The F.N. Sharp Guide to Cooking With Fresh Produce
Eat your vegetables! This is the golden rule we have all been taught since we were little kids. But how many of us have been following this advice as adults?
Doctors and nutritionists also tell us if we want to be really healthy, we’ve got to eat at least five daily servings of fresh produce, which is low in calories and fat but high in important vitamins, minerals and enzymes.
If you’re used to eating things that come in boxes or shiny packaging, keep reading to get the full scoop, or slice, of adding fresh produce to your meals.
What is Fresh Produce, Exactly?
When we talk about fresh produce, what are we talking about exactly? Well, produce really consists of:
- Vegetables – These were the things your mom tried to force you to eat or hide in the meatloaf.
- Fruits – Natures version of candy, sweet and juicy, you’ve never had a problem eating these.
- Herbs and Spices – No one below the age of 27 really knows what herbs or spices are or uses them in cooking (unless they’re chefs). But once you hit that golden age, you start throwing the words cilantro and turmeric around like a pro.
Now that you know the three categories that make up produce, let’s take a deep dive into each one.
The Fresh Vegetable Guide
When you think vegetables, do you think dark leafy greens and corn? Well, there are a lot more vegetables out there than you may even be aware of. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of vegetables so you stop embarrassing yourself at Whole Foods.
Bulb vegetables grow partly underground, with a shoot growing above ground. With these vegetables, we primarily eat the bulb and not the shoot. Examples include onions, scallions (green onions), water chestnuts, chives, leeks, and garlic.
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Many vegetable plants flower to produce the edible part. These veggie plants require pollination to bear “fruit.” Some examples of flowering vegetable plants are:
- Crucifers and Brassicas – These are the veggies you probably hated as a child. You know, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and artichokes. There are also the Asian vegetables such as bok choy, daikon and Napa cabbage.
- Solanaceous vegetables – You probably know this group’s other name – the nightshade plants. These include tomato, pepper, eggplant, and tomatillo.
- Legumes – This group includes edible beans, peas, peanuts (yes, peanuts are actually a legume), and forage crops such as alfalfa.
- Cucurbits – These veggies grow on vines and include cucumbers and squashes – speaking of squash, this sausage stuffed delicata squash is divine! Technically, the veggies in this group are fruits (just like tomatoes) because they produce seeds on the inside.
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Hopefully no mycologists are reading this article, as these scientists who study mushrooms would know that mushrooms are not technically plants, even though they are classified as vegetables in the food world.
Mushrooms belong to the fungi kingdom and, love them or hate them, they are packed with some very beneficial nutrients like antioxidants, selenium and vitamin D. Some of the most common edible mushrooms are:
- Hen of the Woods
- Lion’s Mane
- Portobello/Button/Cremini Mushrooms (many people don’t know that the common button mushroom and the cremini mushrooms are really a type of portobello)
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Dark leafy greens really are nutritional powerhouses, which is why we are all constantly told to eat them, juice them, or blend them into a smoothie. Veggies in this group include lettuces (romaine, arugula, butter), kale, mustard greens, collard greens, spinach, swiss chard and dandelion greens.
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Many root vegetables provide significant amounts of nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and dietary fiber. Think beets, carrots, yams, jicama, rutabaga parsnip, radishes and turnips.
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Seeds are also considered nutritional powerhouses, and that’s because they contain all of the necessary materials to develop into complex plants. Seeds are especially beneficial when sprouted first. Some tasty and nutritious seeds to add to your meals are flax, fennel, chia, hemp, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower.
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Getting a little technical here, stem vegetables are food plants from which edible botanical stems are harvested for use in food preparation. Think asparagus and bamboo.
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How to Choose and Cut Fresh Vegetables
Now that you know more about vegetables than the average Joe, it’s time to expand your knowledge so you can shop, slice and dice like a pro.
How to Choose Fresh Veggies
Are you the type of person who feels a bit out of your element when standing in the produce section? Do you pick various vegetables up and pretend to sniff them, as you’ve seen people do on TV? But at the end of the day, you have no clue what you’re really smelling for?
Fear not. There are a few simple rules to selecting veggies and, once you understand these, you’ll look like a pro.
Rule #1: Go Seasonal
To get the absolute best, most flavorful vegetables that are packed with nutrients, you’ll want to shop local and go seasonal. This means you are not buying asparagus from Peru in January. Selecting only vegetables that are actually in season locally is how nature intended us to eat.
Rule #2: Don’t Be Too Judgmental
We treat our produce like it’s something to be entered into a beauty pageant. Just because it’s huge and really shiny doesn’t mean it’s going to taste all that great. In reality, medium-sized veggies that aren’t perfectly perfect can often be your best bet taste-wise. And don’t be a snob and ignore those veggies with a few speckles or brown spots. Those are a sign the produce was grown as naturally as possible.
Rule 3: Use Your Sense of Touch
If you’ve heard you should gently squeeze produce, you’ve heard right. When selecting tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and the like, firm is definitely better. Green leafy veggies shouldn’t be wilted but also firm and crisp. Also, try to get a sense of weight with certain veggies like eggplants and zucchini, because the more water content, the heavier the vegetable.
Rule 4: Smell Those Veggies
So all of those times you smelled your produce, what were you smelling for? If you didn’t know, it was the scent of the actual thing you held. While it’s easy to recognize the smell of many fruits like peaches and cantaloupe, vegetables have their own aroma, and this is what you want to smell. Veggies that don’t have much of a scent are the ones that aren’t that fresh.
How to Cut Fresh Veggies
First, let's talk veggie-cutting tools. To cut your veggies the right way, and without getting hurt, you need the right knife. Here are just a few to consider when prepping your fresh produce:
- The Chef’s Knife: great for slicing, dicing, and mincing most types of veggies, especially good for dense veggies like butternut squash due to the knife’s hefty heel.
- The Santoku Knife: great for slicing, dicing and mincing veggies that require precise, uniform cuts.
- The Paring Knife: great for delicate, in-hand work like peeling, segmenting and trimming, as well as slicing small ingredients (like garlic).
- The Utility Knife: great for mid-sized veggies, like tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, etc.
When it comes to cutting your fresh veggies, you have a few different options of fancy cuts (that’s actually what they’re called). To understand how you should be cutting your vegetables, consider what type of veggie it is and how you plan on using it, whether it's for a raw plate, salad or garnish, or to be cooked into a dish.
Julienne and jardinière stick cuts are some of the most common ways to cut veggies such as bell peppers, carrots, potatoes and zucchini. These cuts get your veggies into thin, uniform strip pieces that average about 2 to 3 inches long. The julienne slices are thinner. These cuts are great when making a veggie dip plate or a fancy salad.
A rough chop will get your veggies into roughly uniform 1- to 2-inch squares. You will usually use this style on carrots, onions and celery that you plan to cook with.
Diamond cuts, crinkle cuts and of course, chiffonade make you look like a boss in the kitchen. Here’s how to chiffonade and get ribbons: Take a few leaves of washed and dried Swiss chard (or any other leafy veggie or herb) and stack them on top of one another. Now roll the stack up from point to point so you get a fat roll. Take your chef’s knife and make very thin cuts along the roll. You should end up with long, thin ribbons of Swiss chard. Here’s a video that shows you the technique in action,
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The Fresh Fruit Guide
Fruit is obviously delicious, and most of us have been happily eating it since childhood. Fruit also happens to be good for us, as it’s loaded with beneficial nutrients like potassium, fiber, vitamin C and folate. But it’s easy to get stuck in a fruit rut by not venturing out and trying the different varieties, such as:
Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries are true signs that summer has arrived. But did you know that grapes, persimmon, papaya and pomegranate are also considered true berries?
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You know ‘em, you love ‘em, they’re citrus fruits like orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime. Loaded with vitamin C, they make breakfast and cocktails so much better.
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Melons are thought to have originated in Persia and actually belong to the gourd family and are divided into two groups: muskmelon and watermelon. Muskmelons include cantaloupe, honeydew and casabas. These are available locally late summer into fall. Watermelons, native to Africa, have less flavor than muskmelons, but that doesn’t make them NOT delicious, especially on a hot summer day.
Pome fruits have a center of several small seeds, surrounded by a tough membrane. They are harvested in late summer and early fall. Think apples, pears and quince.
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Stone fruits have one large seed or “pit” in the center. They can be sweet or a bit sour and have a smooth or fuzzy skin. Think peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots.
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Tropical fruits are some of the sweetest, juiciest fruits out there, except for the beloved banana, which is tropical but not juicy (If your banana is juicy, it is WAY too ripe). Other notable tropical fruits are mangos, pineapples, passionfruit, coconut, and lychee.
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Fruits Disguised as Vegetables
We’ve already covered some of these under the vegetable category, but let’s look at some of them again. Tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, cucumbers, avocado and eggplant are called vegetables, but they a formally fruits because they contain seeds. Whatever they are called, they are delicious and good for you, so you should eat more!
How to Choose and Cut Fresh Fruit
The same rules for choosing veggies apply to selecting the best fresh fruit. But let’s look at some of the most popular fruits for a few extra tips:
- Grapes – Take the package of grapes and look at the bottom of it. As grapes ripen, they fall off the bunch. So a bag with a lot of loose grapes at the bottom means the grapes are nice and ripe and sweet and juicy!
- Strawberries – The berries should be nice and firm and have just a slight scent. Too soft and too aromatic means they are heading past their prime.
- Citrus fruits – Should be firm with no soft spots, though a few surface scratches are fine. Also look for that nice fresh scent.
- Apples – Firm, heavy, nice smooth skin with no blemishes or soft spots.
- Melons – Press the top of the melon where the stem was. The softer that spot, the riper the melon is. Also, the stronger the sweet smell, the riper it is.
How to Cut Fresh Fruits
Let’s be honest, most of us don’t try to cut fruit so it looks pretty unless guests are coming over. Then we end up hacking a melon into something that looks like it should be placed in a plastic bag and taken outside.
The key to cutting fruit is having the right knife:
- The Chef’s Knife: multipurpose knife for slicing, dicing, and mincing, and great for the larger, dense fruits like melons.
- The Santoku Knife: multipurpose knife for precise slicing, dicing, mincing.
- The Paring Knife: great for peeling, trimming, segmenting, slicing and detailed work.
- The Utility Knife: great for mid-sized fruits and especially for slicing citrus.
- The Boning Knife: great for peeling skin and rinds of fruits, coring apples, slicing off pineapple bark, and creating decorative fruit arrangements.
- The Bread Knife: great for fruits that are tough on the outside but delicate on the inside. Also great for cutting very large melons in half.
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The Fresh Herbs and Spices Guide
The truth is, food is really kind of bland and boring without fresh herbs and spices. From basil and oregano to lemongrass and thyme, fresh herbs totally make the meal, and any dishes without them are so bland you might as well just eat a bowl of flavorless mush.
Herbs are also packed with some serious nutrients and health benefits. Cinnamon is known for lowering blood sugar levels, sage can help improve memory and brain function, peppermint can help relieve pain and nausea, turmeric is an anti-inflammatory powerhouse, rosemary can relieve nasal congestion and keep allergies at bay, and the list goes on!
With dozens of herbs to choose from, this would be a seriously long article if we listed out each one – and it may make it even harder for you to decide which ones your taste buds prefer. But, if you’re a fan of specific types of cuisines, the task just got a little easier.
For example, oregano is a staple ingredient in both Italian cooking and Greek cuisine, while lemongrass and turmeric are commonly found in Asian cuisine, and no Mexican dish would be complete without cilantro. And if you’re a cocktail lover, then you already know a mojito is not a mojito without some fresh mint.
How to Choose and Cut Fresh Herbs and Spices
The absolute best way to select fresh herbs is to hit your local farmer’s market, preferably early in the morning. These herbs will be much fresher than the ones in your grocery store.
You’ll also want to look for herbs that have not wilted or dried out from the sun. The oils in the herbs that make them aromatic and flavorful can be activated by too much sun and too much handling, so give your herbs a good look-over.
How to Cut Herbs
Fresh herbs absolutely make food come alive, and you have some options when it comes to cutting them. The biggest rule is to make sure you thoroughly clean and pat dry the herbs before cutting. We can’t stress how important it is to dry your herbs before cutting them. If they are still damp, they will stick to your knives, your hand and your cutting boards. There’s no need to drown them in water, either. Simply swirl them around in a bowl of cold water before patting them dry.
The basics to cutting herbs are to place them on a cutting board and, using a knife that feels comfortable in your hand, chop the herbs to your desired size or as stated in the recipe you are following.
Some herbs like parsley and cilantro, can be used with stem and all. All you have to do is remove the bottom of the stems before piling them on you’re cutting board for a rough chop, using the spine of your knife to gather them back to the center to continue chopping, then scoop off of the cutting board.
While many people use a chef’s knife to chop herbs, using a nice rocking motion from the tip to the hell of the knife, you have other knife options:
- The Chef’s Knife: multipurpose knife for slicing, dicing, mincing.
- The Santoku Knife: multipurpose knife for precise slicing, dicing, mincing (granton edge helps prevent herbs from sticking to blade between cuts).
- The Paring Knife: great for mincing small amounts of herbs.
- The Utility Knife: great for mincing garlic and delicate herbs like dill, oregano, rosemary and time – not a good option if the blade is serrated (can tear delicate herbs, etc.).
Whichever knife you choose, make sure it’s sharp! A dull knife can easily damage the delicate leaves of herbs, which can even affect the flavor. If you’re not sure your knife is up for the job, then here’s how you can tell you have a dull knife – and what you can do about it.
How to Keep Produce Fresh
Now that you know how to select and cut produce like a pro, let’s end by talking about how to keep your produce as fresh as possible. To do this, you’ll want to follow a few, simple rules:
- Rule #1 – Never store fruits and vegetables together as fruits give off a lot of ethylene gas and this can prematurely ripen (and spoil) your veggies.
- Rule #2 – Before storing produce in your refrigerator, poke some holes in the plastic bag to allow good air flow. While you can wash leafy greens before storing, soft herbs and mushrooms should not be washed until you are ready to use them.
- Rule #3 – Certain fruits will continue to ripen if left out on the counter. These include non-cherry stone fruits, avocados, tomatoes, mangoes, melons, apples, and pears. However, items like grapes, bell peppers, and berries will rot if left out and should be placed in the refrigerator as soon as you get home.
- Rule #4 – Okay, not a rule so much as a tip. And that tip is to get yourself a salad spinner if you don’t already have one. Not only does it do a great job of getting leafy greens clean and dry, but fresh herbs, too.
- Rule #5 – Store fresh herbs by arranging them in a single layer on a slightly-damp paper towel, then rolling them up and transferring that paper towel roll to a Ziplock bag and placing them in your crisper.
Other options for storing fresh herbs include placing them upright in a jar or glass of water and covered loosely with a plastic bag to keep them from absorbing other odors in the fridge. Just be sure to cut about a half inch off the bottom of the stems and remove any lower leaves that could end up sitting in water (and getting soggy) – and be sure to change the water daily and cut another half inch off the stems and remove any browning or wilting leaves or stems.
If you’ve ever wondered what herbs and spices go with what meat, then check out our meat seasoning guide.
You officially know as much about selecting, cutting and storing fresh produce as many professional chefs. Go forth now and make some healthy and delicious meals for you and your family, like this amazing turkey chili recipe, made easier with F.N. Sharp knives and the Instant Pot!
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