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Originally published July 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 24, 2008 at 12:10 PM

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Making the most of your produce

Extend the life of your favorite fruit, vegetables and herbs of summer with proper storage. A variety of experts share their advice.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Making produce last

What to store in the fridge

Unwrapped: Apples, ripe avocados, most ripe fruit.

Vented container/bag: Ripe berries, grapes, ripe peaches and nectarines.

In plastic bags or in the crisper: Asparagus, cherries, artichokes, bok choy, cabbage, beets (greens removed), broccoli, carrots (greens removed), bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, summer squash, fennel, leeks, scallions, cucumbers, jicama, parsnips (greens removed), radishes (greens removed), chilies (wrapped first in a dry paper towel), peas, rutabagas (greens removed), ginger (wrap first in dry paper towel), corn (husks intact, but use quickly before sugars turn to starch), green beans (wrap first in dry paper towel), spinach (wrap first in dry paper towel), leafy herbs (wrap first in just-damp paper towel), kale, celery.

Paper bags: Mushrooms, eggplant.

Rinse, wrap in paper towels, then plastic bag: Chard, lettuce and other soft-leaf vegetables. Local lettuces and other fragile produce should not be washed until just before eating, says Joe Hardiman, produce merchandiser for PCC Natural Markets. For those who want their greens ready to eat, Naomi Kakiuchi, owner of West Seattle cooking school NuCulinary, recommends rinsing them and then running them through a salad spinner or whirling in a clean pillowcase to remove moisture before storing in the fridge.

In a cool, dry, well-ventilated spot

In an open paper bag or basket: Potatoes and onions (though not together in the same area), garlic, winter squash, sweet potatoes.

Room temperature (out of direct sunlight)

In a bowl, basket or on the counter: Tomatoes, stone fruit (peaches, apricots, plums, etc.), melon, citrus (store oranges in fridge for longest shelf life, but let them warm before eating for greater juiciness), papayas, pears, kiwis, pineapple, watermelon. Keep bananas out of fridge and away from already-ripe fruit.

Sources: WSU Extension, PCC Natural Market, Cooking Light magazine, Real Simple magazine, Washington State Apple Commission, Angelic Organics

— Karen Gaudette, Seattle Times staff reporter

Fresh ears of corn, sweet enough to nibble and gnaw raw. The tangy tartness

of plums. Cucumbers snappy and crisp. The warm, fuzzy scent of ripe tomatoes

What's worse than being unable to devour all the glorious produce of summer? Watching it wither and waste away in your fridge or fruit bowl — especially when food prices (and the cost of getting to and from your favorite market) are growing quicker than sun-drenched zucchini.

Thankfully, we can buy more time to enjoy the bounty by carefully selecting and storing fruit, vegetables and herbs to maximize their longevity.

Produce merchandiser Joe Hardiman does so by taking care to protect different groups of produce from their respective enemies. He often references a collection of old sayings he's found to be true over his 20-plus years with PCC Natural Markets. That old saw about a bad apple spoiling the whole barrel? Spot on. So's the one about boiling the water before you head out to pick corn, to enjoy it before the sugars turn to starch.

He's choosy about what he buys and stores, checking for bumps and bruises that accelerate spoilage. He keeps bananas and apples (high emitters of ethylene gas) away from other fruit — unless he needs peaches, pluots, persimmons and other delights to ripen quicker. He separates his onions and potatoes, lest their interactions encourage each other to sprout.

In the fridge, he wraps his lettuce, chard and other delicate-leafed vegetables in dry paper towels to absorb excess moisture.

Whether we gather our harvest from a backyard garden, a local farm or a produce department, we're all in a race against time, he says, especially when it comes to flavor.

"In Europe, they buy daily and consume daily, and that's the best way to enjoy produce is to use it as quick as you can buy it again as frequently as you can," Hardiman said.

Here's how to make the most of your harvest:

Buy what you'll realistically eat: Produce wasn't intended to last forever, and storing it longer means fewer nutrients and less flavor, says Olga Fuste, with Washington State University's food safety program. "Buy what you're going to use in the amounts that you're going to use in a short period of time so it tastes great and the nutrients are there," she said.

Buy with time on your side: Naomi Kakiuchi, owner of West Seattle's NuCulinary cooking school and a registered dietitian, asks farmers at her local market to pick out peaches, tomatoes and other fruit based on how soon she'll eat them. "I tell the farmer, 'I have four I want to eat now and four I want to eat midweek,' and they'll pick you out bags of each so they'll ripen along the way."

Inspect before you buy and store: Avoid storing bruised or dull-looking produce. Store the best specimens the longest.

Keep fruits and vegetables separate: Many types of fruit emit ethylene gas, which can accelerate the ripening of nearby produce. "You want to keep fruits and vegetables separate; that's why there are two crispers in most refrigerators," says supermarket analyst Phil Lempert, food editor on the "Today" show.

Treat herbs as you would flowers: Trim the bottoms and put the stems in water (keep leaves out), loosely cover with a plastic bag and stick in the fridge (change the water daily). Keep sweet basil this way on your counter unless it's so hot it begins to wilt. Then place in the least cold spot in the refrigerator, toward the front, to keep its leaves from turning black.

Freeze what you can't use: Ann Taylor Pittman, food editor of Cooking Light magazine, grinds up her leftover basil for pesto, which she freezes in ice-cube trays for when she needs just a pinch for pizza sauce, garnish or a recipe. She also freezes berries for later use in baking, pancakes or smoothies. She rinses them, freezes them separately in a single layer atop wax or parchment paper-covered cookie sheets and then stores them in zip-top bags in the freezer for up to six months. What to do when zucchini starts pouring in? "Bake zucchini bread and freeze it," she suggests. Or chop it up for stir fry — a common solution for extra vegetables of all types.

Use nature to your advantage: Add an apple or banana to a paper sack of fruit to speed ripening. Keep them at bay if you want your other fruit to ripen slowly.

Keep tomatoes out of the fridge (unless they've already been cut): It's the quickest route to flavorless, mealy fruit, experts say. "You really want to keep those guys at room temperature and use them up," Taylor Pittman says.

About those fancy preservation systems: Lempert suggests sticking with an old standby: paper towels. "If you are constantly putting a new paper towel in the bottom of the crisper, it's going to remove that excess moisture. A paper towel is produce's best friend." He also recommends placing a refrigerator thermometer in the center of your fridge to ensure it's always kept at around 38 degrees.

Out of sight, but not out of mind: Prevent your crisper from becoming the place produce goes to die by keeping a list on your fridge door of what's inside, or by checking once a day.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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