Sunday, August 10, 2014

Grocer X: Picking Perfection

Posted By on Sun, Aug 10, 2014 at 8:41 AM

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Summertime in the produce department means a wide variety of the sweetest-smelling soft fruits, a plethora of melon options, and grilling vegetables just aching for char marks. To some, myself included, you can’t ask for a better produce season. But picking summer produce can be risky, and there’s nothing worse than finding yourself on the losing side of a watermelon gamble at your Labor Day barbecue.

I’m sure you’ve seen the “naturally ripe,” and “picked at the peak of perfection” claims emblazoned on the sides of peach boxes and stamped on avocado stickers. All lies. The truth is, unless you’re making some poor sap of a clerk pick all your produce for you, you’re on your own out there. And the more expensive it gets, the less confident you become in your picking prowess. Eventually, you starve yourself of the summer’s sweetest flavors.

Now, I’m not going to say I’m an expert — though plenty of you call us clerks, “the produce expert” — or that it’s my way or the highway, and I’m certainly not going to give you an engrossing list of tricks. I’ll just pick a few of your summertime staples and let you take it from there.

Look at my melons
All innuendo aside, melons are hot in the summertime: cantaloupe, honeydew, Santa Clause, canary, whatever suits your fancy. But with different kinds of melons come different ways of picking.

The fabled “watermelon thump” really is the best way to pick a watermelon. Color shouldn’t be a big concern — unless it’s something other than green — so give it thump with your thumb and listen for that hollow sound. Cantaloupes are a different animal. Yeah, sniffing the button to catch a whiff of the flavor works sometimes, but it’s not a tell-all. Personally, I look for sweet spots (the spots on the skin that resemble bruises), and a drier rind. Some people say to shake it to see if the seeds on the inside are loose, so I’ll do that too, if only for giggles. What you want is anything that shows that the ’loupe is using up its built-up moisture and thus, is ripe.

Honeydew is actually pretty easy, no sniffing or assaulting necessary. All you need from honeydew is a waxy residue on the rind to know it’s ready to go. Seriously, waxy like a candle. Don’t ask me how that works.

Guac and awe
Granted, avocado is more than just a summer favorite, it’s a year-round superfood. I don’t need to tell you what a ripe avo looks like — the problem is when all we have is the greenest of the green on display, and your party starts this afternoon. You’ve heard of the brown-paper-bag ripening theory, but that hasn’t helped me quell my guacamole cravings in the past.

If you’re looking to hasten the ripening of an avocado, pop the remaining portion of the stem off the top and get it into some serious sunlight — I’ll sometimes leave them on the dashboard in the car for a while.

Pineapple with a cherry on top
I’ll get the pineapple myth out of the way and tell you that no, loose leaves at the top don’t always mean it’s ripe. Go for color; the darker hues of yellow, blended with lighter shades of brown, ensure that pineapple being sweet on the inside. You’ll smell the flavor, too. If you’re looking for a more tart flavor, look for some lighter greens turning to yellow.

As for cherries, usually one of the most expensive summer favorites, there’s a reason for the iconic red cherry. The deeper the red, the sweeter the cherry — just be mindful of any wrinkling on the skin. Even with Rainier cherries (yellow and red), I go for the bag with the most red visible. Who knows if there’s a science behind this — I’m just thinking, “If colors were flavors, yellow would be more tart than red.” Call me crazy, but my instincts save me from pitching $7 bags of cherries more often than not.

Through all my years of picking, placing, tasting and sampling summertime produce stock, I’ve realized that Mom’s plucking of the leaves from the top of a pineapple, or taking a whiff of the button of a cantaloupe, doesn’t always ensure the fresh, crisp flavors we’re looking for. There’s always that chance that those perfect-looking peaches will be pithy and plain, and honeydew will always be kind of mysterious, but now you have some new tricks to pick your produce and you can leave the clerks alone.

The man behind the apron is Craig Lemley, digital content coordinator here at the Indy. The Colorado Springs native spent nearly a decade working in grocery stores across the Pikes Peak region before retiring his produce knife for a surprisingly less-stressful media career. Follow him on twitter (@_CraigLemley) or send questions/comments to

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