Back to the Basics: Fresh Veggies

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So much of a dish’s success rests on the ingredients you use. And as vegetarians, we are more aware of the vegetables in our food. So it’s very important to buy the best veggies, and know how to find the best quality. Some of our readers are new to being vegetarians, so I thought I’d offer another quick refresher on some of the basics.
When shopping for fresh vegetables, it can sometimes be confusing, determining which veggies are the best and freshest. I offer here a quick and easy guide (by no means comprehensive) on how to select some of the vegetables used for cooking.
It makes sense that if you are spending your hard earned money on fresh veg, you want to get good value for your money. Good value when it comes to veggies means the freshest vegetables you can get your hands on. The best way, of course, to ensure your vegetables are as fresh as they can be is to shop at your local farmer’s market. It is healthy for your body, and your local community, to eat what is in season and growing nearby. If a farmer’s market is not available to you, look for locally grown produce at your local grocers. If both of those options are unavailable, then here are some simple tips on how to pick your veggies.
Picking your veg is a sensory experience. Don’t be afraid to feel, smell and look thoroughly at your vegetables and fruits before you purchase them. I favor shops that have the veg loose in bins and shelves so I can pick through for the best, rather than buy them packaged already. That way you can pick up and examine each piece yourself. The following is a list of some of the veggies that I purchase on a regular basis, with tips on how to check for freshness.

Asparagus: to find the freshest asparagus spears look at the tops. The top of the asparagus, where the flower appears should be tightly closed. Also feel the stems. They should be firm and not at all rubbery. You’re likely to snap off the end of the step anyway, so if that end looks a bit dry, that’s okay.

Broccoli: the head of a common broccoli should be tightly closed (this does not apply to some varieties of broccoli). The stems should be completely un-rubbery and firm. The head of the broccoli should also be a nice bright green with no yellowing or blackening. It will smell fresh and green, not at all fishy or sour.

Cabbage: cabbage is a vegetable that keeps quite well. Often the outer leaves may look a bit worse for wear but once removed reveal a decent looking center. Cabbage should be somewhat firm and not look wilted with thin leaves on the inside. Feel free to pull back the top leaves a little and peek underneath to check this veggie. It is going to smell of cabbage and earth; avoid it if it smells at all sour.

Carrots: these should be very hard to the touch. If you try to bend the tip of the carrot it should not bend without snapping. Also, there should be no major brown spots. Especially look at the tops where the stems join for mold or black rings. This is one of the veggies I highly recommend buying organic if you can.

Cauliflower: this veggie is one that you just have to look at. The leaves (if there are some left on), can be a bit floppy and shriveled, but not slimy. The “flower” of the cauliflower should be white with not brown spots on it. That said, if there are some small brown spots on it, they can usually be cut off, leaving a perfectly fine cauliflower beneath. However, if the brown spots are at all juicy or smushy or very black, it’s probably best to leave that particular cauliflower where you found it.

Cucumbers: feel your cucumber. A fresh cucumber should be firm to the touch and not rubbery at all. There should be no soft spots on it. Some cucumber varieties can have a lot of bumps or ridges, so check for softness or dimples in the areas between the bumps to be sure.

Eggplant: when buying the most commonly available purple eggplant (also called aubergine, brinjal, and many other names), make sure it is nice and dark purple. There should be no brown spots and the veggie should be firm to the touch but not too hard. Especially look around the top where the stem cap meets the flesh.

Green Beans: color is important with green beans. As the name implies, green beans should be green (and just a little fuzzy). Brown spots are not good on green beans, and fresh green bean will snap nicely when bent rather than bend or tear. The smaller they are, the more tender they tend to be, so look for slightly smaller, darker green beans when choosing.

Leafy green vegetables: all leafy vegetables should not be wilted at all. There should be no dried out spots and they should be colorful with no brown spots. Grocers sometimes gently tear off the wilted tops of leaves to disguise age, so look at the very ends of leaves for any obvious alterations. Of course slime is a no no. You’re highly likely to find dirt among the leaves, but have a look for small bugs just in case. They like to hide in the leaves and come home with you.

Okra/Lady’s fingers: these should be nicely green. Watch out for large okra that are hard to the touch as these can be very tough and do not soften when cooked. They’re supposed to be a little velvety, and they’re definitely not supposed to have distinct lines or veins showing on their surface.

Potatoes: these should be hard. There should be no “give” when you press a finger onto a good potato. As with other veggies, there should be no hint of rubbery-ness. Sometimes potatoes develop ‘eyes’ when they sit long enough to try to grow. This isn’t a problem as you can remove these parts, but avoid potatoes that have distinctly green areas on their skins.

Tomatoes: tomatoes should be bright red (unless you are buying one of the colourful varieties widely available now). If the tomatoes are somewhat green they should be firm to the touch. Ripe tomatoes should be not at all squishy. I like to buy a few ripe tomatoes and a few almost-ripe tomatoes at a time, so I can leave these to ripen and have tomatoes on-hand longer.

Well, I think this is a good basic list to get started. As you may have noticed there are some common themes such as no brown spots unless it is a brown veg of course. This may seem a bit obvious to some of you more experienced vegetable shoppers but as we have different levels of expertise in our group I hope it is of some help.
I chose these basic veggies this time because they’re very commonly used in most of our cooking here on the Food Channel, and they are quite versatile in the kitchen. Buying your veg fresh is important and also easy—and don’t be shy about feeling and smelling your veggies in the store before you purchase. Fresh veggies are best to ensure you get all of the proper nutrients.

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