The ingredients in the book are used over and over again in countless recipes. Here’s what you need to know about buying, storing, and using these key components. This information will not only save you time and money but also protect you from potential kitchen disasters; the right ingredients can make all the difference in recipes of all kinds. Here’s an excerpt from one of this book’s features, called Fruits and Vegetables A-Z.
The fact that an apple tastes great out of hand does not mean that it will be good in a recipe. Choosing the right apple varieties for different applications is critical. Apart from flavor differences, some turn mushy in the oven while others hold their shape. In general, more tart apples—Cortland, Empire, Granny Smith—hold their shape. Meanwhile, Golden Delicious, Braeburn, and Jonagold varieties are all sweeter and will break down in the oven. (There are exceptions: McIntosh apples, although tart, fall apart and become very watery when baked.) We often use a mixture of sweet and tart apples in a recipe for balanced flavor and texture. Underripe apples will continue to ripen on the counter and can then be refrigerated to keep them fresh once they are completely ripe. Apples can be stored anywhere in the fridge, provided the temperature doesn’t freeze them.
Buy small or medium artichokes; larger ones can be tough and fibrous. Look for artichokes that are compact, unblemished, and bright green. Avoid those with shriveled brown stems or leaves. If you tug at a leaf, it should snap off cleanly. It is important to submerge artichokes in acidulated water (water with a small amount of vinegar, or lemon or lime juice) as soon as they are cut to prevent browning. Steam medium artichokes and serve with a lemony vinaigrette. Small or baby artichokes are best roasted. Artichokes will keep for up to five days if sprinkled lightly with water and stored in a zipper-lock bag in the fridge.
Thicker stalks are better for broiling, roasting, and grilling. Quick-cooking thinner spears are good candidates for steaming and stir-frying. Medium-thick asparagus (about ⅝ inch) works in most recipes. White asparagus’s delicate flavor doesn’t survive long-distance shipping, so buy it only if it’s very fresh. To preserve asparagus’s bright color and crisp texture, trim the bottom ½ inch off of the stalks and stand the spears upright in a glass. Add enough water to cover the bottom of the stalks by 1 inch, cover with plastic wrap, and place the glass in the refrigerator. Asparagus stored this way will remain fresh for about four days; you may need to add more water every couple days. Re-trim the very bottom of the stalks before using. This method can also perk up limp asparagus.
Buy the small, rough-skinned Hass variety of avocado rather than the larger, smooth-skinned Fuerte; Hass avocados are creamier and less watery. For a perfectly ripe Hass avocado, look for one that is purple-black (not green) and yields slightly when gently squeezed. Avoid avocados that are overly mushy or bruised or fl at in spots or whose skin seems loose—these are well past their prime. When in doubt, try to remove the small stem; it should flick off easily and reveal green underneath. Florida avocados, also called “skinny” avocados, have less fat and more sugar than Hass avocados. They’re fi ne in salads or other dishes where a fresh, mild fruit flavor is desired. If you can’t find perfectly ripe avocados, buy the fruit while it’s still hard and be patient. Underripe avocados will ripen in about two days on the counter, but they will do so unevenly; it’s better to ripen them in the refrigerator, though this will take about four days. Ripe avocados last two days on average at room temperature, or five days in the refrigerator. Halved and pitted avocados can be stored cut side down on a plate drizzled with olive oil. Leftover avocados should not be frozen unless you plan to use the defrosted avocados for a pureed application such as a dressing— they will lose their creamy texture in the freezing and defrosting process.
Bananas continue to ripen after you buy them, so if you are not going to use them for a few days it is fine to buy green bananas and store them at room temperature. Do not store them in a plastic produce bag because the moisture that collects in the bag could cause them to rot. Bananas that have developed a smattering of black speckles on the skin are the sweetest (more than three times sweeter than unspeckled) but will soon turn overripe, so use them soon. If you need to ripen bananas in a hurry, enclose them in a paper bag for a couple of days. The bag will trap the ethylene gas produced by the fruit and hasten ripening. Store ripe bananas in the refrigerator to decelerate the ripening process. The skins may turn black, but the fruit inside will keep for almost two weeks before it becomes overripe. To save extra bananas in the freezer for later use in baking or smoothies, peel them and freeze in a zipper-lock freezer bag.