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July, 2008

Increase Your Refrigerator’s Mileage!

By Dennis Linden

How many times have we all stopped at the vegetable crisper, on the way to the cutting board, only to find a plastic bag full of slime rather than the expected fresh ingredient? Not only does this universal experience represent a waste of good food and the money that bought it, but these days the cost of the pricey gas it took to make the original purchase must also be factored in, then double that figure to replace it!

Organic Greens

How many times have we all stopped at the vegetable crisper, on the way to the cutting board, only to find a plastic bag full of slime rather than the expected fresh ingredient? Not only does this universal experience represent a waste of good food and the money that bought it, but these days the cost of the pricey gas it took to make the original purchase must also be factored in, then double that figure to replace it! Because of the huge rise in oil and gas prices, there are very practical as well as environmental reasons to reduce one’s driving that include consolidating errands and cutting down trips to the grocery store. However, energy conservation does not necessarily have to mean a reduction of the quantity or quality of perishable produce that is purchased and consumed if you know how to increase the shelf life of the fresh veggies in the refrigerator.

Of course, putting most produce items in the refrigerator in the first place is an important basic rule of keeping things fresh. This subject was touched upon to some extent in a past article of this feature that reviewed the proper handling of fruit and the effects of ethylene gas [see Produce Corner, November 05].

However, with vegetables the devil is in the details when trying to stretch their usability while maintaining good taste. Different types of vegetables have various characteristics that can be manipulated to our advantage after harvest. Here are a few tips for the most popular items that are usually found just lumped together in that crisper.

Organic Collard Greens
The trick to storing leafy greens is keeping them as dry as possible. Water may have been essential for growing that head of red leaf lettuce, for example, but water on harvested lettuce will eventually cause cell structure breakdown [decay]. All lettuces should be washed thoroughly and drained as much as possible with stem end down. Make a new cut on the bottom where bacteria can often be seen in the form of a pinkish tinge. Remove any shriveled or browning leaves from the outer layer because that is where decay will fester. Wrap a layer of paper towels or a thin cotton kitchen towel around each lettuce head and put it in a plastic bag, suck the air out and seal with a knot or twist tie. The towels will continue to control and absorb moisture until ready for use. Check the dampness of the towels daily, replacing any that are overly saturated with dry ones. You will be amazed at how long lettuces will remain fresh being stored this way.

Remember, produce trimmings make great food for the compost pile that we are tending, even you city dwellers, rather than adding to the pile of garbage that your city, town or village government must dispose of using fuel bought with your tax dollars!

The master shape shifters at transforming themselves into green slime are parsley, cilantro, watercress, green onions and asparagus. However you can keep them for as long as 10 days by doing just the opposite of the drying procedure for lettuces. Store these items not in the veggie crisper, but upright on one of the refrigerator racks, in a sturdy container that will not tip easily with about one inch of water in it. Leave the roots on the green onions until ready for use but trim the tops a bit. Be aware that asparagus stalks can grow a full inch or two if left in water for too long. So, remember to eat your vegetables. The other bunched items mentioned will drink and stay perky fresh for many days if the leaves are first dried of excess moisture and a new cut is made at the bottom. Change the water in the container daily. Also, to keep the bunches from wilting and their odors from permeating into other items in the refrigerator, place a plastic produce bag over the container, then seal the bag around the container with a large rubber band but leave room between bag and bunches for some air trapped inside.

While tomatoes and avocados are not vegetables, they are being included here because they are two of the most popular produce items that also cause the most storage and handling confusion. Both can be refrigerated, but only for very short periods. Avocados will turn grey and bitter if left in the refrigerator for longer than two or three days. Tomatoes will lose flavor and the texture can turn mealy if stored in the refrigerator for more than three days. In fact, when using a tomato that has been in refrigeration, you can bring the taste back by allowing it to return to room temperature before serving. Also, the shelf life of both these items can be extended by freezing. Oddly, in spite of their sensitivity to cold storage for too long, both freeze very well but must be handled differently. Freeze tomatoes that have been chopped or puréed; a whole tomato will not hold its shape for slicing as it thaws so is best used in sauce. Freezing puréed avocados will work if a little lemon juice is mixed in to inhibit discoloration; however, the best results are achieved by freezing whole avocados that are very ripe to insure high oil content. A frozen, unripe avocado will thaw but never ripen, while a thawed ripe avocado slices like butter!

It would be impossible to review the optimum storage protocol for every item found in the produce department in this article. So buy a 10-day supply of fresh produce and then use the time saved not taking that second shopping trip to page through Melissa’s Great Book of Produce for storage tips that take advantage of the many unique traits of each perishable item that will extend its freshness and help your fuel dollar get a little better mileage too!