Fresh, local and organic: Tips for buying produce

Feature Article- Fri., Feb. 11, 2011
Contributed
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These days, when it comes to produce, the buzz words are “local” and “seasonal.” Local and seasonal, like fresh and organic, can mean a lot of different things, according to Jim Gallivan, department chair of Culinary Arts at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Atlanta, and author of several cookbooks, including “The Adventure Cookbook” and “The New Spa Cuisine.”
Gallivan offers definitions for the terms:
• Local. Local can be defined as having been grown less than a day’s drive from where it’s purchased. In general, local is preferable, Gallivan says, because it lasts longer, not having spent days traveling across the country or the world to get to you. Less travel also means less use of resources and less air pollution.
• Seasonal. If you’ve ever picked your own strawberries, you know there’s nothing like that fresh-picked taste. Today, you can get almost any kind of produce at just about any time of the year. Asparagus in December? It’s shipped in from Peru, where it’s in season. Apples in July? They’re pulled from cold storage just for you. But if it’s not in season, it’s not local, and that means it won’t have the great flavor you find in local fresh-picked produce.
• Fresh. We tend to think we should always choose fresh. And if it’s local and seasonal, fresh is usually better. But sometimes canned or frozen is a better choice, especially when you’re cooking the vegetables or fruit, as opposed to serving them uncooked. For instance, if you’re making something with tomatoes – especially in the winter, when tomatoes are not in season – canned are probably best. Gallivan says to remember that canned and frozen produce has typically been picked and processed at its peak. That means it’s going to taste much better than out-of-season fresh produce that has been traveling for days or in cold storage for months.
• Organic. Google the word “organic” and you’ll find hundreds of websites, and as many variations of meaning. By definition, organic produce has been raised without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, using sustainable agricultural practices. “Natural” is not the same as “organic.” Neither is “additive- free” or “no preservatives.” Moreover, there are different levels of United States Department of Agriculture Organic Certification (www.ams.usda.gov). That means when you shop for organic produce, you need to be aware and read the fine print.
One other important influence on the flavor of modern produce – which is grown on huge farms and packaged in giant processing plants – is the trend toward hybrid varieties bred for looks, shelf life, and being tough enough to transport long distances. Flavor is not generally a top priority. Gallivan says there are exceptions, and some large agribusinesses do produce flavorful, organic foods.
The bottom line for buying produce: Educate yourself. Know what is in season, what is grown locally and where it can be purchased, and how to determine if something really is organic. To learn more about The Art Institutes schools, visit www.artinstitutes.edu/nz.
Courtesy of ARA Content


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