In What Would Nigella Do we explore the basics of cooking and being comfortable in a kitchen. The title is a hat-tip to our favourite home cook who approaches cooking with resourcefulness, practicality, and most importantly, a sense of humour. Although this is a series that may appear to be directed at beginners alone, it is also for that cook who makes the perfect pavlova, but never seems to get that pot of rice right. In the time of MasterChef and molecular gastronomy, we are sometimes a little sheepish to ask the seemingly obvious questions. When faced with such a dilemma, we ask ourselves, What Would Nigella Do?
I’ve always been nervous about picking out fresh produce – the few times I ventured out to do so, I was met with clucking noises from my disapproving mother who insisted I had a knack for picking out the oldest vegetables and fruits on offer.
It turns out, I’m not the only one, and that most people don’t really know how to pick out their produce. To learn more about the fine art of choosing the right vegetable, I accompanied my friend Anisha and her mother Ayesha aunty to Russell market, a 90-year-old market here in Bangalore, at 6:30 am on a chilly Bangalore morning.
As it happens, you can judge a vegetable by its cover and here we’ll show you how. To become a pro at picking out good produce, you’ll have to train yourself to observe colour, touch for firmness and feel for weight. Here are some specific instructions on how to pick some of the most common vegetables found in India.
Cauliflower: Cauliflower heads that have florets that form a tight head, and are creamy white without spots, tend to be fresher. The leaves around the cauliflower are also a good indicator of how fresh the cauliflower is – you want to look for vibrant leaves, not dull ones.
Cabbage: The first thing to do when buying cabbage is to ensure that you’re picking the one with the least number of bruises. Next, look for a pale green colour rather than light yellow. The more compactly packed the leaves are, the fresher it is.
Bok Choy: The signs to look for when picking a fresh bok choy are: dark, lush leaves, and a firm yet supple stem. Avoid leaves that look wilted, obviously. Turn over and look at the end of the stem – pick up the one that is least browned.
Carrots: A good way to judge a carrot is by weight. Pick up a few that are about the same size. The carrot that weighs more will have higher water content and is more likely to be crunchy and juicy. The next thing to look at is the top of the carrot – is it greenish or darker? Pick the ones that tend more towards green rather than black.
Tomatoes: The best way to tell if a tomato is ripe is to gently squeeze it. If it is unripe, it will be hard as a golf ball, and if it is over ripe, it’ll be mushy. The perfectly ripe tomato is the one that gently gives as you press.
Potatoes: Look for older potatoes, as these will be less starchy. You can identify them as the ones that are darker, with thick skin. New potatoes look shinier and have fresh mud on them.
Chillies: Look for smooth skin and a firm stem. (Remember that smaller chillies tend to be spicier.)
Capsicum: Ensure that the stem is firm and not discoloured. Examine the skin of the capsicum to make sure it is taut and not wrinkled. Avoid ones that have soft spots.
Cucumber: The smaller ones tend to be sweeter and crisper. Pick ones that are firm, dark green and without soft spots.
Eggplants: Pick out ones that are smooth, shiny and heavy. When pressed gently, it should give slightly before bouncing back. Lastly, examine the stem to make sure it is still green and free of mold.
Ginger: Certain dishes call for mature ginger and you can identify these by looking at the skin – the older the ginger gets, the thicker and flakier the skin is. Young ginger has an almost translucent skin.
Spring onions: Pick a bunch with vibrant green stems, and pale white bulbs. Avoid those with wilting stems and bulbs that are already dried out.
Onions: The fewer the layers of flaky, peeling skin, the more recently it was harvested. Another good indicator is the “neck” at the bottom of the onion – you want it to be held tightly in place.
As you may have noticed, paying attention to the a few key characteristics - colour, weight and firmness - is all you need to make sure that you don't come home with stale, flavourless vegetables.
Next time we tackle the many-headed demon that is fruit shopping - stay tuned!
Aysha Tanya is the co-founder of Goya Media. When not working at Goya, she enjoys reading and marvelling at the wide range of mustard types available in the supermarket.
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