Cart Blanch

Whole Foods Market, 5120 South Rural, Tempe, 480-456-1400. Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Now is the summer of our discontent.
It's the time of year that APS and water-park operators live for, and everyone else dies from. Despite the strenuous efforts of the chamber of commerce and tourist bureau to make us think otherwise, we hot-weather veterans aren't fooled by their "dry heat" public-relations nonsense. There's no getting around it: From June through September, Phoenix is hell, with the flames momentarily out.

Valley dwellers cope as best they can. My cat, for instance, searches out the one spot in the house where the cool streams of air from two air-conditioning vents intersect. She'll lie there until Halloween. We bipeds seek relief by taking midnight dips in the pool, even though the water at that hour is still hot enough to braise a pot roast.

The fact is, triple-digit temperatures bring on a summertime torpor that's almost impossible to shake off. No one wants to work. No one wants to play. No one even wants to eat out.

Every summer, desperate restaurant owners, hoping to avoid Chapter 7, run all sorts of specials to lure us out of our homes and into their empty seats. And every summer we ignore them. From now until Labor Day, most Valley restaurants couldn't outdraw a Sun City meeting of the Society of Gay Bolsheviks for Gun Control.

Not only don't we want to eat out, we don't want to cook, either. It's too hot. Perspiring locals look upon the stove the same way victims of the Spanish Inquisition regarded the rack--as an instrument of torture to be avoided at all costs.

So what are the alternatives? You can only call pizza delivery so many times. Fast food? I'd rather starve. Even Chinese takeout loses its charms after a few nights.

Supermarkets have figured out the answer. They know we still have to venture out for basic food shopping: bread, milk, juice, peanut butter, eggs. So while we're picking up staples, they cagily tempt us with what the industry calls a Home Meal Replacement (HMR)--a variety of hot and cold, ready-to-eat dishes that require no effort beyond setting the table. For eight months a year, HMRs appeal mainly to the stressed-out and time-challenged. But during the summer season, you can understand why sweltering shoppers, who might otherwise never look twice at a supermarket salad bar or rotisserie chicken, could see them in an entirely new light.

Here in the Valley, two fancy markets have pushed the HMR concept to the edge. Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the two national giants on the upscale supermarket scene, moved into town about 18 months ago, lured by neighborhood pockets of high-end demographics.

What does Whole Foods do best? A few items stand out, so much so that they ought to have their own section.

Salmon is surely at the very top of the list. The $14.99-per-pound tag for the cold poached salmon may give you pause, but nothing else about this marvelous fish will. Brightened with dill, it's meaty, moist and absolutely luscious. For about half that price, you can enjoy it in the form of salmon salad, where it's supported by tomatoes, onions and celery and touched up with olive oil and lemon. The mix of fresh-tasting flavors is irresistible.

I never expected to get a kick out of turkey meat loaf and turkey meatballs--turkey in these forms is usually bland enough to cure insomnia. But Whole Foods' versions will keep you awake. Fleshed out with grated carrots and celery, the meat loaf sports a surprisingly potent combination of taste and texture. The turkey meatballs, meanwhile, benefit from a barbecue glaze and a crispy outer edge.

Spinach manicotti is the most impressive hot-food dish here. It's simply a plump, spinach-stuffed crespelle (the Italian version of a crepe), moistened with a creamy sauce. It wouldn't be out of place served in a good Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, at $8 a pair, you'll pay as if you're in a good Italian restaurant. Chicken pesto pasta is another Italian success story, armed with capers and onions and real pesto energy.

If you're into summer salads, don't overlook the sugar peas, sweet and crunchy, combined with cherry tomatoes and corn and tossed with a light Italian dressing. And if you're into summer nibbling, the sushi, made fresh daily, is high quality--I especially enjoyed the nine-piece spicy crab roll. Teriyaki-glazed chicken wings satisfy the munchie urge, too.

Whole Foods' bakers also know what they're doing. The breads are first-rate, from the rustic baguette, chewy and crusty, to the chile-cheese bread, thick with cheese and zesty chiles that will open all your sinus passages.

Many items, however, don't rise to the level Whole Foods ought to aspire to. Beef stew has nice components--tender beef, carrots, yellow squash, peas, corn--but the total doesn't equal the sum of the parts. Chicken artichoke lasagna is too heavy and needs a sauce. Kung pao chicken, a cold salad, lacks an Asian spark. The tortilla casserole, layers of corn tortillas, chicken and cheese, is boring enough to bring to a church potluck. The dense artichoke wedge, held together with cheese and breadcrumbs, seems better suited to nourish Siberians in winter than Arizonans in summer. The rotisserie chicken, brushed with a pleasant maple barbecue sauce, is routinely juicy. At $3.29 per pound, though, it's no bargain.

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