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IN SEASON / RUSS PARSONS

Time to Be Picky.

April 01, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

The produce price increases we've been waiting for since our water-logged February have not materialized. In fact, prices for most items are downright reasonable.

But before you get too complacent, you'd do well to take a close look at what you're buying. Although the crazy weather hasn't affected the amount of fruits and vegetables offered for sale, it has definitely affected their quality.

The prime offenders seem to be those that are most in demand now. Asparagus and strawberries might be prime harbingers of spring, but shoppers should be very picky about what they're buying this year.

Asparagus should be sold standing in trays of water. The cut ends should be moist; the spears should be firm and they should not be shriveled. The most obvious place to check is the tip, which should be tightly closed. Remember that the asparagus grows like a fern; at maturity those tips open up.

Strawberries are just as easy. The leaves on the hull should be green and bright. The berries should look smooth and glossy, with no soft spots or wrinkles. Most important, remember that almost all the strawberries in grocery stores today are of the Camarosa variety. To get the best berries, buy the ones that are darkest. A really ripe Camarosa is maroon, almost black.

This is the time of year when harvests switch from the winter growing areas--mostly Mexico, Arizona and the Imperial Valley--to spring and summer--San Joaquin and Salinas valleys. That can cause shortages (we're not past El Nino) but it can also cause quality problems.

Lettuce is one of the most sensitive crops, but so far quality has been quite good. If the weather stays hot in the outgoing Imperial Valley, watch out for light heads and peeling and soft spots along the ribs.

Broccoli and cauliflower are more problematic. Some of the produce harvested from the incoming area--Salinas--has been damaged by too much rain. Remember that cauliflower should have tight, creamy white curds and broccoli florets should be tight and bright green. If there are signs that broccoli florets are beginning to open--and certainly if there are any flowers--pass them by.

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