Keeping produce perfect

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, I tend to get a little carried away.

bean salad 88 (photo credit: )
bean salad 88
(photo credit: )
'It looks like you live on a farm," my mother once remarked after seeing my counters covered with trays of tomatoes, avocados, peaches and plums, with the overflow in other parts of the house. It's true that when it comes to produce, I tend to get a little carried away. I love shopping at the produce market as much as many people enjoy shopping at the mall, and so I end up buying produce in rather large amounts. Naturally, I want to be sure to use the vegetables and fruits when they are as good as possible. Over the years I've collected guidelines for keeping produce fresh. It's best to experiment and see what works best for you, your family and your refrigerator; some refrigerators, and some compartments of the refrigerator, keep the food more humid than others. Taking good care of vegetables and fruits begins as soon as you come home from the market. Even if you are tired, resist the temptation to leave the vegetables in their plastic bags and deal with them later. Take off any rubber bands or strings that hold herbs or green onions in bundles right away. Leaving them tightly tied causes the herbs to be squeezed against each other and turn slimy. Don't wash any produce until just before you use it. Putting wet vegetables or greens in the refrigerator shortens their shelf life. If left in closed plastic bags, most vegetables sweat and spoil rapidly. If you are refrigerating them in the bags, be sure to open the bags. Try to prevent the vegetables from crushing each other. Don't pile them in the refrigerator; instead spread them in a single layer, if you have room. Try to put just a few pieces in each bag so they don't press against each other. If you buy a big bag of green beans or zucchini, divide them into smaller bags when you get home. Marian Morash, author of The Victory Garden Cookbook, advises storing fresh green beans and soft-shelled squash in perforated plastic bags. At some markets lettuce, carrots and other vegetables come in perforated bags. I've found it's a good idea to use these at home too, or to make holes in ordinary plastic bags. Paper towels help a lot in keeping herbs and greens fresh. Spread out a bunch of parsley or other herb on a paper towel and roll it up in the towel before putting it in a plastic bag. The paper towel helps keep the herbs dry and fresh. Some cooks like to keep herbs in a glass of water in the refrigerator. This certainly keeps the herbs fresh, but I don't like the idea of ending up with a puddle at the bottom of my refrigerator, and so I usually opt for the paper towel technique. Mushrooms also benefit from the paper towel trick. They often get wet and soggy if you refrigerate them in plastic bags, but if you wrap them in paper towels first, they'll keep much better. Some experts recommend keeping them in paper bags instead, or refrigerating them unwashed in a pan in a single layer with slightly damp paper towels on top. I get useful ideas from Robert Schueller, produce expert extraordinaire, who contributed to Melissa's Great Book of Produce by Cathy Thomas. He advises storing potatoes "in a dark, airy, cool location... in an open paper sack or basket, not a sealed plastic bag... Do not refrigerate for a long period of time because starch in potatoes will gradually convert to sugar, causing a disagreeable taste." Onions should also be kept at room temperature but not near potatoes, as potatoes give off a gas that makes onions spoil. Sweet potatoes should be stored like potatoes but will not keep as long. Leave tomatoes to ripen on your counter. Generally I leave tomatoes out until I use them; chilled tomatoes, like peaches and plums, lose a lot of flavor. I am constantly inspecting my tomatoes, avocados and fruit, and I usually turn them over every day or two. Tomatoes, like people, don't like to lie on one side all the time. If you neglect the tomatoes, you might find that some of them spoil on the bottom. I refrigerate mine only if I have too many and they're becoming quite soft. Even the weather affects how well your produce keeps. A Parisian pastry chef told me that when the weather is stormy or humid, the produce spoils faster. From my experience, this is definitely true. This is the time to be especially vigilant in checking your tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and any other produce items that you have at room temperature. GREEN BEANS AND SQUASH WITH MUSHROOMS AND ONIONS During Thanksgiving this week in the US, many Americans accompanied their turkey with a popular green bean casserole that has become practically a cliche. The first time I tasted this dish, it was made of canned green beans baked with canned mushroom soup and topped with canned fried onions, and I couldn't understand why it was served at such a festive meal. But once I made this dish with fresh vegetables, I realized that green beans, mushrooms and onions are a tasty trio indeed. Recently I sampled a delicious version of this combination at Whole Foods Market, a natural foods store. The beans were combined with sauteed mushrooms and a light cream sauce, and embellished with sauteed onions. Holly Garrison, author of The Thanksgiving Cookbook, makes an elegant rendition of the dish by sauteing cooked green beans with wild mushrooms in butter and walnut oil, then sprinkling the medley with chopped toasted walnuts. For a luxurious take on the green bean and mushroom theme, Robin Robertson, author of Vegan Planet, prepares portobello mushroom and green bean ragout with Madeira, and serves it as a main course over rice or noodles. Use extra virgin olive oil for sauteing the vegetables to give them good flavor. If you're serving this medley at a meatless meal, use olive oil and butter for a delicious variation. When yellow beans (wax beans) are in season, you can use them instead of half the green beans. 450 gr. slim green beans, ends removed, beans broken in two 225 gr. soft-shell squash (zucchini or kishu), cut in sticks salt and freshly ground pepper 2 to 3 Tbsp. olive oil, butter or a mixture of both 2 medium onions, halved, thinly sliced 250 gr. mushrooms, halved and cut in thick slices cayenne pepper to taste (optional) 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley Add beans to a large saucepan of boiling salted water and boil uncovered for 2 minutes. Add squash and boil together for 2 to 3 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender. Drain in a colander or strainer, rinse under cold running water until cool and drain thoroughly. Heat oil in a large skillet or saute pan. Add onions and saute over medium heat about 10 minutes or until light brown. Add mushrooms and saute for 2 to 3 minutes or until softened. Add beans, squash, salt, pepper and cayenne and saute over low heat, stirring often, for 2 minutes or until heated through. Add parsley and toss. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.