4 Keys to Keeping Fresh Garden Produce at Its Prime

In The Essential Good Food Guide, a comprehensive resource for buying and preparing whole foods, Margaret Wittenberg helps us distinguish our flageolets from our favas, figure out what those maple syrup grades mean, and shows us how to navigate the bulk food aisle like a pro. With farmer’s market season in full swing, we asked her advice on making sure our mizuna doesn’t wilt before we have time to eat it. —BBL Editor 

The juicy, sweet thrill of my first ripe tomato of the season, the fantastic flavor and green- and purple-splotched wonder of heirloom rattlesnake pole beans…I have countless good food garden memories. But the one that tops them all happened on a farm located in eastern Wisconsin on a late August day in the mid-1970s.

A college friend had invited a small group of us to her family’s farm to pick vegetables in their kitchen garden and bring some back to our apartments in the city. After our morning harvest, laden with green beans, tomatoes, corn, lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and the like, we broke for lunch featuring, of course, what we had just gathered. Preparation consisted of a quick wash of our vegetables and getting out the plates, leaving us to savor their luscious, just-picked flavor raw and unadorned. It was pure fusion of nature, food and friends, perfect in its simplicity.

While eating food immediately after harvest is ideal and truly the best you’ll ever taste, it’s not always possible to make that happen given the normal demands of the day, even when you have you own home garden. And when leaving the gardening to others, it’s usually a matter of a once-a-week jaunt to the farmer’s market or a box from one’s CSA. Not to worry! The following four general tricks of the trade will help keep those fruits and vegetables at their prime, looking good, flavorful and nutritious.

1. Pick or buy perishable produce only in quantities you can use within a week. While many root vegetables, winter squash and onions properly stored can last up to several weeks, more perishable items, especially lettuce and other leafy greens, asparagus, green beans, sweet corn, fresh herbs, tomatoes and berries are best when eaten within 5-7 days.

2. Refrain from washing most produce before storage in order to minimize bacterial growth and delay spoilage. The critical time to thoroughly wash produce is just before prep or when eating out of hand. But do discard spoiled, moldy or damaged produce. Rub or brush off visible soil with a soft brush, cloth or paper towel and, in stubborn cases, remove outer leaves or stalks of some produce before storage. Discard fresh green tops and leaves from carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, and rutabagas before storage that could, otherwise, rob moisture from the roots. (Experiment using some of the less bitter-tasting ones in your menus.) In cases, where you really feel more comfortable prewashing some produce before storage, just be sure to dry them thoroughly with a clean cloth or paper towels. Lettuce and greens packed in plastic containers that undergo a special triple washing procedure can be eaten without additional washing, but pay close attention to use-by dates and discard any leaves that look wilted or decayed.

3. Refrigerate only those veggies and ripe fruits that need it. Whole raw tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions should always be stored at room temperature. Fresh basil and fresh cilantro are best stored at room temperature, placing their long stems in water like fresh flowers and changing the water daily. Asparagus is also best stored upright in water, about an inch in depth. But unlike basil and cilantro, it should be covered loosely with plastic, and refrigerated.

4. Use the proper type of storage medium. Take a hint from producers who prepack their carrots in perforated plastic bags to enhance air-flow and maintain moisture, while helping prevent condensation. Rigging up your own is as easy as using a hole-puncher, scissors or knife to perforate plastic bags before storing produce. Mushrooms should only be stored in the fridge in paper bags, not plastic. Produce kept at room temperature should never be stored in plastic bags.

For more of Wittenberg’s tips and recipes, visit essentialgoodfood.com.

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The Essential Good Food Guide
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