How to find your way around an ugly vegetable

Although supermarkets like to claim that they only stock what their customers want to buy, in 2013 a survey suggested more than three-quarters of us aren’t too bothered by ugly veg. The problem is finding it.

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Sometimes, ulterior motives aren’t that difficult to spot. Like a leadership hopeful deciding to oppose the incumbent in a very newsworthy election “after a huge amount of [extremely public] heartache”. Or a big supermarket introducing cutesy boxes of “wonky veg” for a small discount – and an awful lot of free advertising.

The Soil Association estimates that between 20 and 40 per cent of British fresh produce is rejected for cosmetic reasons before it even reaches the shops. Although supermarkets like to claim that they only stock what their customers want to buy, in 2013 a survey by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers suggested that more than three-quarters of us aren’t too bothered by ugly veg. The problem is finding it.

These bulk boxes are better than nothing, yet five kilos is a hefty proposition, especially when you can’t choose it yourself. The contents will vary according to the season, but a current representative example contains 13 onions, nine potatoes, six carrots, five peppers, four leeks, two “massive parsnips”, a cabbage and a cucumber – and, speaking from my experience, there’ll be a lot more root veg to come before the winter’s out.

If they really cared about what customers want, the supermarkets would offer these less-than-perfect specimens loose, so we could decide for ourselves what, and how much, we need. Like most people, I don’t care what my fruit and veg looks like, but if it tastes past its best, then that’s a deal-breaker. I’m not running a sanctuary for salad that’s already halfway to becoming compost, and I’ve bought enough bags of onions to know that when someone else is picking, there’s always a dud.

Fortunately, I am lucky enough to live in an area where markets are still just about holding their own. Not only can I sniff the tomatoes and squeeze the peaches to my heart’s content, but it’s always cheaper than the supermarkets, and you usually get some chat thrown in for free.

But wherever you’re buying, vote for choice and seek out the loose stuff. Most fruit and veg doesn’t take kindly to plastic wrapping. And really, few of us need to buy two kilos of potatoes at a time, however handy that is for the supermarket. Better to be able to select the whoppers you want for baking, and leave it that.

Hand-picking your fruit and veg also allows for quality control: lumps and bumps are fine on a potato, green spots and sprouts are not (unless the stuff is dirt cheap). The best fruit and veg isn’t always the most beautiful, and sometimes you do need to get in there and give it a gentle prod.

Most vegetables should feel firm to the touch; bent carrots, courgettes and broccoli stems are fine, but bendy ones aren’t in the first flush of youth and ought to be priced accordingly. Leaves such as kale, spinach and chard should be deep green and perky (the same goes for tops of  beetroots, radishes and carrots). Many smaller aubergines and courgettes have fewer spongey seeds, and slender asparagus, parsnips and so on are often more tender.

Even though you’re unlikely to find any at the supermarket, bananas are sweetest with a sprinkling of freckles, and really brown ones make the best cakes. Ripe melons, mangoes, pineapples and stone fruit such as peaches and apricots will smell sweet, especially near the stem end, while citrus should be springy. Yellower limes are almost always juicier, and smaller tomatoes more flavourful. Anything that feels heavy for its size is usually a good bet.

But the most important thing to remember when you’re shopping is your common sense. Over half of the food wasted is thrown away in the home, so if you’re not going to eat five kilograms of knobbly veg, don’t pick it up, however cute the box is. Buy in to the product, not the hype.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis