green! Pure yellow!) and anyway you’re an adult, you live in the world.
4. Pineapples: Pineapples are complicated, like Blair Waldorf. Therefore picking one out is high maintenance, but worth it, like having Blair Waldorf be your girlfriend. The first, easiest step is to smell the pineapple. Do you smell something sweet? Great, you’re on your way! No? Try smelling some other pineapples. If none of the pineapples smell, maybe your nose is broken, what now?
The second step is to look at the pineapple’s color. Ideally you want the yellow creeping on up toward the pineapple’s little leaf-hairdo. The pineapple industry will try to tell you that a pineapple can be fully green and still ripe, but that’s a trap to try to get you to buy their shoddy pineapples.
You can also pull on a leaf if you want. It won’t tell you anything, but maybe it’ll help you release some of that pent-up aggression you brought into the grocery store today, tiger. You might also try pressing on the skin to see if it’s got a little yield to it—that would be good—but honestly it’s still going to be a bit of a gamble.
It’s also worth noting that while pineapples have the personality of Blair Waldorf, they look more like Serena Van Der Woodson.
5. Figs: The uglier, the better. This is great, because figs are like the velveteen rabbits of fruit. Is your fig splitting a little at the seams? Totally fine. Is it a weird blackish-purple color? Don’t hate, that’s the Turkish variety’s personal style. Just make sure the stem’s not too loose—it’s a telltale sign of inner mushiness. Now tell your fig a bedtime story, but don’t get too attached, because figs are food not friends.
6. Artichokes: These are my favorite, because they’re a project food. You get to take them apart really slowly and then at the end you get a prize! It’s like writing a dissertation but faster and actually fun. The best artichokes have leaves that are still tight facing toward the center. The leaves should squeak a little bit if you rub them against each other, like timid mice.
A few other tips: In general, don’t buy produce in bags at the grocery store unless we’re talking hard-to-mess-up items like potatoes and onions. The stores like to gather up all their least enticing produce and put them in a bag where you can’t test them. If you’re buying berries in a clear plastic box, always look at the underside so you can see if they’re all squished at the bottom.
Voila, you are a produce wizard! Now you will get the maximum taste bang for your buck, and all your friends will be so impressed with your produce-picking secret talent. Then they will try to convince you that your second secret talent is cutting mangoes, but that is because they don’t like cutting mangoes, it’s too messy. Don’t let them trick you.
Sarah Todd is mentally casting an all-fruit version of Pretty Little Liars. She blogs about feminism and popular culture over at Girls Like Giants.
Illustrations by Charrow, an artist in Brooklyn.