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Fresh tastes of spring

Stores awash in green are a reminder that in a few days those yearning to be Irish for a day will don Kelly green and try to shoehorn themselves into local Irish pubs.

For those who plan a quieter evening at home, why not buy some Irish soda bread and treat yourself to a hearty dish of corned beef and cabbage? There will be plenty of Florida cabbage around for that.

In our state, March eating is determined by the farm cycle as well as holidays, because spring is when many winter crops reach their peak.

So Florida fruit and vegetables continue to be abundant. Bob Blankenship of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says the weather has been a good season for the Florida farmer.

As consumers, we should also benefit from a bigger selection of fresh local produce, so keep an eye open for roadside stands, field stands and other sources of ripe crops.

Even though we are coming to the end of the citrus season, earlier cold weather may actually have extended the tangerine season for a while.

There also is good news about tomatoes: Prices should be coming down. And watch for lots of strawberries because harvesting is almost at its peak.

By the way, have you heard the rumor that scallops really are punched out of skate wings, cod or other fish? I'll address this later.

For those of you who have been scared silly by recent reports about the safety of meats and poultry, I've got some common sense tips for you.

Produce

To do justice to your corned beef and cabbage , shop for cabbage heads that are firm and fairly heavy in relation to their size. Also make sure the outer leaves are a good color and blemish-free.

In addition to cabbage and strawberries, this is a good time for tropical fruit and vegetables.

One of my favorites, plantains, will be readily available. Labeled plantain bananas by some supermarkets, plantains actually have thicker, tougher skins than bananas. They also are heavier and bigger.

Unlike bananas, plantains must be cooked before being eaten. They can be prepared in a variety of ways including boiling, baking and frying.

One of the best ways to enjoy them is to buy them green, slice thinly and fry them in hot oil as an alternative to potato chips.

Or, if you'd rather have a sweet taste, buy them ripe, almost black, and fry them in hot oil. They cook quickly and are delicious. Even the most pizza-crazed kid can be tempted to try this sweet treat. I know, for it is one of the few Caribbean dishes my American-born daughter will try.

Other tropical fruit and vegetables on hand this month, particularly in ethnic markets, will be cachucha peppers, clementines, coconuts, eddoes, mangoes and papaya.

You'll still find plenty of apples around, along with celery, cucumbers, escarole, beans, brussels sprouts, radishes and spinach.

Meat and seafood

The old rumor that some stores sell "scallops" that are actually punched out of cod, skate or other fish, has come back, so much so that Florida officials have moved to quash it. It's simply not true, they say, although they fear this rumor may never die.

The most convincing argument against the idea of "manufacturing" scallops is that it would be a foolish financial move.

Cod and skate now command better prices. Cod is highly valued by the frozen seafood industry for use in dinners, fish sticks and fillets. There also is a growing demand for skate both nationally and internationally.

In addition, scallops have long been cherished for a unique flavor, and a sweet, tender taste, one that most consumers know. Plus, the texture of a real scallop is distinctive, with vertical muscles that hold it together.

So when you see scallops in the seafood case, go ahead and buy them. In fact, this is a perfect month to buy fresh calico scallops, which are excellent in a variety of casseroles.

Also look for tuna, grouper, mahi mahi and catfish. There should be some American red snapper around, as well. Plus the stone crab season continues through the middle of next month.

However, cold weather in the North may make it difficult to find Northern specialties such as ocean perch, hake and white fish, says Nancy Mathews of Cox's Wholesale Seafood in Tampa.

Food safety

In recent weeks you've probably heard reports about seafood safety and may be concerned about the safety of meat following recent television exposes.

Obviously you must shop at stores you trust, make sure their meat and seafood counters are cold and clean and examine purchases carefully, but you can also take a few steps on your own to ensure your safety and your family's.

Remember that children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to food poisoning.

Buy your perishables last when you go to the market.

Be sure that the juices from meat and poultry don't drip on other foods in your shopping cart, for they will contaminate anything they touch.

Of course, get your meats home as quickly as possible. Once home, keep them refrigerated or frozen until they are ready to be used.

Don't thaw meats on the counter; defrost them in the refrigerator.

Make sure that all working surfaces are clean and wash them with hot, soapy water after they have been touched with raw meat.

One of the most important tips, however, concerns cooking. Be sure to cook the meat thoroughly. Undercooked hamburger can cause serious illness or death. However, thorough cooking _ until the center is no longer pink _ will kill bacteria.

Handle carefully, and there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to continue enjoying a juicy hamburger right off the grill.

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