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How did you learn to pick out produce?

The thread about trusting others to go to the grocery store for you got me thinking. When I have had to (health issues) ask people to shop for me produce has been the most difficult item to deal with. While I know what a "nice" tomato is I've learned most don't! :-)

The point really hit home at Thanksgiving. My sister had requested my help. We were shopping several days ahead and she grabbed a package of mushrooms. They were presliced and already looking over the hill. I told her there was no way these would last and that I would look for them elsewhere. She looked at me quizzically. I asked if she was interested in why, she said yes and we had a mini mushroom lesson. It was funny - several shoppers listened in - even the produce girl!

I do have more interest in food than my sister. I guess I largely taught myself how to choose produce. I observe, make mental comparisons, read and ask questions. But a certain amount just seems to be innate. Ripe plantains seem to be one of the few counter-intuitive items I buy.

How did you learn?

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  1. As a small, little child....from my mother when i was 4-5 years old. To this day I still hand pick every Green String Bean to make sure there are not any blemishes and they are all similar in size and length, just like she taught me. It drives the Korean owner crazy when he sees me....I do the same with every other vegetable...but the String Beans reminds me of shopping with my Mom.

    It requires more time to shop....but it's worth it just for the memories and the quality of the produce.

    1. I had a chance run in with our produce guy. He offered to help me pick out a papaya. Next time I was there, he asked how it was, btw, it was perfect, and proceeded to show me how to pick out other items. Thank you shoprite produce man

      1. Trial and error. As a kid I wasn't involved in shopping for or preparing food at all. It became more intuitive as I became a vegetarian, I'm not sure why.

        1. From a variety of relatives, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins.

          The most fun was going with my grandfather to the auction in Roseville CA. Watching the vendors faces when he pulled out his pocket knife to slice open an apple or plug a watermelon. This was always done after the appropriate squeezing, thumping, etc. He wouldn't cut unless he intended to buy, but occasionally he would find a piece of fruit that had been stored too cold, stored too long, or whatever. He was never shy about telling the vendor about his disappointment, and most of them took it well.

          I can't imagine walking into Safeway and starting to slice apart the produce. I'd probably be escorted out wearing nice shiny silver bracelets.

          1. [(trial and error + parental guidance) / asking for help ] x patience = how I learned to pick out produce.

            1. #1 shopping with Mom
              #2 there was a guy who did a feature on the local news at night "Joe Carcione, your greengrocer" and he'd talk about some seasonal fruit or veg and how to pick a good one

              This is a constant source of frustration for me if I need DH to pick up produce for me, he seems to only look at the surface facing up, so many times I find bananas that are half rotten/black in our fruit bowl. Only item he is trusted with is avocado.

              2 Replies
              1. re: BeeZee

                As a kid, I always looked forward to watching tony tantillo's segment on the CBS NY news!

                1. re: BeeZee

                  Joe had some good info. Unfortunately, I got it second hand.

                  Eventually I have learned to look and to smell. Look at stems and leaf spots. Smell melons, tomatoes, pineapples, peaches...

                2. I started out by watching and learning from my mother but then developed my own habits by trial and error and reading up on certain things.
                  One thing I learned not to do over the years is obsess about things. Mother nature is far from perfect and just because something does not look great on the outside does not mean it is bad. The one poster who posted about picking out blemish-free and uniform-size green beans used to be me. It was difficult at first to let these habits go, but once I did it was liberating and I realized there was not much difference as long as I shopped at reputable grocers that stocked fresh produce.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: ttoommyy

                    You should see me shopping for meat.....and undented cans.

                    : 0 )

                    1. re: fourunder

                      I have to admit I'm a dent-free can seeker myself. And yes, learned it from my mother. :)

                    1. From watching the movie "Animal House", just kidding.
                      I am self taught and pass it on to anyone who will listen.
                      Long thin eggplant will have fewer seeds. The same with cucumbers. Tomatoes in season are easy, out of season almost impossible.
                      I've figured out how to "thunk" melons to know if they are ripe and not too ripe and on and on.. Experience.

                      1. Mostly from watching my mom and grandmother, and little bit from reading cookbooks and online (for produce that was not available in the stores I grew up with).

                        I always assumed it was the same for everyone else, but do wonder sometimes. I live in a college town, and it's pretty common to find 19-20 year old students staring at the bananas or apples with bewildered looks. Depending on my mood, I will offer to help.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: mpjmph

                          I recently heard a college student exclaim to a friend, look - green bananas. I wonder if thats a special variety?

                            1. re: KaimukiMan

                              After my stress test my cardiologist said: "Don't buy green bananas"

                          1. from my mother and grandmother - helping them pick what was ripe from their gardens.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: jujuthomas

                              Nice memories, jujuthomas. I remember my mother pulling off ripe and unripe tomatoes from the vine and giving me tastes of each. Wish we could have grown avocadoes--I still have a 50/50 chance of getting good ones!

                              1. re: pine time

                                so many good memories Pine Time, I miss those bags of produce we picked and froze for the winter, beans, corn, blueberries... as well as the jars of relishes and sauces my mother and grandmother made. my mother still gardens, but on a much smaller scale.

                            2. Learned as a kid, by grocery shopping with my Dad every week. As new produce items were introduced in stores, I picked up many pointers from Produce Pete on the local news.

                              1. Growing up with a lot of gardens and lots of fresh produce; we seldom bought anything that was in season, because either we'd grow it, Grandpa Owen grew it, or a neighbor dropped off a box or bag full. Picked a lot too; I remember wondering how fresh green beans could be so good and canned ones so lousy. I started shopping seriously for produce when I moved to Tennessee - my only real consolation for the ghastly sticky summers were the tomatoes, green beans, and especially the different kinds of field peas. I miss the heck out of those here in SoCal; I have to make do with the few kinds that come frozen.

                                1. My claim to fame is being able to pick out good mangoes, from having grown up on a property with mango trees. All I need is a whiff.

                                  The smell of one that is just right is like perfume to me, "Oh yeah, you want that mango."

                                  1. My Father wasn't keen on vegetables. The few he liked he preferred canned. I never went grocery shopping with my Mother once I was old enough to pay attention.

                                    Once I moved out I had a lot of exploring to do! Kind of envious of those of you who gained the wisdom from a relative, especially while gardening.

                                    1. My grandparents were farmers so I had lots of opportunity to see how things grew and how they were supposed to be....when I got older and got into food, I researched and used trial and error. Now, I grow a garden every year and on the other end of the scale, I like to go through discounted veggies & fruit at the grocer's knowing (and explaining to others) that a bruised orange or apples can be used for zesting, juicing or making a cobbler. My green beans don't have to be spotless; they can be used in a soup or with a sauce and be just as tasty as perfect looking beans....It's not always about the cosmetics

                                      1. Just like a previous post I was lucky enough to grow up in an area with a plethora of good fresh produce. My grandfather always had a sizable garden so we often were picking fresh. At the time we also had some large truck farms in our area where we could get fresh produce.

                                        One thing we did not grow was pineapple. about a year ago at our local HEB the produce manager told me how to pick a good fresh pineapple and I thank him since I have been enjoying fresh, sweet pineapple since.

                                        1. I learned to shop for produce by smell and touch, rather than by sight, which doesn't seem as important (mushrooms and green beans notwithstanding!).

                                          I learned that when apples smell like apples, they will be either mealy or too sweet. If melons don't smell like anything, they will be sour or watery. Pineapples should smell like they taste. Grapes should smell perfumey, especially green grapes. Onions and garlic should have a faint scent--if they are too strong, there's some rot starting. Arugula (rocket) should smell like a very peppery skunk.

                                          Avocados should be uniformly soft/firm--no mushy or hard spots. Satsumas and clementines should feel loose in their skins. Eggplants should feel firm, with tight skins and no soft spots. Ditto for peppers.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Isolda

                                            +1 on pineapples (and canteloupe and mangoes) -- my produce folks do an awesome job of picking out perfectly ripe fruit and veg for me, but they know that I will smell these three in particular, and if I'm not in love with the smell, I won't buy them.

                                            (I can tell my vendor that I want a melon for dinner tonight, and two melons for Saturday...and they'll be perfect. But I'll still sniff the one for tonight)

                                          2. As many before me have stated I was taught by my mother and
                                            local fruit stores in the South Bronx and Washington Heights,Manhattan.

                                            Also Balducci's and Fairway, in NYC before they became popular

                                            1. I started by learning from my father. We were in the restaurant business, and we would frequently need to pick up produce before we opened for the day. Later in life, I used trial and error.

                                              1. If Jacques Pepin had been wheeling his cart through the procuce section, he'd have preached a different sermon. On his shows, he has more than once pointed out that the button mushroom (which he thinks is underrated and has more flavor than many exotic types) tastes best if it is developing soft spots and the gills have opened. He says he specifically looks for the marked-down, over-the-hill packages.

                                                I learned from my mother, TV cooks, and books. If I see someone selecting a variety with which I am unfamiliar, looking like they know what they're doing, I ask how they prepare it and what to look for when choosing it. Most people are happy to share their experience. If I see someone making a really bad choice, I'll politely speak up, though often I am met with blank stares. One example was a woman with two grade school age kids in tow, filling a bag with rock-hard green peaches. Chances are she wants her kids to eat fresh fruit and these will turn them off because they will never ripen.

                                                Another thread on produce selection: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/784571

                                                1. We had a large garden growing up and I learned what good fruits and veggies are because I had to know when they were ripe to harvest them.

                                                  1. I grew up with a father who gardened, so I learned early what really good produce tastes and looks like. Other things I learned by experience, or by reasoning (bruised fruit is going to go bad faster, for example).

                                                    It's not just by looking at stuff, either. I know that if I buy some types of fruit outside of their season and growing zone, I will be disappointed, no matter how nice they look. I only buy cherries in a cherry growing area, in season, because otherwise they taste like nothing. Pineapples bought in non tropical areas make my lips hurt. And so on.

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                                      Even as a little kid I had a really full-on awareness of the relationship between taste and smell.
                                                      I don't remember learning from anyone, it just always seemed obvious to me.
                                                      People sometimes looked at me funny, sniffing all sorts of random things...
                                                      Then I became a chef, and-oh joy-discovered there's a whole profession populated by nectarine and cheese sniffers!

                                                      1. re: pippimac

                                                        it's such a bummer, then when you get strawberries (for example) that *smell* fabulous but are lacking in flavor....

                                                        ...and such a nice surprise when you get some that don't have much smell but have great flavor.

                                                    2. From going to the markets and grocers frequently - getting to know the grocers, getting tips from them.