HOW’S THAT VICTORY GARDEN coming along?
Excitedly, we bite into the first tomato that blushes red, only to find tasteless fruit and a mealy texture. But given a bit more time, red deepens to crimson, scarlet and even a burnished mahogany, producing a ripe garden tomato with deep, satisfying flavor and a spicy aroma.
Edible gardens are filled with color, flavor and fragrance. That’s our cue to use all of our senses to recognize ripeness and reap the full rewards of our harvest:
Look. Tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and most fruits signal ripeness with color (see crimson tomato above). But don’t overlook secondary crops that offer a bonus backyard yield.
Harvesting is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some crops, like baby greens, beets and carrots, are especially tender and sweet when young, a moment in time that fetches a premium at the market but is free for the plucking to home gardeners. Other crops, like berries, corn, winter squash and pumpkins, need to size up to develop flavor and maximize yield. But, left too long, cucumbers, summer squash and eggplant develop bitter seeds; cabbages split; and broccoli flowers and goes to seed. It pays to pay attention.
Touch. Fingers allow us to test for tenderness in the snap of a stalk of asparagus or the give of ripe fruit with gentle pressure. A head of cabbage is ready when a firm squeeze reveals a solid core. Tomatoes, eggplant and melons have a heft to their ripeness and feel heavy for their size. Winter squash and pumpkins allowed to fully develop — until their rind hardens to the point where it resists the dent of your fingernail — last longer in storage.
Smell, taste and listen. Vision and touch are the heavy hitters when determining ripeness, but our remaining senses allow us to finesse and perfect flavor. Melons, berries, herbs and most fruits release a heady perfume when ripe that’s difficult to test once they’ve been chilled. Pop a pea in your mouth to gauge its sweetness, and graze on young kale to discover its less-pungent side. Only by tasting do we learn when sour turns to sweet, bland becomes flavorful and crunchy melts into luscious readiness. Sound plays a subtle but essential role: the rustle of dry foliage on mature onions, shallots and garlic; the rattle of fully dried peas and beans in their pods; or the hollow thump of a ripe melon. Or maybe it’s noisy crows helping themselves to the raspberries.
Finally, harvest fruits and vegetables before the heat of the day to prevent wilting and extend storage life. This is especially true for leafy greens, like lettuce, chard and spinach, as well as peas, radishes and anything in the cabbage family. If you can’t get out in the early morning, wait until things cool off in the evening. More fibrous root crops, like carrots, beets and parsnips, are less sensitive to fluctuating moisture levels but last longer if they are refrigerated quickly after harvesting. Store juicy fruits, like tomatoes, melons and berries, at cool room temperature, and eat as soon as possible for the best flavor and aroma.