Throughout the 1990s, over at KCNC-TV Channel 4, we made a bunch of television segments on food: restaurant reviews, “best of” wrap-ups, chef interviews and the like. One of my favorite bits was to have a Denver chef accompany me on a surprise visit to a (willing) viewer’s home kitchen and have us cook a meal on the spot with whatever we might find in their pantry.

To me, the most memorable segment was the one in which chef Kevin Taylor and I rescued a filet of freezer-burned salmon by poaching it in Red Zinger tea. That was about all that was available, but “dinner” was surprisingly tasty.

But in doing all that TV, I was able to peer into the storage places — frozen, cold or closeted — where people kept their food. Oh, boy, the lessons I learned.

No pointers here on storing stuff in the freezer. It’s the most stable pantry place people use. Just keep in mind that deterioration, hence spoilage, occurs there, too. It merely takes more time.

But here are several tips on storing perishables, especially fruits and vegetables, either in the refrigerator or outside of it. A bit of science assists.

Wrapping banana stems in plastic or foil helps them ripen slowly and evenly. (Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post)

As Harold McGee, the writer and food scientist, amply explains in his seminal “On Food and Cooking” (Collier, 1984), plants, though plucked from their place of birth, yet live. Their ripening is just a euphemism for the deterioration, the disorganization of their tissues. (We should understand this because looked at similarly, such is also our fate.)

The point about food storage is to avoid or postpone the inevitable by keeping plant tissues as close to pristine as possible. Deterioration comes by way of infection by microbes, on the one hand, and by action of the plant’s own enzymes on the other. Shortchange those and that ought to work. In a sense, plant tissues must be saved from themselves.

The top priority is to get rid of nearby mold. “One bad apple” indeed does “spoil the whole barrel.” Also avoid dropping a fruit or vegetable, thereby damaging its cellular structure. Sometimes, merely washing tender fruits such as many berries damages cell walls. So, wash just before eating, not earlier. The same goes for the skins of stone fruits such as peaches or nectarines.

Here’s a cool rule: Store perishables in an environment similar to that in which they were grown. For example, the tomato is a tropical plant and just doesn’t do well if kept in the refrigerator. Same for unripe avocadoes, mangoes and most stone fruits. They ripen most profitably on the counter, or in a paper bag, and ought to be refrigerated only when completely ripe and soon to be consumed. (But never store a fresh tomato of any level of ripeness in the fridge.)

Also, various vegetables never benefit from (and, in truth, will be harmed by) being stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer: garlic, onions, potatoes and hard-skinned (winter) squashes.

Many fruits and vegetables that we routinely store in the refrigerator taste better with more time outside of it on the kitchen counter. Apples, many varieties of citrus, pears, plums, almost every form of stone fruit — all of these taste best when ripened at room temperature, then refrigerated only for a short period of time (in some cases, less than a day) when ripe and simply if the eater prefers cool, crisp fruit.

Finally, the most interesting science of all: gas. Many foods produce a harmless gas called ethylene as they ripen, a gas that in fact is necessary for their ripening. But it’s a gas that also can cause other nearby vegetables and fruits to ripen prematurely, to use a useful word, or even too quickly to allow proper flavor development in that fruit or vegetable.

Bananas are the best example, wafts of ethylene ever emitting from their stem ends. That is why organic bananas come stem-wrapped in plastic. (Producers of non-organic bananas spray their fruit with ethylene gas to hasten ripening, but producers of organic fruit cannot do the same.)

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Lemons and limes (but not, curiously, oranges) are good examples of fruits that are “ethylene-sensitive” and deteriorate more quickly than they otherwise would if in the presence of ethylene-producers such as bananas (or apples, kiwi, many stone fruits, avocados, peppers and cantaloupe, ethylene-producers all). That is why I store my lemons and limes — I call them my “7Up” citrus — far away from ethylene.

Online, you will find further guidance about poor fruit and vegetable partners-in-storage due to the ethylene effect. But a few surprisingly terrible marriages are avocados and apples, tomatoes and cucumbers (only tasty together on eating), broccoli and peppers, and potatoes and onions.

About the latter pair: I used to store my potatoes and onions together where I thought that they belonged: in a well-ventilated basket, in the dark and away from heat.

But together? Not a good idea. So, now, they each have their own room.

Pick-of-the-crisper-drawer wraps

Adapted from seattletimes.com. Makes 4.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 chard stems, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 medium white onion, peeled and diced
1/4 cup white wine
2 teaspoons Italian herb blend
3 cups diced assorted vegetables (such as zucchini, tomato, mushrooms)
1 bunch chard leaves, rinsed and chopped
2 tablespoons hummus, flavored if desired
4 large thin flatbreads or flour tortillas
Shredded white cheddar cheese

Directions

Heat vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat; add chard stems, garlic and onion. Cook until softened, about 3 minutes; lower heat to medium. Stir in white wine and Italian herb blend; cook, 1 minute.

Add diced vegetables; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 minutes. Add chard leaves, cook, stirring, until wilted and warmed. Spread hummus over flatbreads. Top with the vegetable mixture and shredded cheese. Roll up; slice in half on the diagonal.

 

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