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A well-rounded HERO!

Good-looking and simple, the blueberry has a surprisingly powerful inner benefit.

Blueberries have always seemed about as perfect a fruit as nature ever made.

They don't have thorns that stab your fingers, and you don't have to crawl around to pick them.

They don't have awkward pits or annoying seeds. They don't need peeling, quartering, slicing or dicing. And when you eat them in a bowl of milk, they bob around obligingly so you can chase down every last one.

Besides, who can resist their good looks? Those dusky midnight colors and round shapes make them look like fat blue moons. You can pop 'em in your mouth like candy and never regret it when you step on the scale.

But it's blueberries' hidden charms that have been making big, big news over the last year. Inside that chubby blue exterior lurks perhaps the most concentrated source of antioxidants in all of fruit- and vegetable-dom.

Antioxidants slow the aging process and retard the development of diseases, including cancer, by mopping up compounds in the body called free radicals.

Scientists at the USDA's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston tested 40 common fruits and vegetables _ including broccoli, spinach and oranges _ to determine their antioxidant levels. Blueberries came out No. 1.

Dr. Ronald Prior, head of the USDA's phytochemical research at Tufts, says one serving of blueberries _ a half-cup _ contains as much antioxidant power as five servings of some fruits and vegetables.

Eating a half-cup of blueberries daily will almost double the amount of antioxidants most Americans get every day, he wrote in the June issue of Prevention magazine, in an article titled "The Miracle Berry." That single serving has as many antioxidants as 2\ cups of broccoli.

Other Tufts researchers fed blueberry extract to older rats for two months and found that it improved their short-term memory, as measured by their ability to navigate a maze that they had learned but then forgotten. More research is being done to find out what substances are responsible for the change, Prevention says.

At the University of California at Davis, researchers believe the antioxidants in blueberries are responsible for reducing levels of LDL, the bad cholesterol, in the blood. And at Rutgers University, research shows that blueberries promote urinary tract health in much the same way that cranberries do.

It's prime blueberry season, so make the best of it. We might have fallen in love with their good looks, but for once, beauty's more than skin deep.

Cold Blueberry Soup

6 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

1 cup pineapple juice

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons sugar

[ teaspoon cinnamon

8 teaspoons low-fat plain or lemon yogurt

4 teaspoons slivered almonds

In a blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade, place the blueberries, pineapple juice, lime juice, sugar and cinnamon. Puree until smooth. Serve in soup bowls and garnish with yogurt and sprinkle with almonds.

Makes about 6 cups. Per }-cup serving: 107 calories (11 percent from fat), 1 gm fat (0 saturated fat), 24 gm carbohydrate, 2 gm protein, 13 mg sodium, trace of cholesterol, 32 mg calcium, 3 gm fiber.

Source: "Powerfoods" by Stephanie Beling (HarperCollins, $25).

Blueberry Sauce

2 cups blueberries, rinsed

1 tablespoon honey

\ cup lemon juice

{ cup water

1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water

tablespoons sugar

In a medium saucepan, combine the blueberries, honey, lemon juice and water. Over medium to low heat, simmer the blueberries until they are tender but somewhat hold their shape. Remove from the heat and strain the blueberries, reserving the berries and the liquid. Pour the liquid back into the saucepan and heat over medium heat. Add the cornstarch mixture and continue cooking until the sauce is thickened. Fold in the reserved blueberries and add the sugar to taste.

Note: This sauce is great drizzled over ice cream or frozen yogurt.

Makes about 2 cups. Per \-cup serving: 46 calories (0 percent from fat), 0 fat (0 saturated fat), 12 gm carbohydrate, 0 protein, 3 mg sodium, 0 cholesterol, 3 mg calcium, 1 gm fiber.

Source: adapted from "1,000 Low-Fat Recipes" by Terry Blonder Golson (Macmillan, $29.95),

Blueberry Tarts with Lemon Mousse

Lemon mousse:

Grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (or to taste)

3 egg yolks

3 tablespoons sugar

{ cup heavy whipping cream

1 cup blueberries, rinsed

Tart shells:

1 cup all-purpose flour

{ cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

{ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

Cold water

Mint leaves

Lemon zest

In a non-reactive bowl, whisk together the lemon zest, juice, egg yolks and sugar. Place over simmering water in a double boiler and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture is firm and thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove and allow to cool, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 3 hours.

To prepare the tart shells, in a large bowl mix together the flour, butter, salt and sugar with a pastry blender or process in a food processor. Add a few tablespoons of cold water just to bind the dough. Shape into a disc and cut the dough into quarters. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out each dough quarter and press into a 4-inch tart pan. Poke holes in the bottom with a fork. Bake for about 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool.

Meanwhile, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold in the lemon mixture. Spread the mixture into the cooled tart shells and top with blueberries. Garnish with mint leaves and lemon zest, if desired.

Makes 4 4-inch tarts. Per tart: 492 calories (60 percent from fat), 33 gm fat (19 gm saturated fat), 46 gm carbohydrate, 6 gm protein, 313 mg sodium, 241 mg cholesterol, 44 mg calcium, 2 gm fiber.

Source: "Berries A Cookbook" by Robert Berkley (Fireside, $14.95).

Blueberry Cake

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons softened butter, divided

2 cups sugar plus more to dust the pan

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups flour, sifted before measuring

{ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 cups fresh blueberries or 2 cups frozen blueberries, rinsed well and drained

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Coat a bundt or tube pan with 2 tablespoons butter. Dust with sugar. Set aside.

Cream remaining butter and 2 cups sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla.

Sift dry ingredients together. Reserve 1 cup of the flour mixture. Gradually add remaining flour mixture to batter, beating well. Dredge berries in reserved flour. Fold gently into batter.

Spoon batter (it will be thick) into prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a skewer inserted halfway between sides and tube comes out without raw batter. Cool in pan. Run knife around inside edges of pan and invert cake onto a plate. Serves 12.

Source: "Virginia Hospitality" by the Junior League of Hampton Roads (1992).