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Watermelon, nature's summer cooler

WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published June 2, 2004

Few things go with a hot day better than cool, crisp slices of watermelon. Just in time for sweltering weather, Florida is harvesting the popular summertime fruit.

June also will bring mangoes, passion fruit and mamey sapote, the latter a fruit beloved in the Caribbean and often referred to simply as mamey. Cherries from the Northwest should be arriving in supermarkets this week, as the California cherry harvest wanes. Blackberries cultivated in the Panhandle could be a treat this month. Expect to find them primarily in specialty markets, says Les Harrison of the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Of course, there will be no trouble finding Florida watermelons. Stephen Olson at the University of Florida, North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, sees growth in the so-called personal or mini, seedless watermelons.

"They are designed for small families," says Olson, a professor of horticultural sciences.

"I think there's a real market for them."

This week his center will be among those evaluating new personal-size, seedless watermelons - which run about the size of a large cantaloupe - for such qualities as yield, sugar and lycopene content.

Olson says that lycopene, a much touted antioxidant found in tomatoes, also is contained in red watermelons. (The fruit also comes in yellow and orange varieties.)

The mini version meets today's consumer demand for convenience, says Wendy McManus, director of marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board.

"It's very easy to cut and store," she says.

In addition, "It has a nice, firm texture. There certainly still is a place for the traditional seeded watermelon. It is wonderful for picnics and wonderful for kids who still want to spit the seeds. The seeded (watermelon) also tends to be a great value."

Summer's end won't mean the fruit will disappear.

"We started harvesting out of South Florida and the crop will continue to move north all through the summer and into the fall," McManus says.

Cherries, meanwhile, will continue to appear at local supermarkets through the end of July and perhaps even into early August, says B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers.

"Cherries are Mother Nature's potato chips," Thurlby says; 85 percent of the cherries consumers buy is eaten as a snack.

He says it's an urban myth that a dry stem means the cherry isn't good.

"Certainly a green stem looks better. Look at the cherry itself, not the stem," he says. "Look for that luster."

Produce

June brings apricots, blueberries, cabbage, sweet corn, cucumbers, mangoes, nectarines, okra, peaches, peas, peppers, pineapples, plums, lettuce, rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelons, squash, blackberries, passion fruit, mamey sapote, oranges and grapefruit.

Seafood

Beleaguered domestic shrimpers are getting government help to cope with imported farm-raised shrimp, which they blame for flooding the market and driving down prices. That means you should be hearing radio spots and seeing television commercials that promote wild-caught domestic shrimp.

Watch for special promotions when you shop. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has established partnerships with Publix, Winn-Dixie, Kash n' Karry and Albertsons to market local shrimp, says Martin May of the Deparment of Agriculture.

Florida is among the shrimp-producing states that have received federal money to help the industry, May says. The effort includes educating shoppers.

"There are no additives in Florida shrimp. It's fresher," May says.

"There's also the component of keeping it in the family. Our shrimpers work hard and prices are dropping and fuel prices are increasing."

Recipes for Florida shrimp are available on a new Web site, www.wildfloridashrimp.com

June also is a good month to buy mahi-mahi caught in the Florida Keys. Prices should be around $6.99 to $7.99 a pound for fillets, which is a good value, says Gib Migliano of Save On Seafood in St. Petersburg.

This month there also should be plenty of pompano and mangrove and yellow tail snapper. Grouper prices should begin to ease, with fillets about $8.99 a pound retail, Migliano says.

- Waveney Ann Moore writes about produce and seafood monthly for the Taste section. Contact her at 727 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com

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