How does Peter Piper do it?
When it comes to picking a peck of pickled peppers — or any other promising produce, for that matter — the experts’ suggestions are all over the map: Thump it. Squeeze it. Scratch it. Sniff it. Look for a particular color or shape or size.
“It’s interesting, because everybody’s got their own method for choosing produce,” said Jon Contos owner of Arrowhead Urban Farms in Ogden. “And some of this stuff has been handed down from generation to generation — it’s almost like voodoo.”
Contos inherited many of his own produce-picking pointers from his mother. He says nothing is quite so rewarding as picking a perfectly ripened peach or apple. But by the same token, few things are as frustrating as getting that melon home and cutting it open — only to find that its best days are either behind or ahead of it.
As for selecting specific produce, Contos says he learned to use touch to determine a good tomato, for instance. He likes them firm, but not too firm, with no soft spots. For oranges, he looks for the ones that are a bit softer, and whose skin feels thinner than others.
“Those are juicier,” Contos says.
Randy Lemon, owner of Grammy’s Fruit & Produce in Willard, has his own methods for picking most produce. But he also has a much easier way of getting a good fruit or vegetable.
Let someone else do it.
“The best way to pick a watermelon,” Lemon says, “is to grab somebody who’s thumped a thousand watermelons, and make them thump it.”
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Only through repeated practice can one learn to sense when produce is ready to be harvested, according to Lemon. For example, he has one field hand — and only one — who makes all the decisions on when Grammy’s watermelons are picked.
While methods for choosing produce greatly vary, the experts do offer a few general tips to make sure you end up with the freshest, best-tasting fruits and vegetables this summer:
FRIEND A FARMER
Establish a relationship with a local farmer, Contos advises. They know their produce like the back of their well-weathered hands, and that can pay off at your dinner table.
“A farmer is pretty intimate with his crop,” he said. “Some crops mature in 30 days, some in 60 days, and others in 100 days. But in that time, farmers are looking at their plants every day.”
For example, Contos said he’s the taste-tester on the lettuce he sells, and he won’t sell it if it has a bitter taste.
“If I think it won’t be good, I won’t pick it,” Contos said. “It’s got to meet my mouth test.”
AVOID ANONYMOUS PRODUCE
Contos said it’s good to know both where and who your food comes from.
As a child growing up in Ogden, Contos remembers a farmer named Tony who would make regular visits to his parents’ home in a pickup truck.
“He’d flip the tarp back and have all the produce right there,” Contos recalls. “I just remember that we always knew exactly where our produce came from. Today, most people don’t. They just don’t.”
Don’t be afraid to walk up to a complete stranger in the produce section and ask how they pick a particular item. Contos said you can often get a little insight into choosing produce by asking others how they do it.
“I don’t hesitate to go up to someone and ask, ‘How do you choose?’” he said. “Sometimes they don’t know anything, but sometimes they do.”
SIZE MATTERS (but it’s not what you think)
In general, the experts say you don’t want to choose the biggest pieces of produce available. Don’t pick that “gargantuan watermelon that looks like it’s been on steroids,” Contos said. Instead, go for a medium to smaller version of a fruit or vegetable.
“People’s eyes pop open when they see a big watermelon,” he said. “But when I went to Costa Rica years ago, their watermelons were about the size of a soccer ball. And they were all consistently good.”
Don’t buy produce that’s out of season, Contos warns. That’s an easy way to get produce that isn’t fresh.
“If you’re seeing corn in the middle of winter, that’s a problem,” he said. “Eat the rainbow — so eat all colors of fruits and vegetables — and eat in-season.”
It may sound self-serving coming from farmers who sell their produce at weekend markets and along Utah’s Famous Fruit Way, but those in the business of growing food say where you buy your produce is as important as the specific pieces of produce you select.
The closer your dinner table is to the orchard or field where the produce was grown, the better, food experts say.
“How do you pick good produce?” Lemon asks. “Number one, don’t go to a grocery store.”
There’s a reason for that, he says, and it has everything to do with how much time elapses between when something is harvested and when it shows up in the store. It can take weeks to get a tomato from the fields, to the shipper, to the warehouse, to the grocery store, and finally to the consumer, according to Lemon.
As a result, produce is often picked long before it’s ready to eat with the expectation that it will ripen in transit.
“That’s why your tomato in the grocery store is just tasteless,” Lemon said. “They pick it solid green and engineer them to look ripened off the plants.”
Lemon said there are only three varieties of fruit he can think of that actually do well ripening off the plant — pears, bananas and avocados. He said consumers can get away with buying those three things at the grocery store.
“But everything else, you want to let it get as far along as you can before picking it,” he said.
With local growers, Lemon said they’ll often pick something in the morning and sell it by the end of that day.
“It is truly about how quick it gets to your table from the time it comes off the parent plant,” he said.
Ultimately, Lemon says the proof is in the tasting.
“As good as some produce may look, the true determination is the flavor,” he said. “The flavor inside is what it’s all about.”