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IN SEASON

Lots of Rain, Loads of Tomatoes

March 25, 1993|RUSS PARSONS

In the dreary, damp days of Southern California spring, a young cook's fancy is hardly likely to turn to thoughts of tomatoes. But while such an attitude may be seasonally correct--the tomato being a hot-blooded symbol of summer if ever there was one--it doesn't always make good economic sense.

This year is a good example. It is doubtful that tomatoes will get much cheaper than they are right now. Last week cherry tomatoes were selling for as little as 69 cents a basket while Romas were going for a nearly unbelievable 49 cents a pound.

And these prices are not unusual. Wholesale prices for Romas are from $5 to $7 a carton--almost exactly what they were in September, near the peak of the season. And at one point earlier in the month, they were selling as low as $3 a carton.

How can this be? Look southward. Mexico has had a bumper crop this winter. Consider: Imports of tomatoes are up more than 250% from last year, bell peppers are up more than 150%, and cucumbers are up more than 130%.

This flood of vegetables has brought prices down to near summertime levels. Even the recent "Storm of the Century" that swept through prime Florida growing areas hasn't had a lasting impact. While the price of Florida mature green tomatoes--the bulk of the tomato supply at this time of the year--spiked briefly after the storm, they have come back down. They are still more expensive than the Mexican tomatoes, but not by much--selling at wholesale for only $8 to $10 a carton.

The added advantage with Romas and cherries is that because of their sturdier construction, they are picked ripe. Granted, the produce shipper's definition of ripe is not the same as a home gardener's, but these are still less susceptible to improper storage and handling.

There are plenty of other bargains in the produce section:

* Avocados continue to be inexpensive, particularly in smaller sizes, which are especially plentiful.

* Strawberry fields are drying out and prices are dropping rapidly, though quality continues to be something of a problem. There are still a lot of misshapen berries (called "cat's faces" in the trade), but that doesn't affect the eating quality at all.

* Broccoli continues to be inexpensive, though a lot of it looks "leggy" with lots of stalk. Again, this is mainly cosmetic.

* Artichokes and asparagus continue to pick up and should reach full harvest volume within the next two weeks.

* Watch for the first of the spring onions to come on soon. Right now we are seeing storage onions, which are the rounder Spanish Globe variety. Fresh-crop onions are mostly flatter Bermudas or pear-shaped Granos. Storage onions have harder skins and deeper color and tend to be hotter and more pungent than fresh-crop.

* Not far behind will be the spring's sweet onions from California's Imperial Valley and points north and east. Expect those to arrive mid-April to early May.

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