Throughout the 1990s, over at KCNC-TV Channel 4, the station and I broadcast a bunch of television segments on food — restaurant reviews, “best of” wrap-ups, chef interviews and the like. One of my favorite bits was to have a Denver chef accompany me on a surprise visit to a (willing) viewer’s home kitchen and have us cook a meal on the spot with whatever we might find in their pantry.
To me, the most memorable segment was the one in which chef Kevin Taylor and I rescued a filet of freezer-burned salmon by poaching it in Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea. Those were about all that was available, but “dinner” was surprisingly tasty.
But, in doing all that TV, I was able to peer into the storage places — frozen, cold or closeted — where people kept their food. Oh boy, the lessons I learned.
No pointers here on storing stuff in the freezer. It’s the most stable pantry place people can use. Just keep in mind that deterioration, hence spoilage, occurs there, too. (The “Red Zinger” rule.) It merely takes more time.
But here are several tips on storing perishables, especially fruits and vegetables, either in the refrigerator or outside of it. A bit of science assists.
As Harold McGee, the writer and food scientist, amply explains in his seminal “On Food and Cooking” (Collier, 1984), plants, though plucked from their place of birth, yet live. Their ripening is just a euphemism for the deterioration, the disorganization of their tissues. (We should understand this because, looked at similarly, such is also our fate.)
The point of food storage is to avoid or postpone the inevitable by keeping plant tissues as close to pristine as possible. Deterioration comes by way of infection by microbes, on the one hand, and by action of the plant’s own enzymes, on the other. So, shortchange those, and that ought to work. In a sense, plant tissues must be saved from themselves.
Top priority is to get rid of nearby mold. “One bad apple” indeed does “spoil the whole barrel.” Also avoid dropping a fruit or vegetable, thereby damaging its cellular structure. Sometimes, merely washing tender fruits, such as many berries, damages cell walls. So, wash with vegetable spray or water just before eating, not earlier. The same goes for the skins of stone fruits such as peaches or nectarines.
Here’s a cool rule: Store perishables in an environment similar to that in which they were grown. For example, the tomato is a tropical plant and just doesn’t do well if kept in the refrigerator. Same for unripe avocadoes, mangoes and most stone fruits. They ripen most profitably on the counter or in a paper bag and ought to be refrigerated only when completely ripe and soon to be consumed. (But for tomatoes; never store a fresh tomato of any level of ripeness in the fridge. That destroys its flavor and aroma.)
Also, various vegetables never benefit from (and, in truth, will be harmed by) being stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer: garlic, onions, potatoes, hard-skinned (winter) squashes.
Many fruits and vegetables that we routinely store in the refrigerator taste better with more time outside of it on the kitchen counter. Apples, many citrus, pears, plums, almost every form of stone fruit — all of these taste best when ripened at room temperature, then refrigerated only for a short period of time (in some cases, less than a day) when ripe and simply if the eater prefers cool, crisp fruit.
Finally, the most interesting science of all: a gas. Ethylene gas, to name it, is a gas given off by some fruits and vegetables that speeds up ripening in either the gas-giver or its neighbors. It’s obviously safe; we’ve been living with and eating it for millennia. But it helps to know more about it.
Some fruits and vegetables such as apples, peaches, tomatoes and bananas produce healthy amounts of ethylene. Others, such as some citrus fruits, avocados and many lettuces (especially Romaine) are sensitive to ethylene, so much so that in the presence of a gas-giver they ripen (read: spoil) overly quickly or unmanageably.
Romaine’s “rust spots” especially along its stems or the yellowing leaves atop a radish bunch both are due to ethylene exposure.
Lemons and limes (but not, curiously, oranges) are good examples of citrus fruits that are “ethylene-sensitive” and deteriorate more quickly than they otherwise would if in the presence of ethylene-producers such as bananas (or apples, kiwi, many stone fruits, peppers and cantaloupe, ethylene-producers all). That is why I store my lemons and limes — I call them my “7Up” citrus — far away from ethylene.
His ethylene excellency, the banana, truly needs special attention. By far, bananas are America’s most-loved imported fruit. They also are number one in ethylene production, with wafts of ethylene ever emitting from their stem ends. That is why organic bananas come stem-wrapped in plastic. (Producers of non-organic bananas spray their fruit with ethylene gas to hasten ripening, but producers of organic fruit cannot do the same.)
Because the ethylene does emit from the stem end (of either organically or conventionally grown bananas), re-wrap the cluster of stems with a bit of plastic wrap, and you’ll very much slow down the overall ripening of the rest of the bananas in the same bunch.
About those apples and other firm ethylene-producing fruits (pears, peaches, peppers and tomatoes) of which you plan to eat the skins: We’re cautioned to avoid washing fruits, then storing them because residual moisture can lead to bacterial growth and spoilage. Understood.
But these past couple of years have been different days, and I do not know who touched or coughed or sneezed over these tasties before I bought them or how long ago any of that may have happened. I very much want to scrub them well when I get them home. Before I store them, I dry them off as well as possible. If I strip off a protective layer of vegetable wax or rinse away some nutrients, so be it.
Nonetheless, I do not wash them with water or, especially, a “fruit wash” spray. I shower them just prior to eating them, refrigerated or not.
Some final notes on averting spoilage in fresh foods by looking at green herbs such as flat-leaf parsley, basil or cilantro: Treat them like cut flowers. I cannot believe how well it works to treat long-stemmed herbs exactly like, well, long-stemmed flowers.
Wash, shake or spin off excess water, slice away one inch from the bottoms of all stems, and place in a container (plastic tub or wide jar works well) with an inch or so of cold water, then cover with a light plastic bag (such as a grocer’s vegetable bag or a shower cap).
Place in the refrigerator, tucking as much of the plastic bag under the tub or jar. Use the herbs as you need, refreshing the water every fourth day. I keep a bunch of cilantro in great condition this way for much more than a week, nearly two. Flat-leaf parsley, even longer.
Online, you will find further guidance about poor fruit and vegetable partners-in-storage due especially to the ethylene effect. But a few surprisingly terrible marriages are avocados and apples, tomatoes and cucumbers (only tasty together on eating), broccoli and peppers, and potatoes and onions.
About the latter pair: I used to store my potatoes and onions together where I thought that they belonged: in a well-ventilated basket, in the dark and away from heat.
But together. Not a good idea. So, now, they each have their own room.
For the dressing:
1 garlic clove garlic, crushed
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)
Salt and black pepper
For the salad:
1 head butter lettuce, leaves separated
1/2 head curly lettuce, leaves separated
1 head radicchio, leaves separated
3 green onions, green and white parts, sliced thinly on a sharp angle
20 radishes, trimmed and cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
2 cups semi-dried tomatoes, whole or roughly torn (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons capers, whole if small or very roughly chopped
Make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the ingredients, being quite generous with the salt and pepper. Wash the lettuce leaves, dry well and keep whole or tear into large pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl and add the radicchio, green onions, radishes and tomatoes.
Just before serving, pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and sprinkle the capers over the top.
Makes 20 pieces
5 plum tomatoes
8 thyme sprigs
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Quarter the tomatoes vertically and place skin-side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Arrange the thyme sprigs on top of them. Drizzle over the olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with some salt. Roast for 1 and 1/2 hours, or until semi-dried. Discard the thyme and allow to cool down slightly.
Reach Bill St John [email protected]