Health & Fitness

If you haven’t eaten vegetables and fruits plucked fresh and ripe right off the face of the earth, you haven’t tasted great produce. Their flavors knock the skins off most supermarket produce, they are often more nutritious than store-bought produce, and you can’t beat the price of a vegetable or fruit you picked yourself, dragged kicking and screaming back to your kitchen, carved up mercilessly, and cooked or eaten raw minutes after it was swinging in the breeze by its umbilicus. Just as when we walk into a house where bread is being baked, the delightful aroma is obvious when we walk into a home where still-kicking produce is being chopped up.

Although the best source of superior fruit and vegetable flavor, freshness, and nutrition is a few acres of quality garden and orchard in your back yard, most of us don’t have the space, knowledge, and time for that. So let’s consider the next best source ... maybe the best source ... of fresh produce, one that’s a heck of a lot easier than growing your own.

Many nutrients oxidize rapidly after produce is disconnected from the earth. Freezing and canning stabilize most nutrients, so frozen and canned produce, in that order, can be more nutritious than produce picked green days or weeks ago and ripened artificially. This is common in supermarkets, and many commercial “fruit stands” do the same. Just because you bought that peach or squash from a rickety table under a tent beside State Road 3984 between Outback and Hayseed don’t mean it was swingin’ on a tree or vine yesterday. It may have been picked green long ago on the other side of the continent or even the other side of an ocean.

In the case of supermarkets, this is not meant to be deceptive. It’s the only way they can obtain the quantity and variety of produce they bring us, often even when it’s way out of season locally. Some roadside stands buy the same way, sort of like the “Factory Outlet” malls that sell clothing and hard goods manufactured especially for those “outlets”. It’s not substandard, it’s just not as fresh, tasty, or nutritious as produce plucked yesterday.

Gee, doesn’t that make it ... substandard? Well, not if it means we can buy pretty good strawberries eight months out of the year, great bananas 24/7, and striated blue pepperpeaches from the Gamma Quadrant all summer in the supermarket. But when you compare factory-ripened produce (it’s usually infused with gasses that accelerate the ripening process and enhance the color) with fresh, local, vine-ripened rabbit food, there is no comparison. Did you know that strawberries picked ripe are actually sweet, unlike those tart, flavorless things you usually find in chain supermarkets?

So if fresh is best and we don’t have our own private garden, orchard, and horticulturist, where are we supposed to get this great stuff? The title of this month’s column is a hint; start there and ask your healthier-looking friends. Once you find a genuine farmers’ market (FM) or roadside stand full of local produce picked ripe in the last few days and rushed to market, you’re in for some treats. The farmers have culled and pampered ripe produce to bring you the freshest food available outside your own garden, so it may not be any cheaper than the green-picked produce common at supermarkets or commercial “fruit stands”, but it’s ahead by two small steps in nutrition and one giant leap in flavor.

As an example, our local newspaper ran an article on local freestone peaches. The local orchards had long ago sold much of their unripened commercial crop to canners and supermarket chains, but always save a large segment to ripen on the trees for the local market. Ripe peaches are very fragile, and tough to keep once off the tree, so there’s a risk taking them to market. But as long as the fresh, ripe, local crop lasts, we all but wash our hair in them. Truly fresh peaches are simply out of this world. You just run a knife around the pit to split the peach in half, twist it open like an Oreo cookie, flip out the pit, and start eating. It’s easier than eating a banana!

The classic FM is some form of public gathering of several, maybe even dozens of, individual farmers, each presenting their choices of currently ripe fruits, vegetables, and nuts, plus maybe their privately canned goods and fresh breads. You may even find some county-fair-type food vendors in case you gotta show your pizza-scarfing, beer-bellied buds what a man you are. Besides, an occasional cinnamon-and-Bavarian-cream funnel cake won’t hurt us if we shop at a FM often ... I hope.

Most supermarket produce department employees are well trained, and cheerfully answer our questions thoroughly, but the farmers who grew the stuff usually know it even better. They offer recipes, subtle differences among cooking and eating varieties of produce, and advice on selection, short and long term storage, and cooking and canning, all garnered from years or even generations of living, breathing, growing, and eating their own bounty. Some FM even have county extension agent and master gardener booths to answer all our gardening and landscaping questions. All we have to do is drive to a FM or genuine local produce stand and sniff, sample, squeeze, ask, buy, and eat.

So what can you do with your bounty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, breads, and jams? You’re going to disperse them among the fridge, the freezer, the basement, the pantry, a windowsill, and paper bags, according to the storage advice you got from the farmer what grew ‘em, and you’re going to eat ‘em -- raw, baked, grilled, stir-fried, nuked, jellied, roasted, toasted, stewed, and sautéed. You’re going to toss slabs of peppers, sweet onions, potatoes, etc. on the grill with your salmon, chicken, or steak. Pile five kinds of fruit on your bowl of cereal. Eat plums, peaches, nectarines, cherries (not too many of those, I hope), oranges, apples, and pears like candy, instead of candy, when you want a snack. Slice 10 kinds of vegetables and dump them in the hot stir-fry pan with a cup of stir-fry sauce as soon the shrimp or chicken is cooked, cook for another couple of minutes, and dive in. Tumble several kinds of sliced’n’diced veggies into lemon juice, some sugar to offset the lemon’s bite, herbs, olive oil, and maybe some no-fat ersatz butter and nuke it ‘til it’s hot and tender (not cooked, just tender), and crunch it down with your favorite low-fat meat. Make jam, cobbler, pies, syrups, cakes, soups, stews, salsa, shish kabob, salads, lasagna, sandwiches (ever try an inch of live beefsteak tomato ... no B, no L, just fresh live T ... between two slabs of dense bread? WOW!), soufflés (e.g., sweet potato, squash), omelets, malted milk (a pumpkin-cinnamon malt will roll up your sweet tooth like a flapping widow shade), stuffing, casseroles, glazes, sauces, wines, ...

Our local FM brings together at least 20 farms every Saturday from May through November, and it pays to get there at least once a month, sometimes weekly when some of our most fleeting favorites show up. We’ve hardly opened a can of vegetables since discovering it, and my daily bowl of cereal look like an orchard exploded in the middle of a wheat field. Chilled, slathered in fresh FM honey and drowned in icy milk, the whole two-to-three-pound heap tastes like it came from Baskin & Robbins. If this is health food, throw me in that brier patch anytime! Pass the chocolate syrup, please!

When a restaurant waitress serves my entrée and says, “Enjoy”, I reserve the right to reserve judgment until the last burp. But when the farmer’s daughter says, “Now remember to sprinkle this with cilantro ... I think Joe three tables down just picked his yesterday ... add some of Sally’s chile peppers over there – she has a great crop of poblanos this fall ... bake it at 315 degrees for 22 minutes and serve it with some of Miguel’s salsa”, I am already drooling.

The food sounds great, too. ;-)