Whether you grow your own produce or buy it at a farmers market or grocery store, fruits and vegetables are a colorful, tasty, and healthy part of our diets. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that we consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. A serving is any of the following:
- 1 medium-sized piece of fruit
- 1⁄2 cup fresh, frozen, or canned fruits or vegetables
- 3⁄4 cup fruit or vegetable juice
- 1 cup raw leafy greens
Buying Quality Vegetables
Choosing the best quality vegetables is important in maintaining taste and texture. Learning to choose the freshest vegetables will also ensure that you receive the maximum nutritional benefit from your selection. For the best quality vegetables and to avoid throwing away spoiled ones, select an amount that you can use in a short time. Follow these tips when choosing fresh produce and see table 1 for tips on selecting specific vegetables:
- If you’re picking your own, bring clean containers or bags.
- Exposing your produce to excessive dirt can cause premature spoilage.
- Look for produce that is free from unusual odors, colors, and mold.
- Handle produce gently to reduce bruising. Most produce has a natural coating that protects it from bacteria, but bacteria can thrive in bruised areas. At the grocery store, keep fresh produce on top of other foods in the shopping cart, and set it down gently on the counter when checking out.
- Be cautious of buying underripe produce. Some produce, such as peaches, cantaloupe, and nectarines, may soften during storage, but they won’t ripen.
- Buy cut produce that is refrigerated, and keep it cold during transport.
Storing Vegetables for Best Quality
Knowing which vegetables should be stored at room temperature and which do better in the refrigerator will go a long way toward maintaining quality. Many vegetables can change texture and flavor if kept too cold. For example, sweet potatoes take on off-flavors and a hard core when cooked after being refrigerated. Green tomatoes do not turn red, and red tomatoes will lose their flavor when kept in the refrigerator. Table 1 provides recommendations on the optimum storage temperature for common vegetables.
Whichever cooking method you use, remember that to ensure the best flavor, color, texture, and nutritive value, cook the vegetables until just tender. The less water you use, the more nutrients will be retained in the vegetable.
Baking. Vegetables such as winter squash, tomatoes, and potatoes can be baked whole in their skins. Other vegetables can be cut into pieces, seasoned, and baked. Place the vegetables on a pan and bake at 350 degrees F until tender.
Stir-frying. Stir-frying is best for tender vegetables that are high in moisture. Cut vegetables into pieces, and put into a frying pan with 2 to 4 tablespoons of oil and a small amount of water if needed. Cover the pan, and cook over low heat for a short time, stirring occasionally. Stop cooking when the vegetables are still slightly crisp.
Boiling. This method retains the least nutrients because they are washed away by the boiling water. Bring water to a boil. Add vegetable, cover, and quickly bring water back to a boil. Reduce heat and cook gently until just tender. Drain water, and season.
Steaming. The same as boiling except place the vegetable in a perforated container over boiling water. Because the vegetables are not submerged, more of the nutrients are retained.
Microwaving. Microwave cooking results in a texture similar to steamed vegetables. Cut up the vegetables. Microwave on high. Put the vegetables in a microwave-safe bowl. Lightly season. Add about 3 tablespoons of water to the bowl for every pound of vegetable. For corn, keep the husk on to prevent moisture loss. Microwave cooking times can vary greatly. Generally, firmer vegetables, such as beets or turnips, take longer to cook than softer, moister vegetables, such as broccoli. Microwave for 1 to 3 minutes; each minute after, check with a fork to determine when vegetables are tender.
Grilling. Put mixed, chopped vegetables in foil with seasoning and butter or place on a skewer. Put them on a section of the grill with low heat. If using a skewer, turn frequently to prevent burning.
Table 1. Selecting, Storing, and Preparing Fresh Vegetables
1 Some items usually sold whole
2 Average serving = 1/2 cup
|Vegetable 1||Signs of Good Quality||Optimum Storage Temperature||Approximate Amount to Buy 2 2 servings||Approximate Amount to Buy 2 6 servings||Cooking Preparation|
|Asparagus||Fresh, firm; green portion tender.||Refrigerate||3 to 14 oz.||2 1/2 lb.||Break off woody end; remove scales.|
|Beans, Lima, in pod||Pods full and green; no mold or mildew.||Refrigerate||14 to 15 oz.||2 3/4 lb.||Shell.|
|Beans, Snap||Fresh, firm but tender crisp; no scars.||Cool, but above 45 degrees F||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.||Remove strings; leave whole or break.|
|Beets||Smooth, firm; medium size.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb. (without tops) 13 to 14 oz (with tops)||1 1⁄2 lb. (without tops) 2 1⁄2 lb. (with tops)||Leave whole with skin, root, and 2 inches of stem intact.|
|Broccoli; Raw||Fresh, clean; clusters compact; deep color; stems, branches tender.||Refrigerate||6 to 7 oz.||1 1⁄4 lb.||Remove outer leaves and woody stems; split smaller stems.|
|Broccoli; Cooked||Fresh, clean; clusters compact; deep color; stems, branches tender.||Refrigerate||10 to 11 oz.||2 lb.||Remove outer leaves and woody stems; split smaller stems.|
|Brussels Sprouts||Firm, compact; good green color.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.||Remove outer leaves, leave whole; split large, compact heads.|
|Cabbage; Raw||Reasonably firm; heavy for size; close trim.||Refrigerate||6 oz.||1 lb.||Remove outer leaves and stalk; shred or cut in wedges.|
|Cabbage; Cooked||Reasonably firm; heavy for size; close trim.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb. (wedges) 6 to 7 oz.||1 1⁄2 lb. (wedges) 1 1⁄4 lb. (shredded)||Remove outer leaves and stalk; shred or cut in wedges.|
|Carrots; Raw and Cooked||Firm, fresh, well-shaped, smooth.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.||Pare; leave whole or cut.|
|Cauliflower||White or creamy; clean, firm; outer leaves compact, fresh.||Refrigerate||10 to 11 oz.||2 lb.||Remove leaves and woody stem; leave whole or separate into flowerets.|
|Celery; Raw||Fresh, crisp, clean; medium length; good heart formation.||Refrigerate||6 oz.||1 lb.||Trim leaves and end; cut into 1⁄2- to 3⁄4-inch pieces.|
|Celery; Cooked||Fresh, crisp, clean; medium length; good heart formation.||Refrigerate||6 to 7 oz.||1 1⁄4 lb.||Trim leaves and end; cut into 1⁄2- to 3⁄4-inch pieces.|
|Corn||Ears well-filled; kernels bright, plump, milky.||Refrigerate||1 lb. (in husks)||3 lb. (in husks)||Remove husk; leave on or cut off cob.|
|Cucumbers||Firm, fresh, bright, well- shaped.||Cool, but above 45 degrees F||1 (medium)||3 (medium)|
|Eggplant||Firm, heavy for size, no cuts, uniform dark color.||Cool, but above 45 degrees F||6 to 7 oz.||1 1⁄4 lb.||Pare if skin is tough; cut into 1⁄2-inch slices.|
|Greens||Fresh, young, tender.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.||Cut off roots.|
|Lettuce; Head (Iceberg)||Clean, crisp, tender; well-shaped heads, fairly firm, no discoloration.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.|
|Lettuce; Leaf (Romaine, Endive, Escarole)||Clean, fresh, tender; no discoloration.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.|
|Mushrooms||Clean, fresh; white to creamy; no open caps; no discoloration.||Refrigerate||10 to 11 oz.||2 lb.||Cut off stem tips; leave whole or slice.|
|Okra||Young, tender, fresh, clean; 2 to 3 inches long.||Cool, but above 45 degrees F||6 to 7 oz.||1 1⁄4 lb.||Cut off stems; leave whole or slice.|
|Onions. Dry||Bright, clean, firm, well- shaped; skins dry.||Refrigerate, wrap in paper towel||6 to 7 oz.||1 1⁄4 lb.||Remove 2 outer layers; leave whole or cut up.|
|Parsnips||Smooth, clean, well-shaped; small to medium size.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.||Pare; leave whole or cut.|
|Peas; Shelled||Young, fresh, full; good color for variety.||Refrigerate||6 oz.||1 lb.||Shell.|
|Peas; In pod||Pods fresh, full; no mold, good color for variety.||Refrigerate||1 lb.||3 lb.|
|Peppers, Sweet (green)||Fresh, firm, thick fleshed; bright in appearance.||Cool, but above 45 degrees F||1 (medium)||3 (medium)|
|Potatoes, Sweet||Clean, smooth, firm, bright; medium size, well-shaped.||Cool, but above 55 degrees F||10 to 11 oz.||2 lb.||Remove woody portions. Cook with or without skins; whole, halved, or quartered.|
|Pumpkin||Heavy for size, no blemishes, hard rind.||Cool, but above 50 degrees F||1 lb.||3 lb.||Cut into small pieces, removing seeds.|
|Radishes||Well-formed, firm, crisp.||Refrigerate||2 oz.||6 oz.|
|Rutabagas||Heavy for size, smooth, firm.||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.||Pare; slice or cube.|
|Spinach||Clean, firm, well-shaped||Refrigerate||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.||Remove woody stems and roots.|
|Squash, Acorn; other hardshell||Hard rind; no decay or mold.||Cool, but above 55 degrees F||13 to 14 oz.||2 1⁄2 lb.||Remove rind if desired; cut into pieces.|
|Squash, White, Yellow, Zucchini||Fresh, tender, crisp; fairly heavy for size; no cuts.||Cool, but above 45 degrees F||1⁄2 lb.||1 1⁄2 lb.||Pare if desired; slice.|
|Tomatoes||Well-formed, firm, no soft spots; color uniform.||Cool, but above 45 degrees F||6 to 7 oz.||1 1⁄4 lb.||Leave whole.|
|Turnips||Heavy for size, smooth, firm.||Refrigerate||6 to 7 oz.||1 1⁄4 lb.||Pare, slice, or dice.|
Vegetable Seasons in Alabama
+Harvested mid-July through November; sold year-round from storage
|Vegetable||Season Beginning and End||Peak Season|
|BELL PEPPERS||Early June - Late Oct.||Mid June - Late Sept.|
|CABBAGE||Early Apr - Mid July|
Early Sept - Late Oct
|Mid Apr - Early June |
Mid Sept - Mid Oct
|CANTALOUPES & OTHER SMALL MELONS||Mid June - Late Sept||Early July - Late Aug|
|CUCUMBERS (SLICERS, PICKLES)||Mid May - Mid Nov||Early June - Late June |
Mid Sept - Mid Sept
|EGGPLANT||Mid May - Mid Oct||Mid June - Early Sept|
|GREENS (KALE, MUSTARD, COLLARDS, TURNIP GREENS)||Early Jan - Late Dec||Early Feb - Late June |
Early Aug - Late Dec
|IRISH POTATOES||Mid May - Late Aug||Early June - Early Aug|
|LIMA BEANS||Mid June - Late Oct||Early July - Late Sept|
|OKRA||Mid June - Mid Oct||Early July - Late Sept|
|PUMPKINS & WINTER SQUASH||Early Sept - Mid Nov||Early Oct - Late Oct|
|SNAP BEANS||Early May - Mid Oct||Mid May - Mid June |
Early July - Late Sept
|SOUTHERNPEAS||Mid May - Late Oct||Early June - Early Sept|
|SUMMER SQUASH (YELLOW SQUASH, ZUCCHINI)||Early Apr - Mid Oct||Early May - Early Sept|
|SWEET CORN||Early June - Late Sept||Mid June - Late July|
|SWEETPOTATOES+||Early Jan - Late Dec||Mid June - Late Nov|
|TOMATOES||Early June - Late Oct||Mid June - Mid Oct|
|WATERMELONS||Mid June - Late Sept||Late June. - Late Aug|