'You can make a bad dish out of great ingredients but you can't make a great dish out of bad ingredients.' Sadly, the ability to choose the best produce is a skill that is being lost as generations go by shopping at supermarkets. In an effort to learn about this disappearing art I took a job at one of the best fruit and veg stalls at Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market. Despite 5am starts it was a heady time of fresh herbs, sweet zucchini, fragrant pineapples and tastier cooking.
Admittedly these skills aren't much use at a supermarket where the produce is likely to be waxed and selected to withstand transportation and storage, often to the detriment of flavour. However, they are mighty useful when visiting a market or grocer.
So here are some simple rules that will have you choosing the tastiest produce year round.
The overarching rule is to buy in season. Out of season produce just won't have the flavour that it will in-season and if the produce has had to visit customs since picking, step away.
Eat the rainbow: Fresh rainbow chard. Photo: Jennifer Soo
Greens (spinach, silver beet, chard, kale)
Check the leaves are vibrant and fresh, not wilted or yellow. Check the stems are firm, be aware the ends may have been recut to make them look fresh.
Beetroot. Photo: Marina Oliphant
Roots (potato, carrot, swede, turnip, beetroot)
It's hard to write about choosing a root without it getting a bit filthy. Dirt has a natural preservative that will keep your roots good for longer but make sure it is a hard root that's not green. Fresh leaves can be deceiving, if the root is hard without divots or soft spots that is ideal. Fresh leaves on a softening root are sucking the nutrients out which is bad. Remember, the smoother the vegetable the easier the prep.
Brassicas (broccoli, romanesco, cauliflower, cabbage)
Brassicas should never be blackening or yellow and the buds or leaves should be tightly closed. So many love affairs with brussels sprouts could exist if people only knew to buy small, hard sprouts with shiny outer leaves.
A ripe avocado will yield gently but make sure there are no soft spots. If you take out the stem and underneath it is green that's perfect, if brown it is overripe, and if the stem won't budge it is under-ripe. However, any grocer will appreciate you asking them to find you a ripe avo rather than have you remove all the stems.
Make sure the garlic is not pure white, this is a sign of bleaching and high food miles. You want hard garlic with no green stems and a fresh garlicky scent.
A rainbow of summer tomatoes. Photo: Marina Oliphant
If a tomato looks good in winter then be suspicious. During summer look for tomatoes that still have fresh green stems attached that smell like a tomato plant. The fruit itself should be richly coloured and smell sweet, maybe slightly acidic, depending on variety.
Zucchini and cucumber
Both need a good squeeze. The stem end may tell you how long it's been cut or it may have been recut as it was put on the shelf, so squeeze the blossom end and make sure it isn't spongy. The smaller the zucchini, the sweeter and tastier.
Stone fruit should pass the sniff test. Photo: Quentin Jones
There are three main groups with fruit, those to smell, those to look at and those to taste.
With thinner-skinned fruit it is all about smell. While some fruit may be soft enough to eat, it's going to taste better if it smells good. Pressing all the fruit is impolite and bruises it for the next person.
Fruits that are best selected by making sure they smell delicious are cantaloupes, nectarines, pears, apricots, pineapples, mangoes and berries.
Check the stem. Photo: Marina Oliphant
Colour is an indicator for lots of fruit and there are two main rules. The first: the darker the colour the riper the fruit. The second: in fruit that isn't meant to be green the less green the riper the fruit.
Take a look at the stem, is it still fresh looking or is it brown, withered and old?
With pomegranates you want to choose heavy, angular shaped fruit.
Elongated watermelons with seeds are tastier.
Although insect damage is seen by supermarkets and many shoppers as a bad sign, thrip marks on citrus will lead you to the sweetest fruit, those bugs aren't silly.
Although some fruits may look ripe and shiny, their flavour quality can be judged only by a taste test. Grapes, blueberries, cherries and dates sit in this camp.
Note: If you want to ripen anything put it in a bag with a banana. If you want a banana to ripen put it with a ripe apple.