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“Buy seasonal produce” is a common refrain. For one simple reason: when in season, vegetables taste better, have a higher nutrient content and, last but not least, they cost less. So the first simple rule is: find out what grows well in your local area. The question may seem banal, but do you know the names of at least five winter vegetables? Well done, if you do. Until the end of February, we should be able to find broccoli, cabbage of various types, cauliflower, cardoon, carrot, Swiss chard, chicory, turnip tops, fennel, leek, various varieties of radicchio, pumpkin, spinach and beetroot in all well-stocked European marketplaces.
The most effective way to start is to take a good look at the produce: vegetable colours should be bright and shiny, while dark spots and little holes on the surface are very bad signs. Firmness is also a fundamental element: wrinkles are a sign of age, as they are in human beings. Another important tip to bear in mind when looking for nice fresh vegetables is the “edge theory” which applies to all ingredients, but is infallible in the case of vegetable produce: when any ingredient is old, it will start to deteriorate from the outer edges before the other areas are affected.
When buying vegetables, remember that:
- Organic is a safe choice because almost all countries prohibit the use of preservatives in organically farmed produce.
- A good vegetable need not necessarily be perfect in appearance: an irregular shape proves that it has not undergone a particular selection or manipulation to give it market appeal and is often indicative of a better flavour.
- Avoid lettuces or leaf vegetables that seem smaller than normal: very probably their outer leaves have been removed to conceal lack of freshness or blemishes.
Now let’s consider some particular types of winter vegetables:
- Carrots. Always choose those with leafy green tops: as well as turning black, the older ones have wilting tops.
- Broccoletti. When they are past their best, their bud clusters turn yellowish: this means they are about to flower and the same applies to Brussels sprouts. Cabbage, which belongs to the same family, darkens on the surface when old.
- Spinach. Rich in iron and lutein, it is one of the most alkaline foods and therefore useful for regulating body pH. Its gradually loses these properties along with its freshness: so look for an intensely bright green colour, crisp fleshy leaves, stalks that are intact and no sign of yellowy bits. Don’t store spinach for more than three days.
- Potatoes. Be wary of potatoes that are too clean: we know nothing of industrial cleaning processes and earth is a sign of genuineness. The outer surface must be spotless, firm and above all devoid of shoots: otherwise the potato will develop “solanine” an alkaloid substance that is poisonous in concentrations exceeding 400 mg per kilo of potatoes.
- Artichokes. Whether the artichoke has thorns or not, its leaves should be tightly closed and its head firm and blemish-free. Smaller ones are to be preferred for their tenderness. An interior choke that is excessively fuzzy denotes a lack of freshness.
A final piece of advice: there is no point in going out of our way to buy spanking fresh vegetables if we let them go mouldy in the fridge. Any more than two days in the house and they will start to wilt. But if they do, revive them by spraying with icy water and they will look presentable once more.