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FROM THE FIELDS // Ripe for the picking

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Every year I impatiently wait until July when my favorite vegetables sweeten, ripen and begin to appear in produce sections, farmers markets and, best of all _ in all their glory _ in my garden.

There's nothing like walking through your own vegetable garden, inhaling the fragrances of ripe, sweet tomatoes and onions, pungent garlic, basil, rosemary and thyme.

Although prices may fluctuate due to erratic weather, the produce variety is mind-boggling. And vegetables are changing colors before our very eyes. Through crossbreeding and hybridizing, we have stark white eggplant, bright orange tomatoes, yellow zucchini, green cauliflower, purple bell pepper. When planning menus, take full advantage of nature's _ or the agricultural laboratory's _ bright palette.

Using fresh vegetables in season yields the best quality, the biggest variety, the sweetest taste and, often, the best price. Enjoy them now and save the canned and frozen stuff for later.

Because summer vegetables are so flavorful, it's the best time of year to eat them raw, preserving all the vitamins and minerals that can be depleted by cooking. Try jicama sticks, zucchini rounds, bell pepper half moons, broccoli and cauliflower florets, mushroom buttons. Even delicate asparagus and snap beans are delicious au naturel.

Crisp, crunchy veggies can be enhanced by a creamy dip seasoned with fresh herbs, nuts, olives, pimientos or shellfish. A wonderful combination is cream cheese or yogurt favored with ripe olives, chives, spinach, mushrooms and Brazil nuts.

Make a hot Cheddar cheese dip with chili peppers, garlic, cilantro and tomatoes. Try roasting onions, garlic or tomatoes with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh basil, rosemary or thyme. Savory salsas, guacamole and kabobs are also better this time of year.

My all-time favorite dishes _ pesto, tomato bruschette, angel hair pasta with tomato and basil, ratatouille and caprese _ are just different combinations of tomatoes, sweet onions, garlic and basil, the most flavorful offerings of summer.

Beverly Levitt is a freelance food journalist and screenwriter who lives in the Los Angeles area.

Savor summer's bounty

Sweet summer onions include California Italian Red and Sweet Imperials, Texas Sweets or 1015s, Georgia's Vidalia, Washington Walla Walla and, of course, Maui Sweet onions from Hawaii. These onions are quite juicy and, because of their high sugar content, mild enough to be eaten raw. But they have a shorter shelf life than storage onions. Sweet onions should feel firm and dry and may have loose outer skins. They should be kept dry; dampness will cause decay.

Garlic harvest began in June. The garlic bulb has several small sections called cloves, some numbering the "standard" eight, others containing as many as 40. Look for nicely formed heads with good, firm cloves. Softness detects decay. Refrigerating garlic is not recommended; instead, put them in a shallow bowl or plate with lots of air and low light, and keep them away from any heat source.

Summer tomatoes are available in many varieties: red and yellow cherry and pear tomatoes, red plum and beefsteak. Look for plump, heavy tomatoes with smooth skins. They should be free of bruises, blemishes or deep cracks. Ripe tomatoes hove a wonderful fragrance, promising a sweet flavorful taste. Store at room temperature but out of the sunlight. Don't refrigerate unless they become overripe, in which case they should be used immediately for sauce.

Sweet summer basil is best picked and eaten within hours. It is easily grown at home in the garden or on the patio in ceramic pots, even tin cans. Avoid buying basil already packaged; it is listless and tasteless. Once picked, refrigerate as soon as possible. Basil is best stored as you would flowers, in a glass with water, or covered with a wet paper towel inside a plastic bag.