When Western New Yorkers strive to properly exploit our blissfully delicious but all-too-short local fruit season, they think of dessert first.

What a waste. Expand the repertoire a smidgen and we can make fine use of gorgeous blueberries, peaches, plums, watermelon and more, right across the menu. Appetizers, salad, and main courses can all be built around the freshest fruit of the year.

Add to your favorite recipes by considering fruit in unfamiliar roles on your table.

A slab of sweet watermelon, brushed with olive oil and honey, can be grilled to add a touch of smoke without destroying its crunch. When it serves as the base of a salad with salty cheese and zingy balsamic-dressed greens, the transformation is complete.

Melon paired with savory Italian ham has long been a classic, but there's no reason to wait for the cantaloupes. Niagara County peaches, tangy and sweet, can step in and perhaps even improve on the original.

When blueberries are cooked, it's usually in the oven, in a pie or muffin. But in Italy, blueberries are sometimes cooked into a sauce fortified with wine, resulting in a fragrant sauce spooned over grilled beef, for a dish called filetto al mirtillo.

Red plums usually find themselves stewed or baked, but there's no reason their tartness and brilliant crimson hue can't be exploited in a drink. First, make them into a syrup by simmering the fruit with water, sugar and ginger slices, before topping it with club soda.

If these ideas are too far out, try adding your favorite fruit to a green salad. As long as you stick to a vinaigrette-type dressing -- no ranch, please -- you can hardly go wrong.

Besides, if anyone gets curious about what you're eating, you can just tell them: "Fruit salad. What's so weird about that?"

* * *

Peach-Prosciutto Skewers

3 or 4 ripe peaches

1/4 pound prosciutto or other cured ham, sliced paper thin

3/4 pound mini fresh mozzarella balls, or cubed fresh mozzarella

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced (optional)

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Put 2 tablespoons lime juice in a small bowl. While whisking, drizzle olive oil into juice until incorporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cut peaches into wedges, removing pits, and gently toss with 1 tablespoon lime juice, so they don't brown. Tear prosciutto into strips an inch or so wide.

Assemble skewers. Wrap each peach wedge with a prosciutto strip, slipping it onto a small skewer to pin the prosciutto in place. Add a small ball or cube of mozzarella, then another wrapped peach wedge.

When all the peaches are skewered, whisk any juice from the peach bowl into the lime sauce. Drizzle platter of skewers with the lime sauce. Sprinkle with fresh basil, if using, and serve. Serves 6-8.

* * *

Grilled Watermelon Salad

4 1-inch slices watermelon

3 cups baby greens, like field mix, arugula or watercress

3/4 cup crumbled cheese, like goat, feta or ricotta salata

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons honey

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Fire up a hot grill with a clean grate.

Cut watermelon into squares or circles. Brush one side with olive oil and a bit of honey.

Put vinegar in a small bowl. While whisking, drizzle olive oil into vinegar until smooth. Toss with greens.

Swipe a vegetable oil-moistened paper towel over grill grate, where it will probably smoke a little if hot enough. Place watermelon slices, honey side down, on grill. Leave for 2-3 minutes, until grill-marked and a little smoky, then remove.

Top each slice with scattered cheese, then dressed greens. Serve while still warm, or at room temperature. Serves 4.

* * *

Steak with Blueberry Sauce

4 strip steaks or filet mignons, 3/4 to 1 inch thick

1/2 cup chicken stock

1/2 cup port wine

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons blueberry jam or jelly

1/3 cup sugar, or to taste

4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces

2 cups fresh blueberries

1 tablespoon corn starch mixed with 1 tablespoon water (optional)

Salt and pepper

Put stock, wine, sugar, jam or jelly, and vinegar in saucepan, and boil until syrupy and reduced by two-thirds. If you like a thicker sauce, add cornstarch mixture at the end, as it continues to simmer.

Add blueberries, and simmer until berries are soft but not disintegrating, 7 to 10 minutes. Taste for sweet-sour balance, adding more sugar or vinegar as desired. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook steaks to desired level of doneness in saute pan or on grill.

While steaks are resting, gently stir cold butter into warm sauce, until glossy.

Place steaks on plates and top with sauce. Serves 4.

Source: Inspired by Emeril Lagasse.

* * *

Plum and Ginger Soda

2 ripe plums, skin on, chopped

3 cups water

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

3/4 cup sugar

1 can club soda

Bring water to boil. Toss in chopped plums, reduce heat, and simmer until plums are cooked and mushy and the liquid is bright red, about 15 to 20 minutes. In the last 5 minutes of simmering, toss in ginger slices.

Turn off heat and stir in sugar until fully dissolved. Let cool. Strain liquid and discard solids.

Add ice cubes to each glass and fill with plum syrup to two thirds of the way. Top with club soda, give each glass a stir and serve. Serves 2.



> FRESH FRUIT CHEAT SHEET: Ideas that start before dessert

Watermelon: Use in salads, raw or grilled, or puree for drinks

Nectarines: Chop for salsa, grill or saute with chicken

Blueberries: Toss in salads or salsas, simmer in sauces

Peaches: Great grilled, sliced for salads or skewered

Red plums: Use in salsas, grill with pork, simmer for syrup