Question: There are so many melons now available in the produce section. What can you tell me about the different varieties?
Answer: The following information was compiled using "Sunset Fresh Produce A to Z" (Lane Publishing, 1987, $6.95) and "The Buying Guide for Fresh Fruits, Vegetables and Nuts" (Blue Goose, 1980).
CANTALOUPE--There are actually a number of different cantaloupe varieties, but they look very similar. When ripe, the background color should be yellow or golden beneath the pronounced netting. The taste is musky-sweet, slightly tart.
CASABA--This globular-shaped melon is pointed at the stem end. The rind is rough and furrowed, without any netting. When ripe, the rind turns golden yellow. The mild-flavored flesh is smooth-textured, juicy and creamy white.
CRENSHAW--A cross between the Persian and Casaba melons, the Crenshaw has green and gold rind with a pointed stem end and rounded base. The rind is smooth, has no netting and turns medium yellow when the melon is ripe. The salmon-colored flesh is sweet, juicy and has a spicy aroma.
GREEN HONEYDEW--When ripe, the green honeydew rind turns creamy yellow and feels velvety to the touch. The flesh is crisp, delicate green in color, very juicy and honey sweet.
ORANGE HONEYDEW--This small melon resembles a cantaloupe more than a honeydew in color, taste, texture and aroma. When ripe, the rind turns a light salmon pink.
PERSIAN--A large, round melon, the Persian has a deep green rind evenly covered with fine gray netting. Similar to cantaloupe, but the flesh is deep orange-pink, very thick and mildly sweet.
WATERMELON--In addition to the old-fashioned red-fleshed melons, watermelons are now available in seedless and yellow-fleshed varieties.
Q: A recipe in The Times' July 13 picnics feature calls for one cup of "cloud ears." What on earth are they?
A: Cloud ears are a type of mushroom. According to Elizabeth Schneider, author of "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables--A Commonsense Guide" (Harper & Row, 1986: $25), "wood ear (Auricula polytricha) is the most commonly marketed of the Auriculariaceae family, but one finds other members and common names, such as Cloud Ear, Tree Ear, Mo-Ehr, Silver Ear, Black Fungus, Judas Ear, Jew's Ear, Kikurage, Mook Yee (all either Auricularia polytricha or Auricularia auricula).
"Once sold in dried form only, in Chinese groceries, the fresh form of wood ear is becoming somewhat more widely available, thanks to our large Oriental-American population and an enormous interest in Oriental food," Schneider writes. "The dry wood ear, although remarkable in its ability to rehydrate to its dark translucent original form (even years after desiccation), reveals little of the delicate, foresty aroma of the fresh, nor its springy-soft consistency."
The author believes the mushrooms "are best utilized as textural and visual enhancers, either to stress or complement certain smooth or rough qualities and colors. Think of the fungus as a lively accentuating device, rather than a lone vegetable to be served as a side dish. Include it with other vegetables, grains, noodles, fowl, meat, or seafood in stir-fried dishes, casseroles, soups or braises. It does not lose its distinctive texture when subjected to lengthy cooking, but softens somewhat and pleasantly absorbs the surrounding liquid."