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The Dirt on Picking a Vegetable in Its Prime

May 24, 1997|From Associated Press

The best qualities of home-grown vegetables are lost unless they are harvested at the best time. While it's never easy to determine when to pick them, most gardeners believe that being able to determine their prime quality is just as important as developing the skill to grow them.

Even if you don't grow your own, being able to determine prime quality still is a worthwhile skill for everyone who buys vegetables at a market.

Here are the general guidelines:

* Leafy vegetables: Look for bright color, firmness, tenderness and crispness. You want harvesting at the peak of vigor, before there is any maturing or slowing of growth. This will be difficult to determine, because every leaf is going to have its individual time. But the toughness and bitter taste aren't present until maturity starts.

The main clue is color. Good, vigorously growing leaf tissue is not exactly a pale green, but it is a lighter green, and it darkens as it becomes mature.

So when leaves stop enlarging, or start staying about the same, that's the time to harvest.

* Leafy head vegetables: When enlargement of the head ceases, it's probably at its peak. Ideal cabbage heads should be firm and noticeably heavy, while lettuce should be firm yet yield to gentle pressure.

* Flower-bud vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes and others should be compact and the buds tight. Again, it's a matter of color. As you get discoloration, edible quality deteriorates. On broccoli, the buds should have a blue appearance, which means younger, more tender tissue. When they start turning green, or a pale green, or a yellowish green, then you're just about to get maturity.

* Asparagus: Look for closed, compact tips. Again, there's some aspect of color involved, but the big thing is not to let them get too big. If they get more than 6 to 8 inches above the ground, they start getting fibrous.

* Root vegetables, such as radish, turnip, carrot, beet and parsnip: These edible roots won't start to toughen until, again, the growth starts to slow down. With maturity, they become bitter, strong-flavored and fibrous. Once seed stalks begin forming, some might still be usable, but it's best to pull them out. When the reproductive phase starts, quality drops almost immediately.

* Fruiting vegetables, such as snap beans and peas: Try to select them before the pods reach maximum size and before most of the peas or beans inside reach full size.

* Sweet corn: At its best when slight thumb or fingernail pressure ruptures the kernels to reveal a thick, milky internal substance. Avoid any sign of denting, even a few kernels can make it pretty chewy. Of course, the produce market people won't appreciate your pushing on a lot of kernels without buying.

* Tomatoes: Should be fully formed, plump, fairly firm and of uniform, ripe color. Don't pick them green, unless to salvage them from frost. Picked green, they never ripen with as much flavor as those you leave on the plant. Unfortunately, many people don't know how great a vine-ripened tomato tastes.

* Green peppers: Harvest them immature but fully developed and firm. Watch for any sign of soft spots or wilting in the tissue. You want rigid flesh.

* Eggplant: Should reach full size, be firm and have a uniform color. Fruit should have kind of a shine to it. If it becomes dull, that's a sign of maturity. Watch also for soft spots. It should feel firm all over.

* Squash: Skins of summer varieties should be tender, while rinds of winter types are hard.

* Cucumbers: Try to buy or harvest them when they are green. If there is any sign of yellowing, they start getting soft and the seeds are tougher.

* Melons: There is an obvious change in appearance and texture as they ripen. The overall sheen is brighter. Softening of the flesh starts at the blossom end. Ripeness is easiest to determine in muskmelon and cantaloupe. They become noticeably yellow and finally separate from their stem. Browning of vine tendrils and thumping for sound are not reliable indicators of watermelon ripeness. Look for a cream-to-yellow color in non-green parts of the rinds and a change elsewhere from dull green to a brighter green.

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