October is here….the air is crisp and the leaves are changing. But more exciting - is that the fall harvest has arrived at your local Farmers’ Markets! Though the weeks left at the markets might be winding down, the pickings are at a peak. So grab your jute tote bag, throw on a cashmere scarf, and get ready to sip some savoury cider as you shop for the week’s stock.
Here’s what to expect at the market this season and how to shop like a pro and select the best quality to bring home.
By knowing how to find the best -- by touch, by smell, by sight -- you can get your money's worth at the market.
Apples: Choose apples that are smooth-skinned, deeply coloured and glossy. Avoid those with soft spots or punctures.
Blackberries: Look for depth in colour. Pass by blackberries with hulls attached, a sign of premature picking. Check all fruit for mold, and inspect containers for stickiness or stains.
Cranberries: These should appear evenly coloured, plump, firm and unbruised.
Grapes: Select grapes that are heavy for their size with taut skins.
Peaches: The trick to choosing peaches and nectarines is to look at the background colour, not the red overlay. The background should be golden, with the best fruits having almost an orange tint. And always, above all, trust your nose. Ripe peaches and nectarines have an irresistible perfume.
Pears: These should be fragrant, with no soft spots, punctures, or bruises. Perfectly ripened Bartlett Pears will be golden and fragrant and will have a slight softness at the neck. Don't worry if the fruit shows some russeting – that's only skin-deep and won’t affect the flavour.
Plums: The best plums will have a good, deep color- red, golden or purple, depending on the variety. Plums should be fairly firm to slightly soft when ripe. Avoid plums that are too hard or too soft. The fruit should be softer at the top, but watch out for skin that is wrinkled or broken. A fragrant plum is also a good indication of the perfect ripeness and will provide a lovely sweet and tart flavour!
Tomatoes: Look for taut skin, firm flesh, deep and even colour (greenish colouring at stem end on heirloom varieties is okay). Avoid tomatoes that are pale in colour.
Artichokes: The really fresh artichokes will squeak when squeezed.
Asparagus: Choose bunches with tightly closed tips without flowering. Stalks should be bright green and firm. Thinner stalks can be more tender. Avoid those with stalks that are flattened or wrinkled and feel hollow.
Beets: Select beets that are heavy for their size and show no surface nicks or cuts. If they're sold with their tops on, the greens are always a good indicator of freshness as they show wilting very quickly (they're also delicious – don’t discard them).
Broccoli: Choose one that is dark green with stiff stalks and tight florets. Avoid any signs of yellowing, a rubbery feel, or white stems.
Brussel Sprouts: Look for vivid green colour and ones that are tightly closed. Squeeze the head, it should be hard enough that there is very little give.
Cabbage: Choose cabbage with a dense, heavy head and with red or green leaves.
Cauliflower: Look for compact curds and don't worry about green leafy bits throughout the bunch. Avoid heads that are discoloured or blemished. You can bet it's fresh if the cauliflower still has its green outside leaves.
Celery: Choose firm, unblemished stalks. The stalks and leaves should be green, not yellow.
Corn: Look for bright green husks wrapped tightly around ear, with flowing, moist silk (not brown). Pull back husk; kernels should be small, shiny, firm, and tightly packed. Best eaten the day you buy it; don't refrigerate.
Cucumbers: Check for firmness. Colour should be light to dark green, and without wrinkles or soft spots.
Eggplant: All eggplant varieties should have skin that is free of wrinkles and soft spots. Only buy eggplant if you plan to use it soon, since it doesn't store well for long.
Garlic: Whatever the size, choose garlic that’s firm with no soft spots.
Kale: Look for deep green leaves that are springy and do not show signs of wilting or discolouring or a stem that isn’t dry. The smaller the leaves, the more mild the flavour.
Lettuce: There should be no wilted leaves, or wet, mushy or yellow spots. Romaine should be dark green and narrow with stiff leaves. Butter lettuce should be small, round and with loosely formed heads.
Mushrooms: Select moist but not wet ones. They shouldn't be dry enough to crack; they should be moist enough to flex when you bend them.
Onions: Look for dry, papery skins and flesh that is full and firm, especially at the stem end. Avoid any with mold, discoloration or soft spots.
Peppers: Select ones that are firm all over with taut skin. Flesh should be thick without soft spots or wrinkles. Look for bright-green stems.
Potatoes: Firm, without any soft areas or wrinkled skin; avoid those with sprouting eyes, slits, or a green tinge.
Pumpkin: Choose a pumpkin that feels firm and heavy for its size. Turn the pumpkin over and place pressure on the bottom with your thumbs. Avoid if it flexes or gives. Look for soft spots, mold, wrinkles or open cuts that would indicate damage or early spoilage. Choose a pumpkin with a solidly attached stem. A green stem indicates a freshly harvested pumpkin.
Radishes: Tops should be bright green with no wilting. The roots should be brightly coloured and free from cracks and nicks. Give them a squeeze to make sure there's no hollow or soft center.
Root Vegetables: Look for fresh, firm beets, parsnips, turnips, etc. with bright greens attached. Note that smaller turnips and parsnips pack more flavour. See beets above.
Scallions: Choose scallions with crisp, green tops and firm, white bulbs. Avoid if wilted or browned.
Spinach: Fresh spinach has healthy-looking, dark-green leaves; avoid those that are wilted and discoloured. Soak and then gently rinse in cold water to get rid of sandy residue.
Squash: For yellow and green ones, choose small to medium (5 to 6”) and not bulbous as they can be watery or fibrous. Skin should be firm, smooth and shiny.
Sweet Potatoes: Look for small to medium in size, which are sweet and creamy (the large ones tend to be starchy). The skin should be firm, smooth and even-toned. The deeper the colour - the richer in antioxidant beta-carotene.
Zucchini: Choose ones that are firm and free of nicks and cuts.
Chives: Look for long, bright green, hollow leaves.
Cilantro: Choose cilantro with bright, evenly-colored green leaves, showing no sign of yellowing or wilting.
Rosemary: The springs of fresh rosemary should look vibrantly fresh and should be a deep sage green and free from yellow or dark spots.
Thyme: The leaves of fresh thyme should look fresh and be a vibrant green-gray in color. They should be free from dark spots or yellowing.