Mastering the Produce-aisle

Produce-Aisle ~ Super Foods Guide

One of the reasons why Italians eat so well is that every last one of them believes it is their fundamental right to walk out of the market with the very best ingredients.

They won’t settle for a wrinkled eggplant, a withering artichoke, or an apple that tastes like Styrofoam.

And of course, neither should you.

The problem is, finding the best, ripest, most tantalizingly tasty fruits and vegetables isn't as intuitive as you might think.

It's a task that requires the attention of all five of your senses in order to pick up on the subtleties and nuances behind ultimate ripeness and utmost quality.

To guide you in your produce pursuit, here are the rules for picking the best fruits and vegetables and how to store them for optimum flavor and longevity.

Apples in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: September to May

Perfect Pick: Firm and heavy for its size with smooth, matte, unbroken skin and no bruising.

The odd blemish (read: worm hole) or brown "scald" streaks do not negatively impact flavor.

The smaller the apple, the bigger the flavor wallop.

Handle with Care: Keep apples in a plastic bag in a crisper away from vegetables.

Here, they should remain edible for several weeks.

The Payoff: Quercetin, a flavonoid linked to better heart health, plus the soluble fiber pectin, which keeps cholesterol in check.

Artichokes in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: March to May

Perfect Pick: Deep green and heavyset with undamaged, tightly closed leaves.

The leaves should squeak when pinched together.

If it's starting to open, it's past it's prime.

Handle with Care: Store in the fridge in a plastic bag for up to 5 days.

The Payoff: A higher total antioxidant capacity than any other common vegetable, according to USDA tests.

Arugula in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: March to November

Perfect Pick: Emerald green leaves that are not yellowing or limp.

The smaller the leaf, the less pungent its bite.

Handle with Care: Enclose roots in a damp paper towel and place the leaves in a plastic bag.

Store in the fridge for 2 to 3 days.

The Payoff: Vitamin-K, which may improve insulin sensitivity, offering protection against diabetes.

Asparagus in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: March to June

Perfect Pick: Vibrant green spears with tight purple-tinged buds.

Avoid spears that are fading in color or wilting. Thinner spears are sweeter and more tender.

Handle with Care: Trim the woody ends and stand the stalks upright in a small amount of water in a tall container.

Cover the tops with a plastic bag and cook within a few days.

The Payoff: Folate, a B vitamin, that protects that heart by helping to reduce inflammation.

Avocados in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Firm to the touch without any sunken, mushy spots.

They shouldn't rattle when shaken, a sign the pit has pulled away from the flesh.

Handle with Care: To ripen, place avocados in a paper bag and store at room temperature for 2 to 4 days.

To speed up this process, add an apple to the bag, which emits ripening ethylene gas.

The Payoff: Plenty of cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat.

Bananas in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Ripe bananas have uniform yellow skins or small brown freckles indicating they are at their sweetest.

Avoid any with evident bruising or split skins.

Handle with Care: Store unripe bananas on the counter, away from direct heat and sunlight

(speed things up by placing green bananas in an open paper bag).

Once ripened, refrigerate.

The Payoff: Vitamin-B6, which helps prevent cognitive decline, according to scientists at the USDA.

Beets in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: June to October

Perfect Pick: Smooth, deep-red surface that's unyielding when pressed.

Smaller roots are sweeter and more tender.

Attached greens should be deep green and not withered.

Handle with Care: Remove the leaves (which are great sautéed in olive oil) and store in a plastic bag in the fridge for no more than 2 days.

The beets will last in the crisper for up to 2 weeks.

The Payoff: Nitrate, which may help lower blood pressure.

Bell Peppers in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: July to December

Perfect Pick: Lots of heft for their size with a brightly colored, wrinkle-free exterior.

The stems should be a lively green.

Handle with Care: Refrigerate in the crisper for up to 2 weeks.

The Payoff: All bell peppers are loaded with antioxidants, especially vitamin-C.

Red peppers lead the pack, with nearly three times the amount of vitamin-C found in oranges.

Blueberries in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: June to August

Perfect Pick: Plump, uniform indigo berries with taut skin and a dull white frost.

Check the bottom of the container for juice stains indicating berries have been crushed.

Those with a red or green tinge will never fully ripen.

Handle with Care: Transfer, unwashed, to an airtight container and refrigerate for 5 to 7 days.

Blueberries spoil quickly if left at room temperature.

The Payoff: More disease-fighting antioxidants (especially in wild blueberries) than most commonly consumed fruits, according to Cornell University researchers.

Broccoli in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: October to May

Perfect Pick: Rigid stems with tightly formed floret clusters that are deep green or tinged purple.

Pass on any with yellowing heads—they will inevitably be more bitter.

Handle with Care: Place in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

The Payoff: Sulforaphane, which activates enzymes that seek and out destroy cancerous cells.

Brussels Sprouts in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: October to November

Perfect Pick: Compact, tight, and unshriveled heads that are vibrant green and feel overweight for their size.

Select ones of similar size for ease of cooking, knowing that smaller sprouts pack sweeter flavor.

Handle with Care: Place in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

The Payoff: Nitrogen compounds called indoles, which have cancer-protecting efficacy.

Cabbage in the produce-aisle.

Peak Seaon: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Tightly packed, crispy, deeply hued leaves free of blemishes.

They should feel dense when lifted; it's best that the stem not have any cracks at its base.

Handle with Care: Tightly enclose cabbage in a plastic bag and store in the fridge for up to 10 days.

The Payoff: More than half your vitamin-K requirement in just 1 cup.

Cantaloupe in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: May to September

Perfect Pick: The stem end should have a smooth indentation.

Look for a sweet aroma, slightly oval shape, and a good coverage of netting.

The blossom end should give slightly to pressure.

Avoid those with soft spots, an indication of an overripe melon.

Handle with Care: Ripe cantaloupes should be stored in plastic in the fridge for up to 5 days, after which they begin to lose flavor.

The Payoff: Loads of vitamin-C, which may offer protection against having a stroke.

Carrots in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Smooth and firm with bright orange color.

Avoid those that are bendable or cracked at the base, or that have patches of frosty white on their skin.

Bunches with bright green tops still in place are your freshest choice.

Handle with Care: Store carrots with the greens removed in the crisper in a plastic bag for up to 3 weeks.

The Payoff: Beta-carotene, the source of vitamin-A, which helps fight off infections.

Cauliflower in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: September to November

Perfect Pick: Ivory white and compact florets with no dark spotting on them or the leaves.

The leaves should be verdant and perky.

Handle with Care: Refrigerate, unwashed, in a plastic bag for up to 1 week.

If light brown spots develop on the florets, shave off with a paring knife before cooking.

The Payoff: Detoxifying compounds called isothiocyanates, which offer protection against aggressive forms of prostate cancer.

Celery in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Solid, tight stalks with only a few, if any, cracks and vivid green, not yellowing leaves.

The darker the celery, the stronger the flavor.

Handle with Care: Sturdy celery can be stored in the fridge in a plastic bag for 2 weeks.

The Payoff: Luteolin, a flavonoid linked to reduced brain inflammation, a risk factor for Alzheimer's.

Eggplant in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: August to September

Perfect Pick: Good weight to them with tight, shiny, wrinkle-free skin.

When they're pressed, look for them to be springy, not spongy.

The stem and cap should be forest green, not browning.

Handle with Care: Store eggplants in a cool location (not the fridge) for 3 to 5 days.

Eggplants are quite sensitive to the cold.

The Payoff: Chlorogenic acid, a phenol antioxidant that scavenges disease-fighting free radicals.

Fennel in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Bulbs should be uniform in color, with no browning and a clean, fragrant aroma.

Smaller bulbs have a sweet flavor similar to licorice.

Leave bulbs with wilted tops, called fronds, behind.

Handle with Care: Separate the greens and bulbs and keep each, unwashed, in plastic bags in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.

Wilted fennel can be revived in ice water.

The Payoff: Anethole, a phytonutrient that may lessen inflammation and cancer risk.

Figs in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: July to September

Perfect Pick: Plump with deeply rich color; soft but not mushy to the touch.

Avoid those with bruises or a sour odor.

Handle with Care: Place fresh figs on a plate lined with a paper towel and eat them as they ripen.

They bruise easily, so gentle handling is prudent.

They also ripen quickly, so eat within a few days.

The Payoff: Phytosterols, which help keep cholesterol levels in check.

Garlic in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: The bulb should feel heavy for its size, with tightly closed cloves in the bulb that remain firm when gently pressed.

The skin can be pure white or have purple-tinged stripes and should be tight fitting.

Handle with Care: Place bulbs in a cool, dark, well-ventilated location for up to 1 month.

The Payoff: The cancer-fighting compound allicin, which can cut down Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria strain responsible for the development of stomach ulcers.

Grapefruit in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: October to June

Perfect Pick: Opt for a heavy fruit (a sign of juiciness) with thin skin that is a tad responsive to a squeeze.

Small imperfections in color and skin surface are not detrimental to the sweet-tart flavor.

Yet, avoid any that are very rough or have soft spots.

The same criteria apply for oranges.

Handle with Care: Store refrigerated for 2 to 3 weeks.

The Payoff: The anticancer phytonutrient lycopene and 120% of your daily vitamin-C needs in 1 cup.

Grapes in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: June to December

Perfect Pick: Plump, wrinkle free, and firmly attached to the stems.

There should be no browning at the stem connection, but a silvery white powder ("bloom") keeps grapes, especially darker ones, fresher longer.

Green grapes with a yellowish hue are the ripest and sweetest.

Handle with Care: Loosely store, unwashed, in a shallow bowl in the fridge for up to 1 week.

The Payoff: Reseveratrol, a potent antioxidant in red/purple grapes that offers protection against cardiovascular disease.

Green Beans in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: April to October

Perfect Pick: Vibrant, smooth surface without any visible withering.

They should "snap" when gently bent and appear moist on the inside.

Handle with Care: Refrigerate, unwashed, in an unsealed bag for up to 1 week.

The Payoff: Fiber (4 g. in 1 c.), which can reduce all-cause mortality, according to Dutch researchers.

Kale in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Dark blue-green color with moist, jaunty leaves.

The smaller the leaves, the more tender the kale.

Avoid wilted foliage with discolored spots.

Handle with Care: Peppery kale is best kept in the fridge tightly wrapped in a plastic bag pierced for aeration, where it will last for 3 to 4 days.

The Payoff: Lutein, an antioxidant in the retina that protects against vision loss.

Kiwi in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: June to August

Perfect Pick: A ready-to-eat kiwi will be slightly yielding to the touch.

Steer clear of those that are mushy, wrinkled, or bruised with an "off" smell.

Handle with Care: Store at room temperature to ripen.

To quicken the process, place in a paper bag with an apple.

Once ripened, place in the fridge in a plastic bag for up to 1 week.

The Payoff: Only 56 calories for a large kiwi and 20% more of the antioxidant vitamin-C than an orange.

Leeks in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Green, crisp tops with unblemished white root ends.

Gravitate toward small, to medium-size leeks, which are less woody and tough than larger ones.

Those with spotted or yellowing leaves should be ignored.

Handle with Care: Stored loosely wrapped in plastic in the fridge, they'll keep fresh for a week.

The Payoff: Good amounts of eye-protecting lutein, manganese, and vitamins-A, C, and K.

Lemons & Limes in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Lemons, year-round; limes, May to October

Perfect Pick: Brightly colored, well-shaped with smooth, thin skin.

They should feel sturdy but give every so slightly when squeezed.

Small brown splotches on limes do no affect flavor (although they are a sign of deterioration and those with splotches should be consumed first).

Handle with Care: Store at room temperature, in a dark location, for about 1 week or refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

The Payoff: Phytonutrient liminoids, which appear to have anticancer, antiviral properties.

Lettuce: Romaine in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: The ideal Caesar salad staple has crisp leaves that are free of browning edges and rust spots.

The interior leaves are paler in color with more delicate flavor.

Handle with Care: Refrigerate romaine for 5 to 7 days in a plastic bag.

The Payoff: Vitamin-K, which is needed for blood clotting and bone health.

Mangoes in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: April to August

Perfect Pick: Mangoes to be eaten shortly after purchase should have red skin with splotches of yellow, and the soft flesh should give with gentle pressure.

Mangoes for later use will be firmer with a tight skin, a duller color, and green near the steam.

Handle with Care: Ripen at room temperature until fragrant and yielding to the touch.

Ripe mangoes can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days.

The Payoff: A good showing of vitamins-A, B-6, and C, plus fiber.

Mushrooms: Cremini in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: November to April

Perfect Pick: Tightly closed, firm caps that are not slimy or riddled with dark soft spots.

Open caps with visible gills indicate consumption should be a priority.

Handle with Care: Place meaty mushrooms on a flat surface, cover with a damp paper towel, and refrigerate for 3 to 5 days.

The Payoff: Immune-boosting, tumor-suppressing, complex-carbohydrate polysaccharides.

Onions in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Nicely shaped with no swelling at the neck and dry, crisp outer skin.

Lackluster onions have soft spots, green sprouts, or dark patches.

Handle with Care: Keep onions in a cool, dark location away from potatoes for 3 to 4 weeks.

The Payoff: GPCS, a peptide shown to reduce bone loss in rates, plus the cancer-fighting compound quercetin.

Papayas in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Year-round

Perfect Pick: Beginning to turn yellow and somewhat-yielding flesh when lightly squeezed.

Avoid papayas that are awash in green, have dark spots, or are shriveled.

Blotchy papayas often have the most flavor.

Handle with Care: Once ripe, eat immediately or refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Unripe, greener papayas should be ripened at room temperature in a dark setting until yellow blotches appear.

The Payoff: A complete nutritional package, including plenty of fiber and vitamins-C, A, E, and K

Peaches

Peak Season: June to September

Perfect Pick: Fruity aroma with a background color that is a yellow or a warm cream color.

Those destined for immediate consumption yield to gentle pressure along their seams without being too soft.

For future intake, opt for those that are firm but not rock hard.

Handle with Care: Store unripe peaches at room temperature open to air.

Once ripe, transfer to the refrigerator and consume within 2 to 3 days.

The Payoff: Vitamin-C, the antioxidant beta-carotene, fiber, and potassium.

Pears in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: August to February

Perfect Pick: Pleasant fragrance with some softness at the stem.

The skin should be free of bruises, but some brown discoloration (russeting) is fine.

Firmer pears are preferable for cooking use.

Handle with Care: Ripen at room temperature in a loosely closed brown paper bag.

Refrigerate once they're ripe and consume within a couple days.

The Payoff: Belly-busting fiber and vitamin-C, as long as you eat them with the skin on.

Pineapple in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: March to July

Perfect Pick: Look for vibrant green leaves with a bit of softness and a sweet, fragrant aroma from the stem end.

Avoid spongy fruit with brown leaves and/or a fermented odor.

Handle with Care: Keep a pineapple with a weak aroma at room temperature for 2 to 3 days until it softens slightly.

Then refrigerate for up to 5 days.

The Payoff: Bromelain, an enzyme with potent anti-inflammatory powers.

Pomegranates

Peak Season: August to December

Perfect Pick: Pick pomegranates that are weight for their size with glossy, taut, uncracked skin that is deep red.

Gently press the crown end and if a powdery cloud emanates, the fruit is past its prime.

Handle with Care: Stored in a cool, dry location, pomegranates keep fresh for several weeks (up to 2 months in the fridge).

The Payoff: Hefty amounts of antioxidants shown to improve sperm quality, thus boosting fertility.

Potatoes: Sweet or White in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: Sweet, September to December; white, year-round

Perfect Pick: Unyielding, with smooth undamaged skin.

Avoid if bruised, cracked, or green tinged.

Loose spuds tend to be better quality than bagged.

Handle with Care: Outside of the fridge, in a cool, dark place separated from onions, white potatoes will last for months.

Sweet potatoes, however, should be used within a week.

The Payoff: Potassium, which may help preserve muscle mass as we age.

Raspberries in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: May to November

Perfect Pick: Plump and dry, with good shape and intense, uniform color.

Examine the container carefully for mold or juice stains at the bottom.

Raspberries with hulls attached are a sign of underripe, overly tart berries.

Handle with Care: Place highly perishable raspberries, unwashed, on a paper towel in a single layer.

Cover with a damp paper towel and refrigerate for no more than 2 to 3 days.

The Payoff: More fiber (8 g. per c.) than any other commonly consumed berry.

Plus, the anticancer chemical ellagic acid.

Spinach in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: March to May

Perfect Pick: Opt for bunches with leaves that are crisp and verdant green, with no spots, yellowing, or limpness.

Thin stems are best, as thick ones are a sign of more bitter, overgrown leaves.

Handle with Care: Pack unwashed spinach bunches loosely in plastic bags and store in the fridge for 3 to 4 days.

The Payoff: Chromium, which is involved in carbohydrate and fat metabolism and may reduce hunger and food intake.

Squash: Butternut in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: September to November

Perfect Pick: Should feel dense for its size with a rind that is smooth, hard, uniformly tan, and free of splits.

Being able to easily push a fingernail into the rind or scrape bits off indicates an immature, less flavorful squash.

Handle with Care: Butternut should be stored outside the fridge in a cool, well-ventilated, dark place, where it'll stay edible for up to 3 months.

The Payoff: Huge amount of vitamin-A to ramp up your immune system.

Strawberries in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: June to August

Perfect Pick: Seek out unblemished berries with a bright red color that extends all the way to the stem.

Good berries should have a strong fruity smell and be neither soft and mushy nor hard and firm.

Smaller strawberries often have more flavor than the oversized megamart versions.

Handle with Care: Place unwashed strawberries in a single layer on a paper towel in a covered container.

They'll last for 2 to 3 days in the fridge.

The Payoff: The most vitamin-C of any of the commonly consumed berries.

Tomatoes in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: May to August

Perfect Pick: Look for heavy tomatoes that are rich in color and free of wrinkles, cracks, or bruises.

They should have some give, unlike the rock-solid ones bred for transport.

Too soft, though, and the tomato is likely overripe.

Off-season, select smaller types like Roma and cherry tomatoes.

Handle with Care: Never store tomatoes in the fridge; the cool temps destroy flavor and texture.

Keep them at room temperature out of direct sunlight for up to 1 week.

The Payoff: Lycopene, a carotenoid antioxidant that helps fend off prostate cancer.

Watermelon in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: May to August

Perfect Pick: Dense, symmetrical melons that are free of cuts and sunken areas.

The rind should appear dull, not shiny, with a rounded, creamy-yellow underside that shows where ground ripening took place.

A slap should produce a hollow thump.

Handle with Care: Store whole in the fridge for up to 1 week.

The cold prevents the flesh from drying out and turning fibrous.

The Payoff: Citrulline, an amino acid that’s converted to arginine, which relaxes blood vessels, thus improving blood flow.

Zucchini in the produce-aisle.

Peak Season: June to August

Perfect Pick: Purchase heavy, tender zucchini with unblemished deep-green skins that are adorned with faint gold specks or strips.

Smaller zucchini are sweeter and more flavorful.

Handle with Care: Refrigerate in the crisper in a plastic bag for up to 5 days.

The Payoff: Riboflavin, a B vitamin needed for red blood cell production and for converting carbohydrates to energy.

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