Not all produce is created equal.
I got a first whiff of this truth as a teenager, traveling in Italy. I noticed the pasta sauces and watermelons there popped with much more flavor than those I was accustomed to in North America. In my 20s, I started reading chefs like Alice Waters and Nigel Slater (my favorite)who made a persuasive case for eating in tune with the seasons — not only to get more variety, but also because eating seasonally will inevitably drive you to local markets, where you can buy from small farmers who take farming, and flavor, quite seriously.
Much of standard produce — the apples, tomatoes, and bananas sold year-round in grocery stores — is bred and selected for size and durability on long journeys, not flavor, as I recently learned. The farmers who supply big supermarkets have to prioritize quantity over quality. And as Mark Schatzker’s fascinating book The Dorito Effect explains, among other things, fresh food produced on a small scale tends to be more nutrient-dense and taste better.
Yet many of us go to grocery stores on autopilot. We pick our apples and tomatoes for color or shape, and because they’re dependable — they’re always there in the produce aisle, no matter the weather outside. But we ignore how far they’ve traveled and whether it’s the peak of their season. And often, they disappoint us.
There is a better way.
I talked to farmers and people who purchase produce for chefs and specialty markets about what’s in season now (for March, April, and May). These people are pros at picking the most flavorful of the bunch, supplying kitchens in America that turn out five-star dishes. Here’s what they told me.
The quest for the best produce should involve shopping in farmers markets wherever possible.
„The fresher the produce is, the better it tastes,“ said Bob Harrington, president of Specialty Produce, which supplies hundreds of restaurants and hotels in California.
He suggested starting a conversation with farmers to learn about when certain fruits and vegetables would peak in flavor and what produce is in its prime today. After all, that’s how top chefs plan their menus.
Smaller growers who sell at these markets also tend to plant varieties that have better flavor, said Lee Jones, a farmer who Vox’s Eliza Barclay claims grows the most pampered vegetables in America. „If you think about it from a commercial standpoint, you want the biggest berry you can find. In America, more people are picking foods for flavor, not yield.“ People who run small farms tend to focus more on how the food tastes than on how big it is or how well it ships — better for the consumer.
But even if shopping in farmers markets isn’t possible, there are little tricks you can use to find the best of the bunch in the grocery store.
First things first: „When buying produce, use all senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch,“ saidNathan Bochler, a former executive chef who now works for Specialty Produce. For example, „When selecting artichokes, grab the flower — the compact head — and slowly squeeze it. You should hear it squeak.“ That’s a sign of freshness. Pick things up, smell them, squeeze them. When it comes to vegetables, firmness is usually a good thing, denoting freshness and crunchiness.
Don’t forget to taste: Pinch off leaves of arugula or taste a strawberry whenever it’s appropriate. (Many farmers markets will encourage you to do this.) The dishes you take time to create will be the better for it.
Day of the week matters, too. Ask your local grocery store about when its shipments come in. „Saturday tends to be a great day to do produce shopping,“ said Harrington. „The stores know they’ll be the busiest that day, so they plan for that and have the most produce available.“ By Monday or Tuesday, the produce may not be as fresh.
There are times when you go to the grocery store and your asparagus is going to be shipped from Peru or your strawberries from Mexico. But that’s why you want to try to find out what’s coming from closer to home now, so you can get whatever’s the freshest.
„What we should really do is try to tune in to what is in season,“ said Jones. „Because produce is available 12 months a year from everywhere, we lose touch of when things are coming in.“
Try to look for beets and carrots with the green leafy tops still attached. „When the green top on a carrot is still there, that means it wasn’t picked more than a few days ago,“ says Patrick Ahern, produce buyer for Baldor, which supplies restaurants and hotels in New York City. He also looks at the quality of the greens, paying attention to how wilted they are. „A lot of our top chefs in the city will demand a bunch of carrots — no bags.“
Pay attention to size. Uniformly, these specialists all said smaller is often better when it comes to flavor. Smaller leeks, smaller beets, smaller carrots — they all taste sweeter and more tender.
The tops and bottoms of fruits can also be revealing. When buying leeks, for example, look for the ones that don’t have their pointy tops cut to a uniform shape. They’re harder to come by but it means they weren’t chopped to fit into a crate, said Jones, so they better retain their moisture (and flavor). If the tops of asparagus look loose and the bottoms appear dried, you may want to skip them too.