Food writer Elizabeth Schneider likes to tell the story about the time she was attending a book fair in Miami. A bellman showed up at her hotel room to carry down several crates of atemoyas, those tropical gray-green fruits with pudding-like interiors. Spying the produce, the porter got teary-eyed, saying he hadn't seen an atemoya since he was a child growing up in Colombia. An astonished and sympathetic Schneider offered him some of her fruit, whereby the grateful man sat down -- and proceded to eat four pieces.

It was a very different scene outside the hotel. As Schneider stood with her exotica, waiting for a taxi, a doorman turned to the author and asked, "What is that disgusting stuff? I've never seen such an ugly fruit!"

The point of the tale, says Schneider, author of "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide," (Harper & Row, 1986), is that, in effect, one man's atemoya is another man's apple. Despite the title of her book, the author insists there's "no such thing as an uncommon fruit or vegetable, just something your mother or grandmother didn't make."

Here in Washington, where jicama (and in some food shops, even cherimoyas) have become commonplace, "people will buy anything," says John Rusnak, spokesman for Sutton Place Gourmet, which recently featured fresh lichees from Florida and California -- and sold upwards of 60 pounds a week. Similarly, when carambola (star fruit) was featured by Giant early last fall, an estimated 3,500 pounds of the fruit were sold within a period of six days. That kind of consumer interest not only assures an item a future on the produce counter, it also generally results in a lower price, says Schneider. In fact, carambolas, which are just coming back into season, will be available in all 145 Giant stores, according to Jerry Purdy, director of produce purchasing. While currently priced at $7.99 a pound at Giant, their cost, depending upon availability, could go as low as 99 cents a pound, says Purdy.

Still, "if it's new or unknown, you have to educate the consumer," says Rusnak. To that end, Sutton Place, as well as Giant and Safeway, displays informational brochures, including recipes, near the produce counters bearing exotica. In addition, Safeway recently completed the installation of 8-foot specialty produce sections in its stores, according to Gary Gionnette, produce merchandising manager, and will be promoting uncommon commodities through its "Make A Meal Uncommonly Good" campaign in coming weeks. In a preview of sorts, the grocery chain is currently showcasing imported bell peppers from Holland, in colors of purple, white, orange and brown. Such labeling as to country of origin, Gionnette adds, "helps identify the ethnic correlation and its use."

But beyond the problem of familiarizing shoppers with the uses of uncommon fruits and vegetables, the stores must also be concerned with regular availability. "Some of it comes in like a shooting star," says Rusnak, who is waiting to see if he can get New Zealand feijoas again. To encourage sales of specialty produce items, says Gionnette, Safeway has discontinued the practice of its stores purchasing from a central warehouse in Landover in favor of individual stores buying directly from Safeway's source for specialty produce, Waterfield Farms in Chantilly.

Despite growing consumer interest, "many of these things will be flashes in the pan," predicts Schneider, unless the wholesalers and retailers succeed in properly marketing and storing such produce, much of which is highly perishable.

Which is exactly why Schneider wrote her compendium, a treatise on about a hundred of the newest native and imported fruits and vegetables to hit the U.S. markets. After all, she reasoned, how can one appreciate the tantalizing flavor of the fruit called monstera, which resembles a blend of mango, pineapple and banana (and flourishes in California and Florida), or the black sapote, which has flesh the texture and hue of chocolate pudding, if one doesn't know how to handle and prepare it? To determine what should be included in her book, Schneider spoke with food brokers representing 5,000 markets in the U.S., and a host of research scientists, agricultural economists and language and food historians.

Nationally, among the current best-selling uncommon fruits and vegetables are raddichio, daikon, carambola (star fruit), feijoa (often and incorrectly called pineapple guava), and "all the mushrooms and chilies," notes the author. But the biggest mover of them all, according to Schneider, is the tuber known as jicama, which is grown both in California and Mexico. She describes it as an unassertive vegetable with lots of crunch and juiciness.

Schneider tags the jicama's popularity to mainstream American tastes. "We're very straightforward in this country," she says. For one thing, Americans tend not to like sticky textures, Schneider says. And whereas bitterness and sourness are desireable traits in the fruits and vegetables of other cultures, those same taste sensations are often perceived by Americans as "not just different, but bad," says Schneider. She notes that one of the better known exotic fruits, the carambola, comes in both sweet and tart varieties, but Americans are buying primarily the sweet.

At the same time, American consumers do seem willing to sample other than mainstream fruits and vegetables, says Schneider. She attributes the phenomenon to, among other things, the public's increased interest in nutrition, as well as its ongoing enthusiasm for dining out -- restaurants, after all, are generally the first place people encounter the new and unusual. Then there's the enormous influx of Southeast Asians and Latin Americans: "Thais want lemon grass, Cubans want malanga, and everyone wants chilies," offers Schneider.

Presently, there are basically two domestic sources for the likes of such tropical fruits and vegetables as atemoyas, monsteras and cherimoyas in the U.S.: the southernmost tip of Florida and parts of California. Still, "we probably get about 80 percent of our items here in the United States," says Ann Henry, a consumer and information specialist with Frieda's Finest, a specialty produce firm based in Los Angeles. Locally, spokesmen for the two largest grocery store chains report that the amount of imported produce ranges from 2 percent (at Giant) to "far less than 25 percent" (at Safeway). Moreover, adds Henry, "because we're starting to produce these {fruits and vegetables}, we can get most of these things year round." A case in point is raddichio; although the most beautiful greens continue to be imported from Italy, the red-leafed chicory is now being grown in New Jersey, among other states.

Unfortunately, American agribusiness tends to "make things for durability," says Schneider. Producers of mass market items often "play it safe by breeding fruits that are bland and crisp and transportable," says Schneider, citing what has become of the common red delicious apple, which she calls "an abomination."

Thus an advantage of fruits and vegetables grown in small volume or gathered in the wild is the fact they "haven't been played with" or "hybridized out of existence," explains Schneider. They retain their intrinsic flavors. Not to mention their imperfect looks, their "lumps and bumps," she says.

The trickiest part of researching "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables" was tracking down the correct name for each item, acknowledges Schneider, a process hampered by the fact that "taxonomic classification changes as science does: the appearance of a chromosome or two ... will move a plant from one grouping to another," she writes in her guide. And then there were the multitude of common names to contend with: the Asian pear, for example, is also known as nashi, apple pear, sand pear, salad pear, Chinese pear, Oriental pear and (incorrectly) pear apple, notes Schneider. The fact there are 25 varieties of the fruit only complicates matters, she adds.

But that isn't nearly as frustrating as are those fruits and vegetables that have little but novelty to recommend them.

Like the recently arrived kiwano, which is an export from New Zealand but no relation to the better known kiwi. This pricey fruit is described by Schneider as "a cucumber with horns," with a tough, leathery rind and little edible pulp. The kiwano's appeal lies largely in its stunning, emerald-colored interior. Basically, it's "all show, this fruit," says Schneider. "But I hate to bad mouth a fruit or vegetable until I know its uses."

Here are some good uses for available exotica from Schneider's "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables:"

SAUTEED SHRIMPS AND CARAMBOLA (2 servings)

Golden stars, pink crescents and a freshly fruity flavor make this dish a simple delight. It takes 2 minutes to cook, 15 minutes to prepare from start to finish, if you shell shrimp in leisurely fashion. If you have a choice, select narrow, long carambolas, which make smaller, prettier mouthfuls.

1 pound shrimp, preferably small

3 small carambolas, preferably medium-sweet, about 2 ounces each

2 1/2 tablespoons butter

Salt and white pepper to taste

Pinch sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice, approximately

Shell shrimp; devein. If they are not small, halve lengthwise. Cut tips off carambolas, then slice 1/8-inch thick.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in large nonaluminum saute' pan. Add shrimp, carambola slices, salt, pepper, and sugar. Saute' for a minute or two, until shrimp are pink. Add lemon juice and toss.

Off heat stir in remaining butter. Taste and season. Serve at once.

TOFU AND JICAMA IN AROMATIC SESAME CREAM

(4 servings)

Both the jicama and tofu cubes absorb this rich, hot and spicy sauce of Oriental and Middle Eastern parentage; the result is jicama that is less bland, and bean curd of unusual succulence and meatiness. Even those who profess indifference to tofu seem to be pleased with this treatment.

1 pound jicama, peeled

3 1/2 tablespoons corn or peanut oil

1 to 2 jalapenåoSTART NOTE cq END NOTE or serrano peppers, stemmed, seeded and sliced

2 medium shallots, peeled and halved

1 large garlic clove

1 piece ginger, about 1-by-2-inches, peeled

2 tablespoons sliced cilantro stems and roots (roots are optional)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)

3/4 cup beef broth

1 pound firm-style tofu (bean curd)

Minced cilantro leaves to taste

Cut jicama into French-fry-sized pieces. Heat wok over moderate heat. Pour 1 tablespoon oil around rim, then rotate pan to distribute. Stir-fry jicama about 3 minutes, until it loses its raw flavor but not crunch. Transfer to a large dish.

Combine peppers, shallots, garlic, ginger, cilantro stems and optional roots in processor; whirl to a fine texture. Blend together soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl; stir in tahini, then beef broth.

Cut tofu in half crosswise, then into 1-inch dice. Heat wok; pour in 1 1/2 tablespoons oil. Stir-fry tofu 1 to 2 minutes. Add to jicama.

Heat remaining tablespoon oil in wok. Add seasoning mixture from processor; stir-fry for a minute, tossing constantly. Stir broth mixture and add. Bring to a boil, stirring. Turn heat to low and add tofu and jicama; toss to coat with sauce. Cover and simmer on moderately low heat 2 minutes. Toss the pieces, recover, and simmer about 2 minutes longer.

Scoop into heated serving dish and sprinkle with cilantro.

CHERIMOYA AND ORANGE WITH CHERIMOYA CREAM (2 servings)

If you're fortunate enough to acquire a windfall of cherimoyas and find that simply spooning the creamy pulp from its shell is no longer satisfying, try this slightly fancified fruit cup, which neither overwhelms the delicate flavor of the fruit nor hides its special texture.

3/4-1 pound cherimoya, chilled

1 large navel orange, chilled

About 1 tablespoon Cointreau, or other orange liqueur

1/4 cup whipping cream, lightly whipped to soft peaks

Halve the cherimoya; pull off the skin. Cut half into small wedges, removing the seeds as you proceed; divide between 2 dessert dishes. Cut the skin and pith from the orange, then cut between the membrame sections to free the orange pulp. Cut these wedges into 2 or 3 pieces each. Divide the orange evenly between the serving dishes.

Pick the seeds out of the remaining cherimoya half. Combine the flesh and 1 tablespoon orange liqueur in the container of a blender; pure'e to a smooth, homogenized consistency. Add liqueur to taste. Pour the pure'e over the whipped cream and fold in gently but thoroughly. Spoon over the fruit and serve.

PEAR-FEIJOA BROWN BETTY (4 servings)

Crunchy, buttery bread cubes top a scented, syrupy mingling of pears and feijoas. Accompany with whipping cream, sour cream, ice cream, or chilled lemon sauce. Try this for brunch, with cafe' au lait.

3 cups firm sandwich bread (white or whole-wheat) cut in 1/2-inch cubes

4 tabelspoons unsalted butter, melted

4 ripe medium feijoas ( 1/2 pound)

About 1 1/2 pounds ripe, tender pears, such as Anjou or Packham

1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Pinch salt

Spread cubes in single layer in pan; bake in a 350-degree oven until dried, about 15 minutes. Pour into a bowl and gradually add melted butter, tossing constantly to distribute evenly.

Peel feijoas and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, approximately. Core, peel and cut pears into cubes of same size. (There should be about 4 cups fruit.) Set aside 2 rounded tablespoons sugar. Combine remainder in bowl with fruit, lemon juice and salt; toss.

Spread 1/2 cup bread in buttered round 6-cup baking dish about 8 inches in diameter. Spread half fruit and juices over this; top with another generous 1/2 cup bread. Cover with remaining fruit and juice; press to even. Cover with bread cubes and press them into surface lightly.

Cover with foil and bake in a 375-degree oven until bubbling hot, about 30 minutes. Remove foil, sprinkle with remaining sugar and bake until crisp, about 15 to 20 minutes longer. Serve hot.,