by Barbara Kobsar • Illustration by Margo Rivera-Weiss
Choosing produce harvested at its peak is your sure bet for flavor and freshness.
Watch out as the melons start to roll in from California’s interior valley. Like squashes and cucumbers, melons are members of the huge Cucurbitaceae family. They are easily crossbred to meet the desires of growers and eaters. Watermelons arrive with or without seeds and in shapes from round to oblong. Muskmelons appear with skins that are netted (cantaloupe, Persian, and sharlyn) or smooth (crenshaw and honeydew).
Peppers add flare to market stands with their brilliant colors and enticing flavors. Virtually all peppers are ready-to-pick when green, but turn red, yellow, or purple (depending on variety) as they ripen. Chile peppers can be relatively mild, like paprika or Anaheim, or sizzling hot, like the small lantern-shaped habanero. The “heat” of hot or chile peppers is concentrated in the interior ribs. The seeds themselves taste hot only because they snuggle up to the veins.
Root vegetables are available year round, but California’s fresh fall harvest may entice a few new fans. When choosing carrots, look for bunches sporting fresh, moist leaves. The leaves should be removed once you get home, since they draw moisture from the carrot, but they can be used to make a delicious pesto. Rutabagas (sometimes called yellow turnip) and turnips are at their best when small and young. Turnips are generally milder tasting than rutabagas due to higher water content.
If it weren’t for St. Patrick’s Day, cabbage might live a mundane existence, but there’s a good spot in the kitchen for every type and its cousins—broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, kale, and kohlrabi—when they are picked fresh and cooked properly. Red and green head cabbages hold up to slow braising while milder tasting Savoy types, with their crinkled leaves, are a great addition to salads or sandwiches.