To Market, to Market

 

CHAPTER - 10

To Market, to Market

Marketing to ensure food safety … The best way to fill your basket … Observing freshness dates … What different types of dates on packages mean … How to select fresh fruits and vegetables … How and when you can ripen fruits at home … Seasonal availability of common fruits and vegetables … How to choose canned, bottled, and packaged goods … How to choose fresh meats, poultry, and fish

“Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store.”

—Deuteronomy 28:5

I decided to include a marketing chapter in this book as a result of scenes I often observe in my local food market. This market is located across the street from a large university, in the middle of a lively and diverse city neighborhood. Its cramped aisles, filled with young and old from both communities, often see as much teaching as goes on across the street on campus. The students, puzzling over artichokes and avocados, do not hesitate to buttonhole anyone passing by who looks serene and knowledgeable and beg for assistance. “Do you think this is ripe?” they ask, and when they see that such a person has chosen flounder or halibut at the fish counter, they buy the same thing. The frequency with which this sort of thing happens convinced me that many who are learning how to stock a kitchen of their own for the first time might find information about how you make good choices of fresh foods especially useful.

Safe Marketing: In General

It will do little good to store and cook foods safely at home if they are maltreated by your market, or on the way to the market and to your home. Bacteria and other microorganisms, some of which can cause food poisoning, grow extremely rapidly at room temperature. (See chapter 13, “Safe Food.”)

Check for Temperature Safety in the Store. If you are buying hot foods, such as roasted chicken, meatballs, or other cooked foods from the deli department, make sure they are kept very hot; make sure foods that should be chilled—fresh meats and poultry, eggs, milk, salads, precut fruits or vegetables—feel very cold to the touch. Try to patronize the same market frequently and observe habits there: do you see milk and eggs (and other foods that should be chilled) left standing outdoors or in aisles for long periods?

Shop first for inedibles, such as paper towels and soap. Next, pick out nonperishables: canned and bottled things and anything else that you will store outside the refrigerator or freezer, such as sugar, salt, dry cereal, flour, canned and room-temperature bottled foods. Next, buy refrigerated things, such as milk, cheese, fresh meat and poultry, and fruits and vegetables. Last, buy hot cooked foods and frozen foods. Do not buy frozen foods stored above the freezer line or protruding above the top of a freezer display case.

Put hot things with other hot things in your basket and keep them separate from chilled or frozen foods; they will help each other stay hot. And put cold and frozen things together in your basket, separated from the hot ones, so that they can keep each other cold.

Watch to see how your groceries are bagged. See to it that hot and cold things are bagged or boxed separately. Meats and other foods that might drip liquids or raw juices (especially meat, fish, and poultry) should be placed in additional plastic bags to ensure that they do not drip onto other foods during transit.

Get home with your food as fast as you can; don’t make stops on the way home. In hot weather, put groceries in the passenger area of your car, not in the trunk, and turn on the air conditioning. If there will be an unavoidably long trip home, bring an ice chest in your car to keep your cold and frozen foods chilled during the trip. If your groceries are going to be delivered and you will get home long before they do, try to carry just the hot and cold items with you, in two different bags. When you get home, unbag and properly dispose of hot and cold foods first, chilling, freezing, or heating them as necessary. If hot foods have not been kept at 140°F or if cold foods have been allowed to reach temperatures exceeding 40°F for two hours (or as little as one hour in hot weather—over 90°F), throw them away; they are no longer safe. Check the labels of unfamiliar foods to see if they require refrigeration.

Avoid Cross-Contamination. Do not buy packages of meat, poultry, or fish that are dripping liquids, for this might contaminate other food. This would be particularly dangerous if drips got on foods that will be eaten without cooking, such as apples or lettuce or cheese.

If you are buying cooked fish or shellfish, notice how it is displayed. Does it lie next to raw fish that might touch it or exude liquids that touch it? Is raw fish being lifted over it? If so, do not buy it.

Observe Dates on Food Packages. If food is undated, write the date of purchase on the label when you put it away at home. This will save you racking your brain later on trying to remember when you bought it. When dates are printed on packaged, wrapped, or canned foods, be sure you know what the dates mean. Unfortunately, the meaning varies from item to item. Food dating is not federally mandated for anything except baby food and formula. State laws are variable, and many states require little in the way of dating. Even when dates are given, some products may be sold after their dates have passed, so long as they are “wholesome.” In many states it is legal, in fact, for the retailer to change the date on meat that has been cut up and wrapped in the retailer’s own meat department if it is still wholesome.

FOOD DATING

Pull-By or Sell-By Date. The sell-by date states the last date on which the product should be sold. Foods with sell-by dates may include meats, eggs, milk, cottage cheese and other cheeses, orange juice in cartons, and yogurt. These foods are safe for use after that date, provided they have been transported and stored in a proper manner for a safe period of time thereafter (including the time they are stored at home). Milk, for example, if it has been kept chilled before and during its stay in your home, is good for two or three days after the sell-by date; yogurt for two days, eggs for three to five weeks, cheeses a few weeks. The Food Keeper, on pages 131-41, tells you how long, usually, foods are good after the sell-by date when properly stored.

Freshness or Best-If-Used-By Date. UHT milk, bakery goods, packaged cereals, and some packaged precut vegetables are included among the foods that have best-if-used-by dating. After the specified date, the product becomes stale or no longer has peak quality, but it may still be safe and edible. Such goods are often sold at discount prices after the date has passed. Sometimes you also see foods such as mayonnaise and jam with a best-if-purchased-by date. This is the last date on which the manufacturer guarantees peak quality, but since commercially prepared mayonnaise and jam are the kinds of foods that, stored unopened in a cool, dry pantry, will last months or years, they are good to use for a period after the date, assuming proper home storage. See the Food Keeper for recommended home-storage periods for such foods.

Expiration or Use-By Date. Federal law mandates use-by dating on baby food and baby formula. This refers to the last date recommended by the manufacturer for use of the product; after this there may be a decline in taste or performance. Never buy baby food or formula past its use-by date. Do not buy any foods if you are not sure you will use them by the use-by dates or if the use-by date has passed. Yeasts and doughs may not perform properly after these dates, and you’ll get flat breads or rolls.

Pack Dates and Coded Dates. Most canned goods are stamped with codes that in some cases indicate dates. “Closed” dates are there for the use of the manufacturer and are not intended for use by consumers. “Open” dates are dates you can read. If you need to know anything about coded dating, you can usually call the manufacturer to find out.

Do not overshop! Crowded refrigerators and freezers do not work so well as uncrowded ones. Overstocked pantries become laden with items past their peak that will have to be thrown away, and you will be tempted to use foods that are no longer fresh.

Selecting Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Freshness is not everything when it comes to picking unprocessed fruits and vegetables, but it’s close. Flavor and nutritional qualities have other determinants too, but here our concern is with food storage. Usually there is no date-labeling to help you select fresh produce (except with some precut fruits and vegetables or those in life-extending modified-atmosphere packaging—see chapter 13, “Reduced-Oxygen or Modified-Atmosphere Packaged Foods,”). You need to develop some horse sense about picking fruits and vegetables that are not going to expire immediately upon unpacking. But don’t hope for perfection in yourself or your grocer. The occasional rotten apple is something we have to live with.

In general, avoid buying fruits and vegetables that have bruises, soft brown spots, browning, wilting, mold (any mold whatsoever!), slimy spots, holes, punctures, cuts, shriveling, wrinkling, or yellowing or other improper coloring. With experience, you will learn a great deal about desirable traits in fruits and vegetables. In addition, beginners can start by avoiding produce that shows the negative signs described in the following two lists, based on information from the USDA.

Vegetables. Avoid buying:

Asparagus with spread-out tips or vertical ribs or ridges, and very thick asparagus. This means that it is old and likely to be tough. Also avoid limp, flat stalks.

Beets that are elongated with scaly areas at the top; get small or medium-sized smooth beets.

Broccoli with a yellowish-green color (purplish tops are all right), or open or large buds. You want tender, firm stalks that are not splitting, and compact buds.

Cauliflower whose flowerets are separating or are speckled with black or brown spots.

Celery that is limp, splitting, or woody.

Cucumbers that are mushy, bruised, or have soft spots. Cucumbers that are very large may have too many seeds and too little flesh, so buying the biggest may not be best. Old cucumbers get woody and dry.

Eggplants that are shriveled, or those with rust spots or bruises.

Mushrooms with caps that are not closed to the stem or, if they are open, that show dark, discolored gills instead of pink or light-tan gills. Avoid shriveled and bruised mushrooms. Get plump, firm, cream-colored ones.

Onions that have thick, woody centers at their tops or are sprouting green shoots.

Peppers with very thin walls (which may be evidenced by cuts or punctures or light weight for their size).

Potatoes that are sprouted or shriveled or green, or have a great many eyes.

Tomatoes with cracks, deep brown cracks around the stem, bruises, or shriveled skin. Green or yellow areas indicate that the tomatoes are not fully ripe.

Turnips with lots of leaf scars around the top. An old turnip will be woody and fibrous instead of firm and moist inside. If turnips seem light in weight for their size, this is a sign that they are woody.

Winter squash and pumpkins without at least an inch of stem. If they are picked without the stem, they will rapidly decay around the area where the stem was broken off. They should be heavy for their size, without cracks.

Fruits. Avoid buying:

Avocados with dark, sunken spots in irregular patches or cracked or broken surfaces. Most ripe avocados are green, but some varieties turn purplish-black, maroon, or brown as they ripen. The color will be all over if it indicates ripening.

Bananas with more than a speckling of brown—unless you are contemplating banana bread, which requires overripe bananas (not rotten ones). A light speckling usually means that they are perfect for eating. They can become overripe in less than a day when the temperature is very warm.

Cherries that are shriveled, have dried stems, or look dull.

Cantaloupes that combine very yellow base skin on the rind with softness or large bruises. A ripe cantaloupe will have a firm rind and a yellow base skin. (I have read that a cantaloupe with a stem is underripe; the stem indicates that it was hard to break the melon off the vine. But, outside a garden, I have never actually seen a cantaloupe with a stem.) Avoid cantaloupes with mold near the stem scar.

Grapes with brown, brittle stems.

Honeydew melons that are dead white or green-white are immature or underripe.

They are ripe when they are yellow-white to creamy in color.

Lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits that are very lightweight for their size or that have rough, hardened, or shriveled skin, soft spots, or dull skin. Juicy citrus fruit feels hefty in your hand. Note that a greenish cast does not necessarily mean that an orange is unripe.

Nectarines that are hard or dull or shriveled.

Pears whose flesh near the stem is weak.

Pineapples with watery eyes or an unpleasant odor—signs of overripeness. Underripe pineapples have a dull yellow-green color, little aroma, and dull, tight pips. A mature pineapple has a good pineapple aroma and is heavy and firm. On the color of mature and ripe pineapple, see the discussion below of ripening fruit at home.

With some fruits, it helps to be aware of things that do not matter, as well as the signs listed above that do. For example, on apples you need not worry about scald (those tan or brown rough patches of skin that are not associated with bruises). On grapefruits, you need not avoid scars or discolored patches other than bruises. Florida or Texas oranges that show tan, brown, or blackish speckling or mottling are fine. These are not signs that the fruit inside is not good. In fact, some of the best-tasting, thin-skinned varieties commonly have these marks.

Ripening at Home. One way to ensure that fruits are ripe when you want to eat them, and not before, is to buy them before they are ripe and ripen them at home. You cannot do this with all fruits. Fruits that will not ripen at room temperature include berries of all types, citrus fruits of all types, grapes, dates, currants, figs, pomegranates, rhubarb, and watermelon. Common types of fruit that ripen at home are listed below. In general, fruits that have not fully ripened will be harder and greener (or paler or show some other unripened color) than fruit that is ready to eat. Once fruit is ripe, most kinds should go in the refrigerator. Bananas should not go in the refrigerator, and tomatoes should only as a last resort. See the discussion immediately below.

Apricots: Ripen at room temperature.

Avocados: Leave firm avocados at room temperature on the countertop for three to five days.

Bananas: These ripen best between 60° and 70°F, out of direct sunlight, which may cause uneven ripening. At higher temperatures they will ripen extremely quickly. If you keep unripe bananas below 56°F for more than two hours, they will never ripen tastily, so unripe bananas should never be refrigerated. Ripe bananas can be prevented from over-ripening in the refrigerator, however. Their skins may turn dark brown, but they’ll still be good to eat. Note, though, that bananas cause strong refrigerator odors and readily impart strong flavors to other foods.

RIPENING IN A BAG

You can ripen fruit faster at home on the counter by putting it into a bag or in an enclosing bowl. The explanation is that many fruits release ethylene gas, which causes them to ripen. The bag (or, to a lesser extent, the bowl) traps the ethylene gas near the fruit and thus hastens the ripening. Paper bags are recommended over plastic bags, as the plastic ones trap more moisture, which can lead to molding. (Perforated plastic bags help with the molding problem but may let out too much of the ethylene.) Fruits that ripen nicely in a paper bag include kiwis, peaches, nectarines, apricots, bananas, tomatoes, plums, pears, avocados, and apples. If you add a banana or an apple to the bag in which you are ripening another fruit, it will further hasten the process.

Cantaloupe and other melon: Firm, underripe melon will ripen in two to four days at room temperature.

Kiwi fruit: Firm kiwis will ripen in a few days at room temperature. When ripe, they will feel soft but not mushy.

Nectarines: Firm fruit with bright color will usually ripen within two or three days at room temperature.

Peaches: Hard peaches with bright color will ripen in one to three days at room temperature. Sometimes they will ripen overnight.

Pears: Hard pears will ripen in a couple of days at room temperature.

Persimmons: Unripe ones will ripen if kept at room temperature for a week. I have read that you can ripen a persimmon by wrapping it in foil and leaving it in the freezer overnight, but I haven’t tried this.

Pineapples: An unripe mature pineapple (dark green, plump, firm, heavy) will turn orange or yellow or reddish-brown within a few days at room temperature. It will also get softer and less acidic, but it won’t get sweeter.

Tomatoes: Put them in a warm place out of direct sunlight—on your countertop or on a shaded tabletop on the deck or back porch in the summer. If you refrigerate your tomatoes, they won’t ripen. Even when they have fully ripened, refrigeration causes a mealy texture, and it’s best to keep them unrefrigerated unless otherwise they are going to overripen and rot. You have to choose the lesser of evils. One possible solution to this dilemma is to put fully ripened tomatoes on the shelves in the door of your refrigerator where it is less cool. You can even get a couple into the butter compartment in the door, where it tends to be warmer (often 50°F or more).

Seasonal Availability of Fresh U.S. Produce

Another way to be sure of long-lasting fresh produce is to be aware of what items are seasonal, whether you are buying early or late in the season, and whether the produce you are buying has been stored for some time or has just come from the farm this morning. Now that the market for produce in the United States is largely nationwide and often international, you can get almost anything fresh at almost any time of the year. Winter crops in Florida, California, and the Southwest keep all parts of the United States in fresh produce year-round.

Imported produce also supplies local markets out of the local season, but it may be more expensive. Although there are notorious cases of outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by imported produce, it is so far unclear whether imported produce is more likely, overall, than domestic to carry pathogens. Domestic produce has also caused illness. Likewise, with respect to pesticide residues, the existing evidence, though incomplete, indicates that imported produce does not necessarily carry more residues and sometimes has less. Imported produce that is frozen or canned must be identified as such on the labels. But no federal laws and few state laws (Florida and Maine, for example, are among the exceptions) require that unprocessed produce be labeled “imported” or show its place of origin.1 Fortunately, fresh produce grown in this country is often labeled as such, and you can sometimes guess from the season and the lack of a label that fresh produce is imported.

Even types of produce that are available from domestic sources year-round have their peak seasons when supplies are especially plentiful, choice, and well-priced. For the items listed below, these seasons may occur roughly as given in “Seasonal Availability of Vegetables,” below. Long seasons of availability reflect cultivation of the fruit or vegetable in different parts of the country with different growing seasons. To make the best choices, find a grocery that tries to offer a good selection of local and other fresh produce. It helps to learn about the farms in your area—what they grow and when the crops are harvested—and to get to know a grocer or green marketer who is both informed and informative.

Seasonal Availability of Vegetables. Most vegetables show fairly uniform quality and availability year-round: lettuce, carrots, radishes, cabbage, celery, green beans, a wide variety of greens, depending on the season (kale, mustard greens, chicory, endive, turnip greens, chard, collard greens, spinach, watercress), mushrooms, broccoli, summer squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and onions. The vegetables listed below are available as shown (based largely on information from the USDA).

Vegetables (U.S.)

Asparagus: April-August. In the Northeast, local asparagus is available in spring. (Imported asparagus in the markets September-March, the U.S. off-season, comes mostly from Mexico; other suppliers are Peru, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, and Ecuador.)

Artichokes (California): April-May

Brussels sprouts: peak in October-December, but some availability in much of the rest of the year

Cauliflower: most abundant September-June, but available all year

Chicory, endive, escarole: primarily winter and spring

Corn: most plentiful from late spring through early fall, but some availability year-round

Cucumber: best and most plentiful in summer

Eggplant: most plentiful in late summer

Parsnips: best in late winter

Peas: late spring or early summer

Peppers: most plentiful in late summer, but available all year

Pumpkins: fall

Potatoes: new potatoes are ready in late winter and early spring, February-April. (Red-skinned potatoes at other times of the year are probably old potatoes.)

Rhubarb: January-June

Rutabagas: mostly available in fall and winter

Tomatoes: year-round, but best and most plentiful from midsummer through early fall in north and central regions

Winter squash (acorn, butternut, Hubbard): most plentiful in early fall through late winter

Seasonal Availability of Fruits. Some fruits are available from domestic sources year-round; these include avocados, lemons, and limes. Bananas are not commercially grown in this country; they come from Central and South America. The only state that grows pineapples is Hawaii. (Other pineapples come from Puerto Rico and Mexico.) The fruits listed below are seasonally available as shown (based largely on information from the USDA).

Fruits (U.S.)

Apples: late summer through fall. Stored apples are available throughout the year in widely varying quality. U.S. grades for apples, in descending order of quality: U.S. Extra Fancy, U.S. Fancy, U.S. No. 1, U.S. Utility. (Apples from West Coast states are usually marketed under state grades similar to the U.S. grades.)

Apricots: June-July

Berries (raspberries, blackberries): most plentiful and best in July-August, but some may be available in spring. (Berries sold in other seasons are imported, usually from Latin America.)

Blueberries: May-September

Cherries: May-August

Cranberries: September-January

Grapes: most plentiful late summer and fall

Kiwi fruit: California kiwis are harvested October-November and marketed through May

Grapefruit: all year, but most abundant January-May

Melon:

Cantaloupe: May-September

Casaba melon: July-November

Crenshaw melon: July-October, peak August-September

Honeydew melon: most abundant July-October. (Imports are available in winter and spring.)

Persian melon: August-September

Watermelon: May-September, peak June-August

Nectarines: June-September

Oranges:

Navel: November-early May

Valencia, western: late April-October

Valencia, Florida and Texas: late March-June

Parson Brown: October-February

Hamlin: October-February

Murcott: late February-April

Pineapple orange: late November-March

Florida Temple: early December-early March

Peaches: May-November, peak July-August

Pears:

Bartlett: early August-November

Anjou, Bosc, Winter Nellis, Comice: November-May

Persimmons: fall and early winter (California)

Pineapples: most abundant March-June, but available all year

Plums: June-September

Prune plums: August-October

Strawberries: from Florida beginning in January. Best supply is spring, May-June

Tangerines: late November-early March, with peak supplies in December-January. For Murcott, see “Oranges.”

Eggs

Choose only grade AA or A eggs with uncracked, clean shells that are stored in a refrigeration unit. Make sure they are quite cold to the touch. Check the package for a date if one is required in your area.

Canned, Bottled, and Packaged Goods

When buying anything canned or bottled, make sure the exterior of the container is in good shape. Avoid rusty, leaking, heavily dented cans, bulging or swollen cans, or lids that bulge. A bulging can or lid indicates gas building up inside as a result of bacterial activity. Avoid cans with a dent on a seam or rim, because this may damage the seam; but small dents that do not loosen a seam or pierce or weaken the can are probably nothing to worry about. On bottles, make sure the lid is untampered with and tight and that the bottle is unchipped and uncracked. Packaged goods—in boxes, cartons, bags, and so forth—should be tightly sealed (the outside as well as the inside liners) and without holes or gouges. Never buy canned, bottled, or packaged goods whose labels are missing, stained, or torn.

When buying canned fruits and vegetables, you can make some determinations of quality by discriminating among manufacturers and by observing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades:

Grade A fruits and vegetables are superior in appearance as well as flavor and texture, and they are the most expensive.

Grade B fruits and vegetables are of very good quality—only slightly less than grade A. You’ll lose little (or sometimes nothing) in flavor but will get produce of slightly less perfect appearance, vegetables that are slightly older, or fruit that is a bit less sweet or less well colored.

Grade C is entirely wholesome and safe but is definitely less lovely and may contain some broken and uneven pieces. Vegetables will usually be older; fruits will be less sweet. They are the least expensive.

The best canned tomatoes tend to be Italian, and those from the San Marzano region tend to be the best of all.

Fresh Meats and Poultry

Fresh meats and poultry have sell-by dates. Buy none whose sell-by dates have expired, and try to select packages with the most distant selling dates (but remember that in many states the retailer can redate “wholesome” meats that it has packed itself). Learn to judge when meats and poultry look and smell fresh. But your greatest protection is a reliable and honest retailer or butcher.

Buy no meats or poultry that are not kept thoroughly chilled. Put your finger on the package to make sure it feels very cold. Buy none that are in leaking, broken, or damaged packages. They should be tightly wrapped.

If you are learning to judge meats and poultry, take every opportunity to examine cuts that you know are fresh with your eyes and nose. Fresh raw meats and poultry have odors that are quite unlike the good smells of cooked meats and poultry, but are not strong, tainted, or rotten-smelling. If you ever let meat stay a bit too long in the refrigerator, waft some air from the meat toward your nose before you throw it out, so you become familiar with the scent of meat that is just beginning to go bad. You want to reach the point where you can detect the faintest scent of spoilage.

Discoloration can be a sign that meats and poultry are not fresh, but they may be going off even though their color looks normal to you, and an unattractive dark, purplish color in beef may not mean that it is not good.

When buying poultry, avoid dry, hard, purple, or broken skin or skin with hairs. Look for moist, smooth, unbroken skin. Do not buy frozen poultry if you see brownish areas of freezer burn; this may mean long or improper storage. Cut-up poultry goes bad faster than whole birds; turkey goes bad faster than chicken. Fresh sausages and cut-up or ground meats or poultry go bad faster than those that are not ground.

Fresh Fish and Shellfish

The traditional rule about buying fish is “not on Monday,” and in this age of weekend marketing you could probably add “and not on Sunday either.” This is because markets may not have fresh shipments on these days.

Fresh fish does not smell fishy, unpleasant, or strong. It is moist, without dry or discolored edges. The eyes are not cloudy or sunken; they are bright and they bulge. The gills are pink or red. The flesh should be elastic and firm to the touch. Scales are shiny and firmly adherent to the skin; they should not feel slimy. A fresh fish will float in cold water.

Anything with a hard shell—lobsters, crabs, clams, mussels, oysters—should be alive when you buy it. Live clams, mussels, and oysters, if open, close tightly when tapped. Crabs and lobsters should be moving.

If fish is packaged with a sell-by date, make sure that the date has not expired.

As with meats and poultry, buying from a reliable and honest retailer is your best protection. A good fish market will pack your fish in ice for you to ensure that you get it home safely on a hot day. Do not put the package in the trunk of your car on a hot day. Keep it in the passenger area, preferably with the air conditioning on, and preferably on ice. If your market does not pack fish in ice, remember to bring an ice chest with you when you shop.






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