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LETTUCE ENTERTAIN YOU - WITH PLAN B SALADS

Recent torrential rains and flooding in California's fertile Salinas Valley caused more than $400 million in crop damage and are expected to translate into higher produce prices - at least in the short term.

Acres of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes and other vegetables that were due to be harvested in the next few months were under water, said Richard Mount, executive vice president of the Associated Produce Dealers and Brokers of Los Angeles. A lot of the vegetable seeds to be used for future crops also were washed away.However, once crops are replanted and harvested, and vegetables and fruits from other areas - such as Ventura, San Diego and Orange counties - reach maturity, supplies will pick up, said Heather Flower, spokeswoman for Western Growers Association of Irvine, Calif.

In the meantime, Mount anticipates that impact of the rains likely will result in higher prices, as retailers import produce from other states.

"In this country, we're lucky to have so many growing areas available to us because of the transportation system and refrigeration facilities enabling us to bring in items wherever there is demand," he said. "There are going to be supplies of everything, but consumers might not like the prices."

So as lettuce and other vegetable prices soar in the days ahead, arm yourself with a collection of alternative salad creations. Try such variations as marinated vegetable salads, potato salads, interesting coleslaws and other delicious suggestions using canned and fresh fruits and vegetables.

It's a good time to change your eating habits and explore some of the new possibilities that those often-overlooked vegetables and fruits in the produce section have to offer. Your salad repertoire may be in for a glorious update.

- Natalie Haughton