Zen and the Art of Vegetable Maintenance By Allison Fox

Many farmersâ€TM markets stay open year-round, but summer promises the largest bounty of fresh, vibrant produce across Tennessee. Throughout these dewy months, market stalls in every corner will fill with the edible delights of the season. As you return home with bags and baskets of produce this summer, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind as you seek to maintain optimal freshness, flavor, and texture.

An important thing to note about farmersâ€TM market produce is that most local growers harvest at peak ripeness, meaning your produce will continue to ripen rapidly when you get it home. In addition, you can never be sure how those fruits and vegetables have been handled by the time they make it to the market stand. Bruising can happen easily, especially on tender items like berries, peaches, or young summer squash. Simply put, itâ€TMs always a good idea to use those fresh veggies quickly and visit the market often!

Tennessee summer can be scorching—be mindful of how long you leave produce in a hot car! If you have your own garden, try to harvest early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when temperatures are a bit cooler. When harvesting in hot temperatures, it is crucial to get the “field heat” out of vegetables, especially leafy produce. If you grow or buy greens like kale or summer lettuces, you should wash them in cold water, dry them completely (a salad spinner works well), and store loosely packed in the refrigerator. In general, moisture is bad for storage of any produce, as it contributes to the growth of bacteria and fungi.

Be cautious of storing ripening fruit together and with vegetables. Many ripening fruits give off ethylene gas, a natural ripening hormone that can cause surrounding fruits and veggies to ripen too quickly and spoil. Some ethylene producers are tomatoes, bananas, peaches, nectarines, and cantaloupes—be careful about storing these fruits in close proximity to other produce.

On the counter:

Not everything should go in the fridge! Many summer crops in this region are subtropical in origin and therefore should be stored at temperatures above 50 degrees. Keep tomatoes, summer squashes, peppers, and eggplant on a counter or in another cool, dry spot away from sunlit windows. Fresh tomatoes should never be refrigerated, as they will lose flavor quickly at low temperatures. Tomatoes are also susceptible to bruising, especially on their “shoulders.” Store them in a single layer with the stem end up, as they grow on the vine.

Cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon, oh my! Melons do not need to be refrigerated until they are cut; store them in a cool spot on the counter or on the floor near an air-conditioning vent. If you prefer to eat it cold, you can pre-cut your melon (only a few hours before youâ€TMll serve it) and store it in a container in the fridge. Freezing melon will only make it mushy. Try puréeing watermelon in a blender then straining through a sieve—that watermelon juice is a tasty start to a refreshing summer cocktail. Add some white rum, a bit of triple sec, and a splash of fresh lime juice!

Stone fruits such as peaches, nectarines, apricots, and plums do not need to be refrigerated unless they are becoming too soft. Store them in a single layer on your counter or in another cool, dry place to avoid bruising. If you plan to freeze any of these fruits, remember that pits affect flavor. Remove pits and wash and dry fruit thoroughly before freezing in plastic bags.

Potatoes and onions should be stored in a cool, dry place away from light, but not together—each of these veggies gives off a gas that will cause the other to spoil faster!

In the fridge:

Perhaps nothing says summer like fresh, juicy berries. In general, you should not wash berries until you are ready to use them. Store them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator in a single layer to avoid bruising. All berries freeze well, and if you must wash them before freezing, be sure to drain and dry them completely. Freeze them on a tray in a single layer for 2 hours, then transfer them to freezer bags. This will ensure that the berries donâ€TMt freeze into a clump. Unlike other stone fruits, cherries should be stored in the refrigerator and washed just before eating.

Sweet corn should be harvested and bought early in the morning, since its sugars convert to starch as it heats up throughout the day. Corn should be chilled or refrigerated immediately, and it freezes very well after blanching.

Root vegetables such as carrots, radishes, and beets can be stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Often sold at the market with their pretty green tops still attached, you should remove those tops before storing these veggies. This part of the plant pulls moisture from the roots, shortening shelf life.

Apples will be here before you know it! Did you know that you extend the shelf life of apples TEN times by refrigerating them versus storing at room temperature? Apples are easily frozen and ready for fall and winter baking—just be sure to peel, core, and slice them before freezing. As with berries, freeze apples on a tray in a single layer for a couple of hours until theyâ€TMre firm, then transfer to freezer bags.

All types of beans and peas can be stored in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator in a loosely closed basket bag. Like corn, these freeze well but should be blanched first.

Cucumbers arenâ€TMt too finicky—store them in the fridge or on the counter, but donâ€TMt put them in a plastic bag.

If you buy fresh herbs at the market, treat them as you would cut flowers—stand the stems in a jar or vase with a bit of water and refrigerate.

As you embark upon market season, may your visits be frequent and your bags be full!

(Note: Special thanks to Tammy Algood of Pick TN Products, Tennessee Department of Agriculture and Randy Dodson of Waters Farm for their help with the content for this article!)

Allison Fox is a writer and food enthusiast in Cookeville, Tennessee.