If you want to pick a peach that will taste like nectar, then look at the background color of its skin. When that color, the one behind the peach's dominant reddish-orange hue, turns golden, then the peach is in top form.
That is what Russ Parsons told me. Parsons, a food columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has written a book called How to Pick a Peach. He visited peach orchards, queried the growers, delved into the workings of the peach's inner life, and came up with simple recipes for how to enjoy the fruit. For a fresh-peach dish, for instance, he suggested marinating the slices in slightly sweet red wine.
A peach, he said, is a "climacteric" fruit. This means that it can ripen after it is picked, but it cannot become sweeter. Sweetness has to do with maturity, he said. So choosing a peach that has grown to maturity before it was picked is the goal. An orangish peach with a golden background color is likely to be the wise, mature choice, he said.
In the book, Parsons subjected some 30 other fruits and vegetables to such investigations. The other day when I had lunch in Washington with Parsons, a longtime colleague, I pumped him for clues on ways to spot the best produce.
A big one, he said, is to trust your nose. "Nine out of 10 times if it smells good, it will taste good," he said.
Weight is another general guideline, he said. "Heavy is good for everything," because it means the fruit or vegetable has not begun to lose moisture.
Picking ripe melons can be tricky, he said, and explained two sets of techniques for two types of melons.
For melons with rough skin, such as cantaloupe, look for raised netting and a tan background color, he said. Also inspect the "couche," the pale spot on the skin where the melon has rested on the ground. It should be creamy and not too large.
Next, he said, examine the spot, sometimes called the "bellybutton," where the melon was removed from its vine. It should be smooth. Finally, he said, give it a sniff. When you detect a "heavenly floral perfume," you have a good cantaloupe.
Picking a good smooth-skinned melon, such as honeydew, is more difficult, Parsons said, because there are fewer clues. Check the color of the skin, he said. Instead of a "hard green," you want a golden creamy color. "Sugar spots," brown flecks on the skin surface, are a good sign, he said, but they are rare.
Gently press the end of the melon, he said. If it there is a slight give, the melon is ripe. If it is still firm, it needs a few more days at room temperature to ripen, he told me.
When I asked him how to pick a good watermelon, a quest I find challenging, Parsons endorsed the "thump test." Just tap the belly of the melon with your knuckles and listen, he said. A ripe melon should sound like you are knocking on a hollow door, not on one made of solid wood.
Parsons commiserated with me on the sad state of table grapes. They look good but often don't have much flavor. This happens, he said, because the dominant green grape, Thompson Seedless, is picked too early.
This grape has a tendency to fall off the stem when it is ripe, a condition known as "shattering," he said. Shattered grapes are a retailing headache, so grapes often are picked before their prime, he said. Green grapes that have amber skin tones are flavorful, the grapes to go for.
In the course of writing the book, Parsons visited farms and orchards in California, the state that produces more than half of all the fruit and vegetables grown in the United States. "Anything can grow in California," he said, "if you can water it."
As for the future of our fruit and vegetables, Parsons saw two possible trends coming out of California. One was that government regulators could require fruit and vegetables to be treated with low levels of radiation. The cost of this treatment could drive small growers out of business, he said. "The regulators catch hell every time something goes wrong, so they want to make everything 100 percent safe," he said. "But everything has never been 100 percent safe."
On a different note, he said another likely development is the arrival of more mandarins (what many of us call tangerines) on the market. Once a crop that was harvested only around Christmas, new varieties of mandarins being grown in California soon will be available all winter, he said.
When I asked about his gardening efforts, Parsons told me he does harvest some Meyer lemons, avocados and tangelos from trees in the yard of his Long Beach home.
"I used to have a garden," he said, "but then I got a dog."