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The Perfect Pick

Roadside stands and produce departments will be brimming with buckets of luscious Florida strawberries this month. The bushes are loaded in the fields around Plant City, where they've been growing for almost 100 years.

Growers and hundreds of thousands of strawberry fans will celebrate the berry at the annual Strawberry Festival beginning today, with 10 days of music, carnival rides and lots of shortcake. (Call 752-9194 for tickets and information.)

Florida's crop is the second largest in the country and this year 1,000 more acres were planted. This month, as the harvest hits its peak, production is 20 percent ahead of last year. The cold spell followed by warm sunny weather should make this month's pickings ripe and sweet, and the size of the harvest should keep prices low.

The strawberry season runs from December through April, so u-pick fields won't open until the middle of next month, said Glenda McNary of the growers' association.

Strawberries have a variety of uses in salads, salad dressings and sauces for meats (like pork, turkey or chicken) as well as desserts, and even in cosmetics. Did you know that well-bred Victorian ladies used strawberries to improve their complexion, and that strawberries also were touted as a remedy for sunburn?

However you use your strawberries, whether pureed and slathered all over your face or drowned in dollops of cream, you'll want the best.

To be certain that you get them, make sure that the fruit you purchase is firm, plump, bright red and free of bruises.

Don't buy any with white or green tips or tops because you will be disappointed in their flavor. Caps should still be on, and if they are not, the fruit is either too ripe or damaged.

It's also a good idea to buy strawberries in smaller containers, since there is less fruit on top to squash those at the bottom.

Of course, you already know that strawberries are best eaten immediately. But, if you must keep them longer, store them in the refrigerator with their caps intact, and use them as soon as possible.

_ Waveney Ann Moore and Chris Sherman