(This originally appeared in the Boulder Weekly) We hold this truth to be self-evident: Americans today are wimps when it comes to dirt, especially on their vegetables and fruit. It seems we can’t stand our fashion models or our fruit without a little Photoshopping.
Fruits and vegetables have gotten less and less “natural” looking. The produce now is prettier, shinier and more uniformly colored (sometimes artificially) and shaped and subjected to various processes and chemicals.
Lots of folks got righteously angry recently when word spread about pre-peeled oranges being sold in plastic containers at one supermarket chain. Who hasn’t purchased processed produce at some time, including shredded cabbage, or chosen the prettier apples? Then there are the fuzz-free peaches.
The price of produce perfection and other bad food habits in the United States is staggering. The nation spends about $218 billion annually growing, processing, packaging, trucking, refrigerating and throwing away food that’s never eaten. About a quarter of it never makes it off the farms because it doesn’t meet size and shape specifications. This wastes water and resources even when it feeds pigs or becomes compost. This collective waste costs an estimated 1.3 percent of the nation’s total GDP, while food insecurity plagues a significant portion of the populace who may also live in “food deserts” lacking accessible fresh food.
That has been the impetus of the so-called “ugly produce” movement, but nobody actually calls it “ugly.” A French supermarket chain sells “inglorious” produce. The British chain ASDA labels misshapen vegetables “wonky.” Canada’s Loblaw grocery stores market “Naturally Imperfect” onions and peppers. In the United States shoppers, retailers and growers have been slow to accept the idea. Whole Foods Market is teaming up with a firm called Imperfect Produce in a few Northern California stores. I’m hoping the movement will spread to Boulder County.
Finding ugly produce
My affection for using odd-looking produce and for scratch cooking is driven strongly by economics. I learned from the best: my Depression-raised mom called those vegetables “bargains.” So, I seek out the misshapen, the blemished, the bruised and the dirty, but in Boulder County you have to know where to look. Most stores hide it in the back of the store. Many of the apples and oranges pre-packed in printed bags are actually imperfect fruit, usually smaller or slightly blemished.
At some local King Soopers stores you’ll find a limited number of 99 cent mesh bags of produce. I’ve found bags with decent green peppers or guacamole-ready ripe avocados. Sometimes the “bruised” pears are ripe, sweet and finally edible even if the skin is mottled. Ugly is easier to find at farmers’ markets but even there the pretty produce is on the table. The imperfects are usually under the table and farmers sell it by the case to chefs, canners and savvy cooks.
Natural Grocers (sometimes known as Vitamin Cottage) does the best job that I’ve seen offering great bags of ugly organic produce for $2. Some may include one vegetable or an odd mix of one jalapeño, one lime, slightly damaged tomatoes, an avocado and wilted cilantro, all perfectly fine to eat. Twice I’ve lucked out and found $2 bags filled with two-dozen organic bananas with lots of dark brown spots. Inside the skin were perfectly ripe, white bananas.
What do you do with that many bananas? I slice them in chunks, freeze them spread on cookie sheets and save them in a large freezer bag. They go in banana bread, my morning hot cereal, smoothies and the occasional coconut chicken curry.
If you can’t eat the produce right away you have to cook it, freeze it, pickle and store it. This life isn’t for people who don’t like to touch and peel veggies or who let ripe fruit turn into a refrigerator science experiment big enough to be declared a sentient life form.
How to handle a really ugly vegetable
Eggplant: This heirloom eggplant had some brown spots but, when peeled, revealed that the imperfection was skin deep. I sliced thick rounds, spread them on a baking sheet, doused them in olive oil, chopped garlic, black pepper and Italian herbs and roasted at 350 degrees. When soft, I spread some on a sandwich and added some to a pasta sauce.
Yellow beet: After deep peeling and cutting, I wrapped the beet in foil and roasted it for an hour or so until soft. I microwaved some slices to go with pulled pork in sriracha sauce.
Broccollini: This is broccoli’s more refined cousin. My bargain batch hung out in the field a little too long and was sprouting a few yellow flowers, which were also tasty. I chopped some and roasted it with onions, olive oil and a few fennel seeds. When it was soft I cracked two marked-down eggs on top to poach sprinkled with parmesan. Served with a little tomato sauce it’s damn delicious.
Sweet potato: The only thing wrong with this sweet treat was its gnarled artistic shape. All I did was wash and roast it until soft and ate it, skin and all.
You travel by gondola to one of the most memorable foodie gatherings of the year in Colorado, the food and wine tasting in the snow at the top of Vail Mountain at the 26th annual Taste of Vail March 30 to April 2. Events include interactive cooking seminars, tastings and a Grand Tasting. I’ll be back this year as a judge at the Colorado Lamb Cook-Off. Tickets: tasteofvail.com.
Words to chew on
“Of course I made many boo-boos. At first this broke my heart, but then I came to understand that learning how to fix one’s mistakes, or live with them, was an important part of becoming a cook.” — Julia Child
John Lehndorff is the former executive director of the American Pie Council. He hosts Radio Nibbles 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU. Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.