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Published September 07, 2013, 10:00 PM

Just ripe: How you can choose the best fruits and vegetables at just the right time

MOORHEAD – Phillip Edwards is not a melon thumper. Don Kinzler and Dan Yamane are. Edwards, the culinary manager of Concordia College’s Dining Services, thinks it’s an old wives’ tale, while Kinzler, a lifelong gardener and horticulturist, and Yamane, the produce operations specialist for Hornbacher’s, use the method to choose a ripe melon.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

MOORHEAD – Phillip Edwards is not a melon thumper. Don Kinzler and Dan Yamane are.

Edwards, the culinary manager of Concordia College’s Dining Services, thinks it’s an old wives’ tale, while Kinzler, a lifelong gardener and horticulturist, and Yamane, the produce operations specialist for Hornbacher’s, use the method to choose a ripe melon.

To thump a melon, snap or flick it with your middle finger to “hear” how ripe it is, Kinzler says.

“A ripe watermelon should sound like snapping the top of a leather dress shoe,” Kinzler says. “Imagine giving the finger snap to a water-filled ball. Thumping a ripe watermelon will sound similar.”

Whether or not thumping can determine the ripeness of a melon is up for debate, but all three produce experts have tips for picking fruits and vegetables in their prime, whether at the grocery store, farmers market or fresh from the home garden.

The trio agrees that people should use their senses to pick produce. Smelling, touching and looking at produce can help determine its ripeness.

Produce should always be free of bruises, other damage and mold, and it should smell like what it is – tomatoes should smell like tomatoes, melons like melons, etc.

Some produce is easy to pick, like carrots, onions, cucumbers and potatoes.

“They’re good from little all the way up to big,” Kinzler says.

Other produce is a bit trickier to choose, such as melons.

“They’re one of those things that you can’t just walk up, grab one, and you’re going to get a perfect one,” Yamane says. “Sometimes you’re going to have to do a little ripening on your own; sometimes you can find one at that stage in the store. Really, there’s a little work behind it either way.”

When in doubt, our experts say to ask grocery store employees or farmers market sellers for help.

“Don’t be afraid to ask people,” Yamane says. “Personnel should be knowledgeable and able to help you select produce and give you advice on preparation and storage.”

• Watermelon

Besides thumping, Kinzler checks for the ground spot, or where the watermelon rested on the earth. It should be yellow rather than cream-colored.

Besides checking the ground spot, Edwards and Yamane look for watermelons with bright green rinds that are blemish-free.

• Cantaloupe

Cantaloupes (also called muskmelons) with an orange tint to the rind, as opposed to a green tint, are usually ripe, Yamane says. He adds that they will give off a sweet aroma as well when ripe.

In a home garden, ripe cantaloupes will separate cleanly from the vine, Kinzler says.

• Tomatoes

Ripe tomatoes are soft when gently squeezed and smell tomato-y, Kinzler says.

Most tomatoes are ripe when they turn a rich red hue, but color isn’t always the best indicator of ripeness.

Heirloom tomato colors range from pink to red to purple, and hybrid homegrown tomatoes also vary in redness when they’re ripe.

Tomatoes should be stored at room temperature, not in the refrigerator, Kinzler says.

• Corn

With corn, the fresher it is, the better it’ll taste, Kinzler says.

Sugar content is best right after corn’s picked, and it deteriorates the longer it’s off the stalk.

The color of the husk should be bright green with no discoloration, Yamane says.

The husk shouldn’t be dry either, and if silk is in-tact, it should be a golden bronze color (preferably not brown or black).

• Squash

Yellow summer squash and green zucchini taste best when they’re about 8 inches long and the skin can be dented with a fingernail, Kinzler says.

Large squash is good in cakes and recipes where their flavor isn’t center stage.

Winter squashes like buttercup, acorn and butternut varieties have hard, dull skin when ripe.

• Peaches, nectarines

Pick peaches and nectarines that give slightly when gently squeezed and produce a sweet aroma, Yamane says.

Keep them out of refrigeration, and eat them before they soften too much.

• Eggplant

Check for blemishes, and if the eggplant looks smooth and purple, it’s probably good, Edwards says, adding that it’s rare to come across an eggplant that’s not ready to eat.

• Pineapple

Feel is a good indicator of how ripe a pineapple is, Edwards says.

A ripe pineapple gives a little when squeezed, he says, and it’s a bit darker in appearance than an unripe pineapple and has a sweet smell.

Produce packs a punch

FARGO – The typical North Dakotan eats vegetables 1.4 times per day and fruits 1.1 times per day.

Minnesotans are doing about the same, taking in vegetables 1.5 times per day and fruits 1.1 times per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On a national and local level, most people aren’t getting enough fruits and vegetables, says Michelle Strang, a North Dakota State University extension agent for the Expanded Food & Nutrition Education Program.

While the amount a person should have each day varies based on their age, sex and activity level, people on a 2,000 calorie diet need 2 ½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day, she says.

“It’s difficult to do unless you really, really focus on it,” Strang says.

And produce is worth the focus – people who eat a diet rich in fruits and veggies reduce their risk of cancer and other chronic diseases and weigh less, according to the CDC.

What are the best to eat? Strang says all produce is good, but some is packed with more nutrients. Eating different colors, like blue blueberries, red raspberries, orange carrots, green spinach, etc., ensures a variety in taste and nutrients.

She recommends planning meals around vegetables rather than having veggies as a side dish. For example, stir fries are a tasty way to incorporate loads of veggies into a meal. Strang also makes fruit smoothies to use up over ripe fruit.

If people are finicky about eating fruits or veggies, Strang suggests pairing them with a healthy yogurt-based dip.

“The overall goal is to just get more,” she says. “They are so good for so many things.”

Produce storage, prep

FARGO – After picking the perfect produce, how should you store it and prepare it for eating?

The first step is to handle the produce with washed hands. Unwashed hands can transfer germs to the goods.

Next, wash the produce with cold running water, even if it has an inedible rind.

Use a clean, non-porous cutting board and clean, sharp knife to cut the produce.

Once fruits and vegetables are cut, they should be refrigerated.

Properly storing produce saves money and ensures that fruits and veggies last as long as possible.

Produce can usually be stored however it was stored at the grocery store. For example, never refrigerate bananas, but berries should be in the fridge, as they are at a grocery store.

Other produce storage tips:

• Potatoes and onions can be kept in a brown paper bag for longer shelf life. The bag will regulate moisture and inhibit mold growth.

• Store produce away from meat and eggs to avoid cross contamination.

E Apples, which give off ethylene gas, can accelerate the ripening of other fruits and vegetables.

Store apples away from other produce, or use them to help ripen produce by popping an apple in a paper bag with under ripe produce.

• Herbs can be stored in the fridge in a water glass with an inch of water. Storing herbs this way can extend the herb’s life far beyond a few days.

• Try to buy only what you need. It might mean more trips to the grocery store or farmers market, but the produce will be in better shape.

Sources: Phillip Edwards, the culinary manager of Concordia College’s Dining Services, and Dan Yamane, the produce operations specialist for Hornbacher’s

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525