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Beat the heat with peaches and melons

Here we are still trying to play it cool during sizzling days and sweltering nights. July's weather may be the same as June's but the good thing we can cool off naturally with fresh, cool and easy-to-prepare refreshments from summer's crop of watermelons and cantaloupes, juicy peaches and nectarines.

They're great for drinks and fruit salads. And with fresh corn and beans around, you can see why vegetable dinners have been a summer tradition in the South.

Whether or not seafood's on your menu, it will be in the news. Fish that traditionally came from the nets of Florida boats, like mullet and pompano, may be scarce and pricey this month as the net ban approved by voters takes effect, but there will be increased supplies of some other species including salmon from out-of-state and overseas.

Produce

If you've been forever hunting for the perfect peach, or at least a few good ones, July is the month you may be at last rewarded.

The best method of course is to get your peaches from a stand that will will let you try one or at least buy and eat one peach on the spot before investing in a bagful.

The other key is to wait until the peaches are good enough that you can smell them. Peaches, after all, belong to the rose family.

There are also some visual and tactile clues. look for large, firm fruit with a creamy gold to yellow under-color (the red or "blush" of a peach indicates variety, not ripeness) and a well-defined crease running from the stem of the peach to the point.

Ripe peaches will be soft to touch but not mushy. Remember, peaches bruise easily, so handle them gently.

If you let peaches sit for a day or so on your kitchen counter they will ripen to perfection. At that time you can put them in the refrigerator, but plan to eat them within a few days.

Here is an easy way to peel a peach. Just dip it in boiling water for 20 to 30 seconds, then immerse it immediately in cold water. The skin should slide off easily.

Here's another tip: keep sliced peaches from darkening by adding a touch of lemon juice or ascorbic acid powder to the fruit.

Another refreshing summer fruit is, of course, the watermelon. This ubiquitous fruit of summer salads and cook-outs should be selected carefully.

Choose firm, smooth melons with a waxy bloom or dullness on the rind. Additionally, examine the underside for a yellowish or creamy-white coloring. To check on the inside color, check out the cut melon sections that are sold in the store; they usually came from the same selection. Look for right color.

You can get more use from watermelon in ices, drinks and desserts by seeding the melon, which is much easier than it sounds.

Honest. Here's how. Cut the the melon in half through its midsection, and then stand each half on the flat side and cut in half again. Cut these quarters into two or three wedges. You'll see that most melons have a distinct seed ring running through the middle of the wedge, with seed-free fruit in the center and around the outside.

Cut straight just above the seed line on each side of a wedge and you will get V-shaped core of flesh that is seedless. Scrape out the seeds in the remainder of the wedge until you are down to the rest of the flesh that is also seedless.

Cantaloupes, another perfect summer selection, have a distinct aroma when ripe. Choose the best fruit by pressing to see if the blossom-end gives slightly to gentle pressure.

This month also is a right time for buying mangos, those wonderful tropical fruit that come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, green to yellow to orange and red fruit. They're fun to eat out of hand and delicious in salads and desserts.

Among the other good buys at your grocer's this July are apples, plums, strawberries, grapes, yellow corn, avocadoes, broccoli and snap beans.

Seafood

The new net ban, which passed in a referendum last year and took effect July 1, prohibits most fishing nets in state waters and that will cause a stir in the seafood market as well as the news. Opponents of the ban say it will have an adverse effect on consumers as well as the commercial fishing industry.

We should expect to begin paying higher prices for net-caught fish such as mullet, trout, pompano and Spanish mackerel, predicts seafood merchant Gib Migliano of Save On Seafood in St. Petersburg.

Meanwhile, with the summer's emphasis on quick-cooking fare such as hot dogs and hamburgers, there will be good buys on certain seafood.

July is a perfect time to stock up on salmon from the Northwest and Chile. In fact, you'll probably be able to find Atlantic salmon fillet for about $4.99 a pound, says Migliano.

Prices for grouper also are lower this July. Expect to pay about $5.49 to $5.99 a pound for this firm, fine-textured fish.

Maine lobsters, however, are pricey this month, but we can look forward to Florida lobsters, which will hit the markets next month.

Peach Bowl

2 cups sliced peaches

1 cup blueberries

2 cups cubed watermelon

1 banana, sliced

1 medium sized cantaloupe, cubed

1 pint strawberries, hulled

1 kiwi fruit, peeled and sliced

1 (6-ounce) can frozen orange juice, thawed

In a decorative glass bowl, layer fruit. Pour orange juice over mixture; cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for two hours. Serves 10

Fruitful Cooler

4 peaches, pitted and quartered

1 cup low-fat plain or vanilla yogurt

{ teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

10 ice cubes

In a blender or food processor, combine all ingredients except

ice. Blend until smooth. Gradually add ice. Blend until smooth. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Peach Salsa

2 cups peeled and chopped peaches

} cup chopped red or green sweet pepper

{ cup chopped, seeded cucumber

\ cup sliced green onion

1 to 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro

In a medium mixing bowl, combine all ingredients. Cover, chill for up to four hours, stirring once or twice. Yields about 2{ to 10 \-cup servings.

Source: Georgia Peach Commission

Watermelon Lemonade

1 cup watermelon chunks

{ cup apple juice, pineapple juice or white grape juice

Juice of 1 lemon

In a blender or food processor, puree the watermelon chunks. Add the apple, pineapple or grape juice and the lemon juice; blend to combine.

Pour through a sieve to strain out seeds. Serve over ice.

Yield: 1{ cups, 1 large or 2 small drinks.

Source: New York Times

Watermelon, Lemon And Red Onion Salad

1 medium red onion, peeled and cut into thin slices

3 cups watermelon, cut into triangles 3 inches wide by \ inch thick and seeded

Finely grated rind of 2 lemons

2 teaspoons of capers

4 cups lightly packed mixed greens like arugula, mint, watercress and parsley

6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons dark sesame oil

Fine sea salt to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

For a milder flavor, soak the onion rings in cold water for 30 minutes before using.

When ready to serve, mix the onion, watermelon pieces, lemon rind, capers and greens.

Mix the vinegar and oils and mix with the salad. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with grilled pork, chicken or fish.

Yield: 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from Hammersley's Bistro, Boston

Stan's Peach Ketchup

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

5 ripe or slightly overripe peaches, pitted and roughly chopped

\ cup brown sugar, packed

3 tablespoons molasses

2 tablespoons white sugar

1 teaspoon salt

{ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

\ teaspoon ground allspice

{ cup white vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice (about { lemon)

In a saucepan, heat the oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Saute the onion slices over medium heat until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the peaches and cook 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the remaining ingredients except the lemon juice and simmer over low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. If necessary, add a small amount of water to prevent the mixture from burning.

Remove from heat, add lemon juice and puree in blender or food processor. This ketchup is great with barbecued or fried chicken, or onion rings. It will keep, covered and refrigerated, several weeks.

Makes 3 cups.

From Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys and Chowchows (Morrow, $20).

Gelo di Melone

(Sicilian Watermelon Pudding)

3 pounds ripe watermelon

cup granulated sugar

{ cup cornstarch

Pinch of fine sea salt

1 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped, unsalted pistachio nuts

2 tablespoons grated semi-sweet chocolate

Remove seeds from melon and cut into chunks; there should be about 4 cups.

In a blender or food processor, puree the chunks until smooth. Remove to a heavy, medium-size saucepan.

In a small bowl, combine sugar, cornstarch and salt with a whisk. Whisk into the watermelon juice.

Over medium heat, cook the mixture, stirring slowly with a whisk for 2 to 3 minutes, until it thickens to the consistency of applesauce.

Remove to a bowl and let cool for 10 minutes.

Stir in lemon juice to taste. Cover the surface of the pudding with plastic wrap, and chill for at least three hours or overnight.

Serve in shallow bowls, sprinkled with the pistachios and grated chocolate.

Yield: 6 servings.

Source: New York Times

Melon and Cilantro Salsa

1 cup {-inch watermelon cubes, seeded

1 cup {-inch honeydew melon cubes

1 cup {-inch cantaloupe cubes

\ cup fresh orange juice

Finely grated rind of one lime

Juice of one lime

{ cup slivered cilantro leaves

{ to 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

Combine all ingredients in a shallow bowl, adding minced jalapeno to taste.

Cover, and refrigerate for one hour, or until chilled.

Drain off some of the juice before serving with grilled, full-flavored fish like tuna, shark or swordfish.

Yield: 4 servings.

Source: New York Times

Stir-Fried Beef and Peaches

1 pound flank steak

1 cup peach nectar or juice

2 tablespoons hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

{ teaspoon ground ginger

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large leek (white part only), rinsed and chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup sliced fresh peaches

2 teaspoons cornstarch

Cut steak across grain on a diagonal into thin strips. In a medium bowl, combine peach nectar, hoisin sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil and ginger. Stir to blend well. Add meat and toss to coat. Refrigerate, turning occasionally, about 2 hours.

In a wok or saute pan, heat 1{ tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until hot, swirling to coat the pan. Add leek and garlic. Stir-fry until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove to plate.

Remove meat from marinade and pat dry. Reserve marinade. In same wok, heat remaining 1{ tablespoons oil over high heat. Add beef and stir-fry until meat loses its red color, about 2 minutes. Return leek to wok or skillet. Add peaches and reserved marinade. Cook 2 minutes.

Dissolve cornstarch in \ cup cold water. Add to stir-fried mixture and cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens, 1 to 3 minutes.

Serves 4.

From 365 Ways to Wok (HarperCollins, $16.95).

Peach and Blueberry Pie

4 large ripe peaches, peeled, pitted and thinly sliced

1{ cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and well-drained

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

{ teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 9-inch pie shells, homemade or store-bought

1 egg, well-beaten with a few drops of water (optional)

Sugar for glazing crust (optional)

Place a baking sheet or two sheets of aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven to catch any juices from the pie. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the peaches, blueberries, sugar, cornstarch, vanilla and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Stir lightly with a rubber spatula until the cornstarch is dissolved and the fruit is coated with syrup. Pour the filling into one of the pie shells. Top with the second crust. Crimp the edges together to seal in the filling and press around the edge of the pie plate with a fork. Poke several holes in the top crust with a small knife to allow the steam to escape during baking.

Bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 1 hour. Brush the pie with beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar for the last 15 minutes of baking, if desired. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Makes 1 pie.

From Blue Collar Food (Hearst Books, $20).

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