Take me, for instance, and my ignorance about choosing ripe fruit. I should have learned how, having grown up around people who really knew produce.
If I hadn’t been so busy with other matters (boys, mostly), I could have learned from the combined wisdom of so many: My father, who had a fruit and vegetable business when I was little and always knew how to pick good fruit; My mother who grew up above her parent’s Italian grocery and had the same know-how; my Uncle Louis, who peddled produce, summers, from an open-sided truck and knows his fruit.
And, foremost, in my ancestral line of knowledgeable produce forebears: my Grandma Tina, who left the house in the dark to walk her produce to market down a mountain path in southern Italy several times a week.
Yes: When I reached for a piece of fruit growing up, it was ripe and fantastic. But I’d gotten to the point, recently, where I was becoming averse to buying fruit because I hated spending all that money on it and then biting into something mealy, hard, or sour. But I love fruit so much, I had to do something.
So, where better to go to learn how to choose ripe fruit than the Fruit Center, which opened in 1973 with a commitment to selling good produce. The family-run business, which has stores in Hingham and Milton, has grown over the years to be a very good grocery with specialty items of all sorts.
“We’re fruit nerds, you can ask us anything,” said Joey Sullivan, produce supervisor at the Hingham store.
Here are some tips I got from Sullivan on how to choose good fruit that are helping me make much better choices:
Best tip (unless you’re shy): Ask the experts.
Shop in a place where the buyers go to the big Boston wholesale markets daily and ask the guys in the department what’s good. There are many factors that affect fruit that only a buyer who went to the market and tasted the fruit will know. (The Fruit Center’s produce buyer, Steve DiGiusto, has been going to the market five days a week for 30 years. Sullivan often goes with him, leaving the house at 4 a.m.)
“We cut and taste all morning,” said Sullivan.
Reputable markets will also know how to choose the “best eating” varieties of a particular fruit. For instance, according to Sullivan, two of the most commonly available mango varieties – Kent and Tommy Atkins, outwardly are indistinguishable, but are completely different.
“The Tommy Atkins looks good, but it doesn’t eat as good, it’s stringy where the Kent is creamy. Always ask,” said Sullivan.
A good market will also store its fruit well, which is essential. (More on that below.)
Learn which fruits ripen after being picked, and which don’t.
Apples, citrus, grapes, berries, and watermelons are picked ripe and will not ripen further. On the other hand, cantaloupes, casabas, honeydews, peaches, nectarines, plums, avocados, bananas, and pineapples ripen after they’re picked -- as long as they’re not cut into. (Unfortunately, fruit needs to be picked green so that it can withstand being transported to market.)
Learn how to handle fruits that do ripen after being picked.
“As fruit ripens it gets uglier,” said Sullivan, while handling some cantaloupes. “See how hard and greenish-white the skin is here, and how yellowy this one is?” said Sullivan, comparing two cantaloupes (see photo: ripe on left, unripe on right, inside and out). When melons are ripe, they will soften slightly and yield to gentle pressure, too. Same with peaches.
Learn how to handle fruit once you’ve purchased it.
Most fruit that ripens ripens at room temperature and even faster in a warmer place – Sullivan uses the top of his refrigerator for force ripening. In the cold of the refrigerator, the ripening process drastically slows. (Note: bananas and avocados do not like the cold.)
Because of all this, you can’t just buy a bag of peaches, dump them in a bowl on the counter, then wonder why they’re not great. It takes more managing than that.
Nor can you stash a bag of fruit in a hot car for six hours and expect it to be good. (I never knew that overripe peaches get mealy even before it becomes obvious that they’re past their prime.)
Sullivan recommends putting a few peaches (or other fruits) on the counter to ripen and storing the rest in the refrigerator. Continue to remove a couple pieces at a time for countertop ripening -- depending on how fast they’re getting eaten. And, after a fruit has ripened on the counter, put it back in the refrigerator, to preserve it.
“I’m a firm believer in ripening fruit on the counter then putting it in the fridge to put it on hold,” said Sullivan. “If you buy seven peaches, bring out two pieces until you eat them, then bring out some more.”
Find out what’s local and in season.
Here on the South Shore, strawberries have already come and gone.
“Soon, we’ll have New Jersey blueberries, then native blueberries,” said Sullivan. “Native peaches? Late July, early August. Ask us. Just ask us.”
For more information, visit fruitcentermarketplace.com
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