How To Guides
My thanks to Paul Wigsten and Brad Matthews for their great book Produce, which has been a go-to book for this section.
The Accidental Locavore shows you what to look for in choosing tomatillos. Tomatillos should be smooth, firm and bright green in color. Avoid any that are shriveled or have soft spots. Unlike their tomato cousins, they’re fine refrigerated. To use them, peel off the papery skins and rinse well. Try them in my tomatillo salsa.
While there are many different varieties of lettuce, picking good lettuce is pretty universal. Look for unblemished heads, with no brown or rust colored spots. Pick heads that are tightly packed and heavy in the hand. Make sure lettuce isn’t wilted and that it doesn’t have any slimy leaves (especially important with mesclun). Use a crisper lettuce like romaine or iceburg to use with more assertive, creamier or richer dressings and as a sandwich or burger topping. Softer lettuces like Boston, bibb or mesclun (pronounced may-cloon, not mescaline), need a lighter vinaigrette. Bibb and Boston lettuces make a great wrapper for food like chicken salad.
Wash all lettuce thoroughly, there’s nothing worse than gritty lettuce, and dry it on a towel or in a salad spinner. Store it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. If you’re curious about the best storage for lettuce, check out my test of various bags.
There is a lot to love about summer, and corn and tomatoes have to be at the top of the list. What should you look for when picking out corn? First of all, never buy already husked corn and don’t husk it or peel back the husk at the market. There’s no need, you just make a mess and you’re removing the corn’s protective wrapper. The husk should be green, tight fitting and fresh looking, it should look moist and not dried out at all. The silk at the tip will range from a light to a dark brown. Corn loses sweetness quickly, so only buy what you can eat right away. Store it in its husk in the coldest part of the refrigerator. If you have extra corn that you’re not going to eat in time, just cut it off the cob, put it in a freezer container (I use a zipper bag) and put it in the freezer.
- Grill it. Keeping it in it’s husk (you can remove the silk if you want, but it’s not necessary) just toss it on a hot grill. When it starts to get nice and brown, about 5 minutes, turn it. Keep cooking until the husk is brown all over, about 15 minutes total.
- Microwave it. Trim off the top and bottom of the corn and peel off all but the last two layers of husk. Microwave for 2 minutes per ear depending on the strength of your microwave and number of ears. This works best for 1-4 ears of corn.
- Boil it. OK, now you can husk the corn, drop it in boiling water for about 5 minutes.
- For special effects points: when the corn is cooked and shucked, fire up a blowtorch and “brulé” the kernels until they’re dark brown. It makes the corn taste sort of like popcorn and impresses your guests.
Green beans, wax beans and haricots vert (or French beans) are all members of the snap bean family. For all of them, look for fresh, brightly colored beans, with no brown spots or signs of decay at the tips. Beans should be crisp, firm and snap easily (snap bean family, remember?). Haricots vert will be a darker, duller green color than their green bean cousins and they will cook faster due to their thinner size. Beans will keep in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
To prepare, trim the stem ends of the beans. You can leave them whole or cut them into small pieces (on the diagonal if you want to get fancy). Most beans are steamed or boiled, to blanch them, then sauteed in oil or butter with garlic and herbs. Nuts, pine nuts and sesame seeds are often added. Click here for some bean recipes.
Sage is an herb with a very distinct aroma. Its leaves are slightly fuzzy, long and tapered, most often a silver-green color. There are bi-colored and lemon sages. The flavor is very bold and distinctive. Go easy with it, as it can easily overwhelm whatever you’re cooking. Sage is classically paired with turkey at Thanksgiving, however it works really well with pork in any form. The leaves can be deep-fried and used as a garnish, tucked under the skin of a turkey, or sandwiched between two very thin slices of potato and fried-a special potato chip! Sage is pretty sturdy and will keep refrigerated. Look for flat, unblemished leaves with a strong aroma.
Oregano is a member of the mint family and is immediately connected with Italian food. It’s got a bright, familiar, assertive taste. There are several different types of oregano, Greek and Mexican being two popular varieties. It works well in tomato sauces, with poultry, fish and grilled foods. When shopping for oregano, look for bright green leaves, with a distinctive aroma. Avoid wilted leaves or decay. Oregano will store for a few days in the refrigerator.
Like a lot of other berries, strawberries are available year-round, however for the best tasting strawberries, buy them in the spring. Look for bright red berries, with no white shoulders (the area at the top of the berry), without bruising or soft spots. A ripe strawberry should smell sweet…like a strawberry. If you’re in doubt, ask for a taste, but please, buy the box you took the taste from. If you ever come across the tiny French frais des bois, try them. They’ll be expensive, but their delicate taste is amazing! Fresh strawberries are pretty perishable, so treat them gently and eat them quickly! For ideas on using strawberries, click here.
Ramps grow wild in the eastern United States and may also be known as wild onions. They appear in late winter to early spring and are generally foraged. While you can try to grow your own, it may take up to seven years from seed to harvest. Ramps are foraged in deciduous forests. If you decide to forage for them, the leaves look a little like lily of the valley, however they sure don’t smell like lily of the valley!
Ramps have broad, green oval shaped leaves going into a bright purple stalk and a white bulb. Their flavor is a cross between fresh garlic and scallions.
When buying ramps, only buy what you can consume in a day or two as they are highly perishable. Wrap them in damp paper towels and refrigerate them. Don’t wash them until you’re about to use them. They are often sautéed with bacon and potatoes and used as a side dish for meats. Think of using them as a trendy, local, replacement for scallions.
If you need some ramp trivia: the name Chicago comes from the Algonquin Indian word chicagoua which some historians say means wild onion or ramp.
Rhubarb is one of those love it or hate it vegetables. Yes, it’s a vegetable (that people generally use like a fruit). It would seem to be related to celery or even cardoons because of the stalk, however, it’s actually related to buckwheat. It has long thick stalks that vary in color from pale green to bright red. Americans tend to go for the red stalks although the green ones have a more pungent flavor.
Look for stalks that are firm, hefty and lie flat, without looking dry or cracked. The leaves and roots are poisonous and potentially deadly, so use only the stalks! Rhubarb is best in the early spring to summer although you can get hothouse varieties most of the year.
Rhubarb is very tart which is why it is often paired with fruit and cooked, however it can be eaten raw, or juiced. It has a long history of medicinal use and is believed to have a balancing effect on the digestive tract. While my husband loves strawberry rhubarb pie, this locavore prefers it in my cousin’s rhubarb chutney.
Artichokes are pretty intimidating looking and are one of those food that the Accidental Locavore figures someone had to be awfully hungry to eat the first one. Once you get past the thorny outside, the inner part, or heart is delicious! Artichokes come in two basic sizes, large, known as globe artichokes (which can get to be the size of a softball) and small. Sometimes in the United States you can find purple artichokes, both large and small but they are not as common as the green ones. Depending on where you buy them, the large ones may also have a long stem, which is also edible.
Buying artichokes: look for firm ones with no brown spots. Fresh artichokes will “squeak” when squeezed and they should feel firm in the hand. Make sure the stem is not shrunken or limp. Store them in the crisper drawer in the fridge for a few days.
When you’re preparing artichokes, you must have a bowl of acidulated water (water with the juice of a lemon squeezed into it) and/or a cut lemon to rub on any cut parts. Cut artichokes will turn black (they don’t taste bad, but they look awful, trust me) in a matter of seconds, so either rub the cut parts with the lemon or drop them in the acidulated water. If you have long stems, cut them off at the base, and peel them way down until all the fibrous part is gone, then prepare them with the artichokes.
Although asparagus is available all year long, it’s really best in the spring, when it’s local and fresh, and at it’s peak. You may be surprised to know that asparagus is a member of the lily family along with garlic and leeks. Another surprising fact about asparagus is that even after they’re picked, they keep growing. That’s why the tips of your asparagus may be bent to one side (like the green ones in the photo).
Asparagus comes in three colors, green, purple and white. The white ones are a result of being covered with dirt to prevent photosynthesis from occurring. Unfortunately, the purple ones will turn green if they’re over-cooked, so save them for something where you’ll eat them raw or barely cooked.
Size is a matter of personal preference. The Accidental Locavore prefers her asparagus to be nice and thick, however many people prefer the pencil thin ones. The size comes from the age of the plant, with the youngest plants producing the skinny stalks. According to a recent Fine Cooking Magazine, thicker spears are tenderer. That’s because all asparagus have a set number of fibers, so they are more dispersed in the thicker stalks. When you’re buying asparagus, look for tightly closed tips with nothing open or going to seed. Avoid woody looking stems, or wilted looking stalks.
Besides being highly nutritious, asparagus are really versatile. You can steam them, grill or roast them, slice them thin and serve raw in salads. Here are some of the ways the Accidental Locavore likes to serve them.