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WHAT'S FRESH : BUYING OPPORTUNITIES : Basil Instincts : The leafy herb is great in pasta sauces, but don't cook it, just warm it up.

June 14, 1990|PEGGY Y. LEE

After salt and pepper, basil may be the most frequently used seasoning. It is hard to imagine a good pasta or tomato sauce without it.

"You don't want to cook it for tomato sauce," said Lucy Vanoni, a Saticoy grower. "To get the flavor, you put it in your sauce just before you put it on your pasta. You want it just warmed up."

Most people use only the finely ground basil leaves as an herb and don't realize that the blossoms are also edible, Vanoni said.

Although the white, bluish or purplish flowers are milder in taste, they can be used as garnishes, in salads or with meats.

The basil plant is native to tropical Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands, but it can be grown in most warm climates.

"It grows very well; you plant it in the spring when the ground warms up," Vanoni said. "It needs a lot of sun. . . . I water mine only once a week. As soon as we get the first frost, they freeze like tomato plants. If you keep them indoors or in a hothouse, you can grow them all year."

Gardeners interested in growing their own basil plants can buy plants or seeds at a nursery, Vanoni said. "For the average homemaker, one or two plants will give you all the basil you want."

But gardeners should remember to trim the blossoms of the plant, Vanoni said. "If you don't cut back the blossoms, the plant will stop growing, it will go to seeds and won't produce any more leaves. You just pinch the blossoms off."

Storing basil is also relatively easy, Vanoni said. Basil leaves placed in an airtight plastic bag and frozen can keep up to a year, she said. Consumers who purchase ground basil at the supermarket should check to see if it has been on the shelf too long, Vanoni said. "If you shake some out and you don't smell or taste it, it's been stored too long."

In addition to sweet basil, the most common variety, Vanoni grows lemon and cinnamon basil.

The taste of lemon basil is similar to sweet basil, said Vanoni, but the leaves are pointed and narrow, compared to the wide, broad leaves of sweet basil.

Cinnamon basil is stronger in taste, gives off a cinnamon scent and the leaves are tinged a cinnamon color.

Vanoni and other basil growers in Ventura County sell the herb at the Ventura Farmers Market.

Asparagus, another item sold at the Farmers Market, is approaching the end of its season, so prices are on the high side, said Fred Yasui, produce manager for Gelson's Market in Westlake Village.

People looking for something unusual may want to try comice, a soft, delicate pear imported from Chile, Yasui said, "It's very sweet, and it makes a great dessert pear or eating pear."

Also sweet and imported from abroad are red, yellow and orange peppers from Holland, Yasui said. "They're grown in a controlled environment. . . . They taste on the sweet side."

The yellow pepper is the least acidic. All are particularly good in salads, with Italian sausage and squash, Yasui said. "You can do anything you want with them," he said.

Cherry lovers will want to stock up on the fruit now, while it is still available, Yasui said. An unexpected Memorial Day weekend storm ruined a huge crop of cherries in the San Jose area and the fruit is fast disappearing from the shelves.

The cherry growers "were in the middle of harvesting the crop, and they were getting toward the peak of the harvest when the rain came," Yasui said.

But prices, Yasui said, are not yet high on cherries.

A good buy now on a local catch is leopard shark from the Ventura area coastline, said Ralph Shankle, co-owner of Cal Pacifica in Ventura. "It's one of the better sharks as far as a barbecue," he said.

Other good local catches are spider and rock crab, Shankle said.

For a good buy on non-local seafood, consumers might want to try bite-size, Mexican bay scallops. The scallops, said Shankle, are excellent sauted or in seafood salads. "The larger ones tend to be on the slimy side. These are more firm."

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