WHAT'S FRESH BUYING OPPORTUNITIES : Try the Melons : It's the last chance for this fruit before farmers till under tired vines and turn to autumn crops.

Now four days into the new fall season, gone are most of those crops, sweetened by warm sunshine, that send fruit lovers to area markets for something naturally sweet and healthy.

There's still time--but just a little--to procure a flavorful locally grown summer melon before tired vines are tilled under and farmers turn their attention to fall and winter crops.

Through the first week in October, Underwood Ranch in Somis will be picking two varieties of melon known as the French Morning and the French Afternoon.

"Our harvest season for these two started the first week of June, and they're every bit as sweet right now," said James Barker, manager of the ranch's roadside produce stand.

The juicy, tender meat of these two melons comes from combining European and tropical varieties--and can only be found in Ventura County at Underwood's.

"Because of a soft, delicate outer flesh they need careful handling, so they are not commonly found in the grocery store," Barker said. "Big growers just won't plant them; they need a hard-fleshed melon that can take more abuse and doesn't bruise so easily."

Similar to a honeydew melon in size and texture, the French Morning and Afternoon are distinguished by their colorful outer stripes.

"The Morning is green and yellow with pale green meat, while the Afternoon is a light green with dark green stripes. It turns orange on the inside when it ripens," Barker said.

Consumers can expect South American fruits such as grapes, peaches and nectarines to hit market shelves by the end of October, Barker said, taking the place of local fruit now mostly gone at area markets.

"A lot of it will come from Chile and in no way can it be compared to California fruit," he said. "When it first arrives, it can be a shock to the taste buds--it's very tart and pretty tasteless." He added that the quality improves as the season progresses.

"People look forward to summer sweetness," Barker said. "We're lucky living here because fruits can be left alone to ripen, whereas other places must pick early because of shipping."

Underwood's is also offering seedless watermelons for a couple more weeks.

"This is a smaller variety, about the size of a bowling ball, which is beautifully sweet and juicy," Barker said. "This variety gives customers more of a choice--some don't want to buy a big thing to fill up the fridge--and it's handy, not heavy to lift."

To replace summer sweetness, we can look forward in the coming months to such locally grown fruits as apples, navel oranges and kiwi, Barker said.

The Underwood Ranch roadside produce stand is at 5696 Los Angeles Ave., Somis. Call 987-7100.

If a fresh fish dinner is on an upcoming menu, you may want to check out the catch at Cal Pacifica in Ventura.

Co-owner Ralph Shankle says Sheephead fish are running in abundance and being caught near the Channel Islands.

"Sheephead have large heads with buckteeth, and they feed on shellfish and sea urchins," he said.

Bright red with black stripes, the fillets of Sheephead have a texture similar to sea bass.

"One way to prepare them is barbecuing. Use a garlic butter and lemon basting and cook each side two to three minutes," Shankle said.

He offered this tip during preparation:

"When cooking the second side, you should flip the fillet on to aluminum because the fish tends to get a little flaky."

Also fresh this week are red snapper and thresher shark.

Cal Pacifica is at 36 Franklin Lane, Ventura. Call 643-8074.


* Ventura Mushrooms--Offers mushrooms year round the same day of harvest. They are selling this week for about $2 a pound. 4440 Olivas Park Road, Ventura. Call 642-3253, Ext. 24.

* Ventura Farmers Market--Wide variety of locally grown vegetables and fruits as well as produce brought in from surrounding counties. Wednesdays at Main Street and Mills Road 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturdays at Santa Clara and Figueroa streets 8:30 a.m. to noon, in Ventura. Call 529-6266.

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