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Florida prepares for a bountiful harvest

Despite the heat, November in Florida is a time of Thanksgiving and harvest. We give thanks that the worst of the summer heat is over, and we begin our harvest, not end it. So shoppers should find the best of both worlds: the traditional turkey, cranberries, apples, pears and squash of Northern autumns and a growing selection of the produce of Florida's waters, fields and groves.

Although commercial fishing for most grouper will soon stop, boats are once again pulling stone crabs from the Gulf. A full range of citrus also is coming off the trees and tomatoes and strawberries will start arriving. Farmer's markets and roadside stands soon will be bustling.

The approach of the holidays has the food industry in high gear, although supplies and prices may change quickly. Plan ahead and look for specials. Pumpkin prices, for instance, drop after Halloween. Prices of turkeys, hams, roasts and other meats for traditional family celebrations go up during the holidays, but that often means bargains on chickens, fish and smaller cuts of meat.

Here's what market watchers see for shoppers next month:

Fruits and vegetables: Some old grove hands won't eat citrus until after Thanksgiving, but there will be a full range of Florida fruit on the market all month. The early oranges are navels (for hand eating) and Hamlins (for juice). There should also be Orlando tangeloes and tangerines, the small Dancy and the larger Robinsons.

There should be a full selection of grapefruit. Marsh Seedless and Ruby Red will be the most common, but white Duncan grapefruits are usually the sweetest (and have the most seeds).

More exotic fruit will include kumquats, mangoes, carambola, guava and Florida avocado.

Winter production of vegetables has already begun, with the first cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from Tampa Bay and South Florida. By next month there should be large selection of tomatoes, squash and Zellwood corn.

Some Plant City farmers have started early varieties of strawberries that will be in stores in November, well ahead of any December freezes such as those that crippled last year's crop.

At the same time farms in cooler north Florida are winding up fall harvest by bringing in the last snap beans, okra and various Southern peas and beans.

In addition there's the autumn harvest from the rest of the nation. Pears, particularly from the Northwest, should be in good supply, from sweet juicy anjou and comice to the harder bosc and seckel varieties.

Look for apples from New York, potatoes from Idaho and a continuing supply of grapes. (The first new wine of the 1990 vintage in French and American vineyards will also arrive next month). Melons will be scarce, but kiwi fruit and papaya will be abundant.

Think of pumpkins and such hard squashes as butternut, hubbard and acorn as more than decoration: They make good soups, pies and side dishes. November has become a big month for cranberries and sweet potatoes, but it's also the best time for persimmons and pomegranates and it's the beginning of turnip and rutabaga season.

Meat, poultry and eggs: Turkey, still the centerpiece of most holiday meals, will be slightly more expensive this year but still a good value _ between 69 and 79 cents per pound for frozen turkeys. (Buy your turkey early to get the best price and selection and to thaw it out in time for the holiday dinner.) Because of the increased year-round popularity of turkey, there should be a greater variety of turkey parts and a better selection of fresh turkey.

Chicken prices remain relatively low, with the best prices on leg quarters and whole chickens. Chicken prices traditionally drop immediately around the holidays.

Likewise, the best buys in red meats will be steaks, chops and ground products, which are often bypassed by holiday cooks looking for larger cuts.

Egg prices will remain high through most of the month and will likely cost a dollar per dozen before the end of the year.

Fish and seafood: Floridians will have to do with less grouper next month. Because the grouper population appears to be shrinking, officials will close fishing for certain shallow-water grouper in the Gulf from Nov. 7 to Jan. 1. The banned species include the popular black and yellowfin groupers.

If you want grouper during the ban, look for deep-water species, grouper caught in the Atlantic or foreign waters and those caught and frozen before the ban.

Deep-water species, including snowy, misty, yellowedge and Warsaw, may be caught, although that fishing season may close later. Commercial fishing for red snapper may also be banned.

But there are ample compensations for seafood lovers. Stone crab season opened Oct. 15 and stone crabs, a traditional Florida delicacy, should be available in most fish markets. But they're never cheap. Best retail prices will probably range from $6 to $10 per pound.

That will give Florida a full line-up of shellfish in November (except for blue crab, which will be in shorter supply next month). Shrimp and oysters should be abundant; scallops, clams, rock shrimp and spiny lobster should also be available.

Among finfish, the biggest catches should be of black drum, speckled sea trout, sheephead and jack crevalle. You may also find tuna, shark, bluefish, pompano, flounder and mackerel.