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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Keep Summer Produce Fresh Longer

Jun 03, 2008 11:04PM
Naturally grown fruits and veggies plucked fresh from the field are packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. But whether or not these nutrients stay around long enough to nourish us depends on how they’re treated during their journey to our table.

“Fresh,” however, is a subjective concept. Since 1993, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined “fresh” as unprocessed—food that has not been frozen, heated or preserved. In other words, fresh food is raw food, with few exceptions. According to federal guidelines, the terms “fresh frozen” and “frozen fresh” are allowable only if the food was totally fresh when it was frozen quickly, thereby retaining the bulk of its nutrients for up to a year.

Of course, nothing beats the local farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables. The next best bet is the produce local farmers provide to neighborhood health food stores. That’s because, as reports, fruits and vegetables begin to lose some of their nutritive goodness within a few days after harvest. It doesn’t help that most commercial produce is picked prior to its nutritional peak, to avoid spoilage during transport and storage.

Still, food-market distributors have learned how to compete in the freshness sweepstakes by keeping their produce looking as fresh as possible, “…if not by natural means, then with the help of an arsenal of chemicals,” observes George Erdosh, a writer for The Christian Science Monitor. He notes that supermarket managers also know how to keep produce looking its best: “Anything with the slightest hint of degradation is mercilessly trashed.” The end result? A phenomenal waste of food.

When choosing fruits and vegetables, avoid produce with soft spots, nicks or punctures, obvious flaws that cause them to rot sooner. “For either fruits or vegetables, an intact skin is the best way to ward off spoilage,” says Russ Parsons, an authority on kitchen science and author of How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table.

Once you get it home, produce will benefit from proper handling and storage, remaining fresh two to three times longer than with improper storage. Food experts know that most vegetables and fruits like to stay cold, but there are exceptions.

Tropical fruits, for example, suffer in refrigerated temperatures. They are best stored at home in a cool spot outside the fridge. Parsons also advises against refrigerating tomatoes and bananas. He recommends refrigerating peaches and nectarines only after they’ve ripened. Cucumbers, eggplants and peppers can be refrigerated for one to three days if they are used soon after removal from the fridge. Apples and bananas both produce a gas that promotes ripening; store them apart from other fruits.

“Humidity plays an important role in keeping foods fresh,” explains Jerry Rose, a former manager of refrigeration at General Electric. “Most fruits and vegetables prefer an environment high in humidity.”

Good home cooks know that fresh fruits and vegetables also need to breathe. Kept in a closed plastic bag, they soon suffocate. So, leave any plastic bags open or punch holes in them. Salad greens in particular, are loose-fibered and quick to spoil. Wash these thoroughly, wrap them tightly within a cotton towel to absorb excess moisture, and then place everything inside a plastic or paper bag and refrigerate. Greens stored this way can stay fresh for close to a week.

Mushrooms are special: They detest too much moisture. If stored in a plastic bag, they drown in their own liquid within a few days. But they will keep well up to a week if refrigerated in a closed paper bag.

And what about the crisper drawer—is that the only produce sanctuary in the fridge? “There’s nothing magical about the crisper drawer,” says Parsons. “It’s just a smaller, more controlled environment.”

The fridge is not a friendly environment for all produce, though. Don’t keep potatoes there; the low temperature will cause them to turn sweet (their starch converts to sugar). Instead, store them in a dry, cool, dark place. The same goes for whole garlic and onions; keep the latter away from potatoes, as the gas they exude encourages ’tater-sprouts. Once cut, refrigerate onions in an airtight container. Alternatively, in hot, humid climates, try wrapping the bulbs in foil before refrigerating, to prevent softness and sprouting.

Finally, as a general rule of thumb, wait to wash or chop all produce until just before using to reap the most nutrients and best flavor.

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

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