Picking At The Peak

80 expert tips and techniques for selecting the freshest, ripest produce, from your garden or at the market.

By Matt Ernst

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Eggplant
Ripe eggplants drain the plant's resources. So know what you grow and harvest eggplants when they reach the proper size for their variety.

  • Select glossy eggplants that spring back when pressed. Overripe fruits don't spring back, have brown seeds, and taste bitter.
  • Use shears to remove eggplants from the vine, says Willie Chance, University of Georgia extension agent.

Garlic
Leo Keene, who with his wife, Jean, grows about 45,000 bulbs of garlic at Blue Moon Farm in Richmond, Kentucky, suggests using a square-tipped spade to dig garlic. "Your goal is to sever the roots," he says.

Dig about 4 inches away and parallel to the plant. Sink the spade 6 to 8 inches into the ground; then push to a near 90-degree angle, cutting the roots and lifting the garlic. Knock the dirt from the bulb and shade it immediately. "Garlic is easily sunburned," Leo Keene says.

  • Start digging garlic when at least half of the top has died back.
  • Leave tops intact and hang bulbs in a shaded, dry, well-ventilated area for two to three weeks—this process helps to preserve garlic for months.

Lettuce
Hot weather is a lettuce crop's worst enemy, because it causes bolting (the formation of seed heads) and bitter- tasting leaves. Luckily, you can often harvest tasty leaves from both head and leaf lettuce plants right up to bolting, Cashel says.

When buying lettuce at farmers' markets, look for vendors who display their lettuce on ice or in coolers, Cashel advises. And don't be afraid to ask if the vendors grew their own crops.

  • Harvest lettuce in the morning to preserve the crispness it acquires overnight.
  • Immerse lettuce immediately into cold water after cutting; then rinse and refrigerate.
  • Cut leaf lettuce when outer leaves are 4 to 6 inches long; cut head lettuce when heads are moderately firm.

Melons
Pure melon flavor is short-lived and best enjoyed fresh. The more mature the melon, the less time it will keep in the refrigerator, though you can try freezing melons to preserve their summery sweetness.

  • Harvest most muskmelons when the stem separates easily from the fruit. The skin between the netting turns from green to yellow at full ripeness.
  • Honeydews soften slightly on the flower end of the fruit when ripe and change slightly in color.
  • The belly of a watermelon turns from greenish white to buttery yellow or cream at maturity; also watch for the curly tendrils where the stem meets the melon to turn brown and dry.
  • If you can't enjoy your melons right after the harvest, store them in a sealed container in the refrigerator, because their musky aroma can affect the flavor of nearby foods.

Onions
Do you crave homegrown produce in the winter? Then grow onions—they store for months when properly handled. Dr. Harrison says you should wait until the tops fall over to harvest, then gently dig up the whole plant and dry in a protected place.

  • Leave the dry, papery outer skin on the onion; removal of that skin almost doubles the onion's rate of decay.
  • Cut the onion tops off 1 inch above the bulb no sooner than four hours after harvest.
  • Cure bruise-free onions for up to a month in a well-ventilated, dry, shady spot.
  • Store onions in mesh rather than plastic bags.
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