Tips for picking the best seasonal produce, plus fantastic summer salad ideas.

As a private chef, usually working in a staffed household, I’m often asked this question: “Do you do the shopping yourself?” My reply is always the same: “Absolutely! That’s where it all starts!” And nowhere is that selection process more vital than in the realm of fresh produce. If the fruits and vegetables that make their way onto the dinner plate are not at the top of their game, then neither am I.

Now that summer is here, and so many gorgeous offerings from the garden are at their most plentiful, it seems a perfect time for a refresher course in choosing fresh produce. So here are just a few quick tips gleaned from years of dedicated shopping.

Choose Your Venue

Your local farmers’ market, of course, is always a reliable source. There you will find a generous cornucopia of produce that will make a healthful contribution to any meal you can imagine. And your local health food market is indispensable. It may not have the wide selection of a supermarket, but chances are very good that it will have something to suit your needs, and it will likely be fresh, local and organic.

Use Your Senses: Sight, Touch, Smell

Your first experience of that bundle of asparagus or that mound of plums is sight; the colors should be pleasing and suggest ripeness, the surfaces should be free of punctures and discoloration, and the textures should appear fresh and unwrinkled.

Next, you pick it up. Again, individual items will have their own special requirements, but you will want each to conform to standard: stone fruits should yield slightly to pressure, tomatoes should be moderately firm not mushy, carrots should be crisp. Corn should be unwithered, melons should be heavy for their size, cucumbers should be smooth and dry.

Finally, inhale. Does that nectarine smell rosy and sweet? Grab it. Do those raspberries give off a heavenly perfume? Yes please, I’ll take two. And conversely, do those potatoes smell musty? Move along.

Check Your Origins

Organic is good, absolutely. But organic and local is even better! Sure, those peaches are organic, but they came from Peru—it took a lot of jet fuel to get them here. And those green beans are organic too—but they arrived after a long dusty truck ride from south of the border, and contributed a lot of emissions along the way.

Power Salad Toppers

Move over, croutons. Try these tasty toppers on any salad.

  • Hemp Seeds—These tiny seeds are a powerhouse of healthy oils and protein—and taste fantastic, even right out of the bag. Look for “hemp hearts” (shelled hemp seeds).
  • Sunflower Seeds—Use raw seeds or toast lightly and voilá! They’re yummy, crunchy, and full of heart-healthy vitamin E.
  • Chia seeds—The nutritional profile of chia seeds is outstanding—fiber, protein, omega-3s, and antioxidants—a true superfood.
  • Flax seeds—An excellent source of omega-3s, fats that help reduce inflammation, balance hormones, protect against mood swings, depression, and more.
  • Sesame seeds—Great on steamed or roasted veggies, too, these seeds provide minerals including copper and magnesium.
  • Walnuts—Just ¼ cup gives you nearly 100% of your daily requirement of omega-3 fats.
  • Slivered almonds—A no-brainer. Delicious and a great source of calcium.
  • Fruit—Fresh or dried fruit, such as strawberries or blueberries, add an unexpected twist to a savory salad, and are loaded with vitamins.