GRAND ISLAND, Neb. Visiting the local farmers' market during growing season is a delight for the senses with its colors, smells and taste sensations.
It's also a pretty good freshness guarantee for your next meal.
Like a flowering meadow, the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is constantly changing as the growing season progresses. But, at any given time, the farmers' market is rich in a good diversity of fresh produce that's picked and ready for the dinner table.
Tamni Sundling's stand offered a fresh variety of produce, including cucumbers, pearl onions, bell peppers and summer squash.
One point Sundling and other vendors emphasized was the freshness of their produce. Sundling said she picks her produce from her Alda garden in the morning before coming to her farmers' market stand.
Most of the produce purchased at the supermarket is picked before it has naturally ripened so it can be shipped sometimes thousands of miles.
For Sundling and the other vendors, their produce is picked at its optimal point of ripeness, fresh from the plant just hours before the consumer buys it.
"You can almost always tell by the color," Sundling said. "Produce with a dull color is not as fresh as something that has a more glossy color, which is an indication of ripeness."
All of Chuck and Shelly Helgoth's produce is fresh from the fields at their St. Libory farm.
A customer at the Helgoths' stand was excited about the day's fresh pick. What was also especially comforting was the customer's ability to say where her produce was coming from.
"You can sure bet it's not from China," she said, eyeing a particularly nice cantaloupe.
Over at the Placke Market stand, Tom Stubbs readily gave advice on selecting the best produce available.
"On sweet corn or anything else, always look for the freshest leaves and make sure it's not dented or hard," he said.
The greener the leaves, the better, Stubbs said.
"That's a very good indicator of its freshness and also that it was just picked that day," he said. "At our stand, and everybody else's, we try to bring the freshest quality that we can bring."
While sweet corn has dominated the truck stands lately, it's now melon season. Local growers are bringing out some outstanding examples of freshness.
"When you're handling muskmelons, you know its ripeness by the smell," Stubbs said. "The stuff in the stores is picked green and shipped and ripens coming in."
When picking a good muskmelon or cantaloupe, Stubbs said, look at the color of the fruit and make sure there is no green.
"But you don't want one that's soft and squishy or like the ones in the grocery stores that are rock hard," he said.
With eggplant, "You can always tell the eggplant by the smoothness of the skin on how fresh it is," Stubbs said. "When the wind hits them or they get a little heat, they wrinkle."
Also, for bell peppers, he said, pick ones that are solid and not squishy.
"Same thing when it comes to cucumbers," Stubbs said. "Somebody asked me, 'How can you guarantee it's fresh?'"
Stubbs, holding a cucumber at both ends, easily snaps it in two.
"Can you do that with one in the grocery store?" he said.
Follow these tips when choosing fresh produce:
If you're picking your own, be sure to bring clean containers or bags.
Look for produce that is free from unusual odors or colors and signs of spoilage such as mold.
Handle produce gently to reduce bruising. Bacteria can thrive in the bruised areas. At the grocery store, keep fresh produce on top of other foods in a shopping cart and separate from fresh meat and set it down gently on the counter at the checkout line.
Remember that buying produce that is less than ripe isn't always the best option. Peaches, cantaloupe and nectarines are examples of fruits that may soften during storage, but they won't ripen.
When buying cut produce, be sure it's refrigerated and keep it cold during transport. Keep it in a cooler with ice if traveling a distance.
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