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IN SEASON

Fruit Forecast: Between Heaven and Hell

June 24, 1993|RUSS PARSONS

Last summer was a fruit lover's heaven and a fruit grower's hell. A huge harvest, a troublesome economy, marketing problems and transportation woes resulted in a year in which apricots, plums, peaches and nectarines were practically given away.

That's not the case this year. After a slow start, summer's soft fruit is coming on, and by all indications the harvest will be back to normal--up to 10% smaller than last year. That certainly won't mean skyrocketing prices, but it should mean the farmers will make their money back.

Early in the spring, growers predicted harvests of plums and nectarines would be down about 10% this summer while the peach harvest would be only 3% smaller. Now it looks like those predictions may have been a tad optimistic, as a cool spring has further hindered the crop.

Plums have been relatively scarce since the early season harvest--mainly Santa Rosas and Blackambers--has been as much as 40% smaller than last year's. Fortunately, here come Friar plums to the rescue. Harvesting of Friars--the most widely grown plum in California--begins this week and is projected to be even bigger than last year.

This week should also see the start of the harvest of Elegant Lady peaches--second in size only to O'Henrys (which won't begin appearing in stores until late July). With the picking of Flavorcrests still going on, that should mean some good buys in peaches for the Fourth of July.

Nectarine season kicks into high gear this week as well, as harvest of Summer Grand nectarines--far and away the bulk of the California crop--begins.

Cherries have also been scarce thanks to a deadly combination of a California harvest reduced by cool temperatures and high demand from overseas. But picking in the Northwest starts this week and--despite predictions that harvest will be as much as 10% smaller than last year--prices should be falling.

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If you shop at a fish market that stocks locally caught fish, now is the time to start watching for white sea bass. They were scarce in 1992, but divers and fisherman are predicting a big catch this year.

Caught all along the California coast, the commercial season for white sea bass officially began last week. Mostly, you'll find the fish already filleted. White sea bass has firm, milky white flesh with a delicately sweet, almost buttery flavor. There are difficult-to-remove pin bones, but they are big enough so you won't swallow them by mistake.

Pete Siracusa, who with his father owns J&P Seafoods, was selling big, perfect chunks of white sea bass at the North Long Beach growers market last weekend. At home, I cut them in slices two inches thick and lightly browned them in butter on all sides over high heat. I added about half of a bottle of white wine, turned the heat down and covered the pan to poach them for about five minutes. After removing the fish to a warm platter, I reduced the wine to a syrup and whisked in a couple tablespoons of butter. I can't remember a better piece of fish.

At the Wednesday growers market in Santa Monica, Bill and Delia Coleman have passion fruit, sapote, strike beans, an heirloom broccoli called DiCiccio, ollalieberries and green (immature) red garlic. They also have an awesome assortment of herbs and lettuces, including hoja santa , epazote, golden sage, purslane, alfalfa, sorrel and lambs quarter. Wilson Gardens, the pride of Pixley (near Bakersfield) has wonderful Royal/Blenheim apricots that were, as promised, "ugly but delicious." Scott Farms from Dinuba has white peaches and nectarines and David Mountain's mushroom stand has fresh boletes. At Santa Barbara's Seaside Banana Gardens, there are Brazilian Hawaiian, Mysore ladyfinger and cardaba bananas. Oxnard's Iwamoto and Sons has both golden and red raspberries and people are standing in line at Circle C Ranch from Lake Hughes to buy four varieties of cherries ranging in price from $4 to $4.50 a pound.

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