Madison Monday: vegetable rules

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My husband is something of a city boy and it’s taken him years to internalize all the complicated rules around gardening, vegetables, and their storage. In fact, really, he’s still learning. It’s a lifelong process.

But I thought for other folks who have either less experience with gardening or less well-developed opinions on the subject, I’d spell some of these rules out.

1. Fresh corn and green beans from the garden go into the fridge immediately. If it’s corn, and it’s at all possible, you should really pick it just minutes before you’re ready to eat it. Every moment counts with sweet corn, as the sugars break down quickly once it’s been picked, and less sugar means less taste.

Green beans and sweet corn are the only things that go in the fridge. Okay, maybe eggplant and fruit if it’s clearly about to rot. Zucchini until you decide what the hell to do with it. But I hold to the opinion that peaches taste better at room temperature.

2. Never, ever, ever, ever put fresh tomatoes from the garden into the fridge. You are killing them. Killing them. You might as well dump them along side the road and go buy those horrible red things at the grocery they call tomatoes.

If your tomatoes look like they are going bad, eat them or freeze them or can them or bring them to me. Make them into a salsa or a sauce and put that in the fridge. Tomatoes do not like the cold. If you are someone who puts fresh tomatoes in the refrigerator, please keep it to yourself, as even the thought of fresh tomatoes being ruined in this way is deeply painful to me.

I don’t want to go off on a tangent and wax poetic about tomatoes, but here’s the thing about them–their season around here lasts from the beginning of July (if you’re lucky) until maybe October if you really stretch it. That is maybe 3-4 months of fresh tomatoes all year long. All year! You cannot waste a single one by putting it in the fridge.

For a small fee, I could teach you how to tell which of these tomatoes will taste best

For a small fee, I could teach you how to tell which of these tomatoes will taste best

3. While we’re on the subject, the best way to eat tomatoes is to take your salt shaker into the garden, preferably on a hot and sunny day. Select a tomato that is at the perfect ripeness–for me that’s a few shades before dead ripe. You might have to sample a great many tomatoes to find your own personal ripeness preference. That’s okay. Find a tomato that’s getting some direct exposure to the sun, but not too much. It will be warm to the touch.

I don’t want to sound bossy, but see #2 above. When tomatoes are in season, you don’t want to waste a single bite, so pick that sucker and eat every last bite. Yes, including the stem. It won’t hurt you. Or at least, 1 million or so tomato stems later, it hasn’t hurt me.

This tomato-eating method may get messy–seeds and  juice on your clothes and your face. That’s kind of the point.

4. Size isn’t everything. Do not be fooled by the large vegetable. I’ve been to farmer’s markets where they’re selling big squash and cucumbers as if I’m getting more bang for my buck. You are not. A large zucchini isn’t a complete waste. It has many uses shredded (i.e., zucchini bread, zucchini-crusted pizza, zucchini tater tots, to name a few). But I find for most vegetables, bigger is not better. Squash and cucumbers get seedier as they grow. Even with tomatoes, I find the smaller ones are generally tastier than the mammoth variety.

4a. There’s a sweet corn-specific corollary to this rule. A bigger, fuller ear of corn is not a better ear of corn. The younger the better. As corn fills out it gets tough and loses its sweetness. You want to pick corn that still has some space between the kernels. And truly, it’s better to err on the side of young versus old.

How can you tell? You can learn to feel through the husk how full the corn is. If you’ve picked corn, that’s basically what you’re doing. Or you can become that person who peels down the husk to look. I see no problem with that. Sweet corn also has a short season. Why waste your time on inferior corn?

4b. My mother would insist I also say here that white corn is better than bicolor or yellow corn. I think she’s right. Do not fall prey to the fallacy that corn should be yellow. Silver queen is really the best. This falls under a general rule about appearances in regards to vegetables, which is, don’t be fulled by pretty.

5. I’ve been seeing on Facebook these posts about how to select a watermelon. There’s a lot of nonsense about the color of the skin and how heavy it is. The evenness of the stripes. Whatever. The best fool-proof method for selecting a watermelon is to thump it. Knock your knuckles against it as if the watermelon is a door and you are politely asking for a peek inside.

What you’re listening for is a kind of hollow sound, almost like the knocking is echoing around inside the watermelon. This may take some experience to learn. I could be available to assist for a small fee. Knock as many watermelon as you like. Ignore the people who look at you funny while you’re doing so. They are doomed to eating crappy-tasting watermelon. Pick the one that sounds most hollow.

Size is everything, but bigger isn't better

Size is everything, but bigger isn’t better

I have no scientific explanation for why this works. It’s what my grandfather taught me, and he had some experience with watermelons. All I can tell you is that there’s a short list of skills which I have complete confidence in, and one of them is my ability to pick a good watermelon by thumping it.

6. Not to beat a dead horse, but back to the tomatoes. Do not be fooled by appearance. The pretty tomato is not the best-tasting tomato. Pick the ugly tomato every time. With my extensive experience of tomato-eating, I have identified the specific kinds of ugliness that lead to the best-tasting tomatoes. I will be happy to reveal that to you for a small fee, as well. But for free I will tell you, the ugly tomato is your friend.

In conclusion, what I’ve learned is that I have a wealth of untapped fruit and vegetable knowledge waiting to be used. I mean, I haven’t even touched on apples, which I also have fairly strong opinions about. Perhaps there’s a second career for me in being a personal vegetable shopper. That’s a thing, right?

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