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Melons: Get 'Em While It's Hot

September 16, 1993|MICHAEL ROBERTS

Melons are at their best in late summer, when they're available from local farms and home growers. Since the fruits have no starch reserves until ripe, they cannot sweeten after being picked, and we are at the mercy of the picker to decide when a melon is ripe for picking.

Melons should be left on the vine as long as possible. Unfortunately, most pickers harvest their fruits while still hard because they transport more easily. The sign of a vine-ripened melon is a clean break between melon and stem, rather than a cut stem. A vine-ripened melon will have a slightly sunken scar at the stem end.

In the market, I always choose a melon by pressing its ends--the flower end and the stem end. If the melon "gives" a bit or is soft to the touch, I then smell it. If I get a strong melon aroma I know that the melon is ready for eating. An aromatic melon is a sweet melon.

Melon lore has it that a melon with a large flower scar is tastier than one with a small flower scar because it has more seeds and, therefore, ripens sweeter. It's a nice story, but you'll have to decide its accuracy for yourself. What we all do know from experience is that a hard melon is not as satisfying to eat as a soft melon. Even melons that are picked before their peak of ripeness become better as they soften. The pectin in the flesh breaks down and becomes more soluble, resulting in a juicy, aromatic melon.


There are three kinds of melons: Muskmelons, such as cantaloupe, that have netted skins and are aromatic even before opening. They are short-lived. In the so-called winter melon family are the smooth-skinned honeydew, casaba, cranshaw and Persian. These are less aromatic and keep over a longer period of time. Watermelons, whose seeds are dispersed throughout the fruit, are a race apart.

There are those who like their melons chilled and those who don't. My opinion is that watermelons should be served well chilled. The cold temperature inhibits neither aroma nor flavor and greatly improves the texture. I prefer other summer melons to be served cool so they smell and taste their tangiest.

Melons are often eaten as a first course, sometimes with a sweet Port wine, but often paired with something salty, like country ham or prosciutto. Fruity flavors are balanced by salty or spicy ones. You may not have tried it, but watermelon and hot pepper sauce is a pleasing combination; it is a great tradition in the South.

The following recipes use melons in a savory context. Julia Winston's spicy melon and ice salad is a refreshing mixture of spicy, sweet and aromatic flavors. Be certain to collect all the juice from all the melons when chopping them to make the ice. Chilled carrot and cantaloupe soup utilizes melon to add aroma where it's lacking in an otherwise ordinary carrot soup.

JULIA WINSTON'S SPICY MELON AND ICE SALAD 1 small cantaloupe 1 small winter melon (honeydew, casaba, cranshaw or Persian) 1 small seedless watermelon 1 small red onion, finely chopped 2 jalapeno chiles, seeded and chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup lemon juice 2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped

Cut cantaloupe and winter melon in half and scoop out seeds. Place cut sides down on cutting board and trim off skin, making sure to remove all green. Chop flesh into 1/2-inch pieces and place in mixing bowl. Collect all melon juices and reserve.

Cut watermelon in half. Use large knife to remove skin in pieces as large as possible. Cut pink flesh into 1/2-inch pieces and add to other melons along with onions. Add jalapenos and sprinkle mixture with salt. Place large colander or strainer over bowl and transfer melon mixture to colander. Let drain 20 minutes.

Collect juice from drained watermelon and add to reserved juices. Add lemon juice. Pour juices into ice cube trays to depth of 1/2 inch. Freeze juices. While juices freeze, place melon in bowl. Cover and refrigerate.

Remove frozen cubes from tray and add to melon along with chopped cilantro. Toss together and serve immediately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

CHILLED CARROT AND CANTALOUPE SOUP 1/4 cup oil 1 medium onion, coarsely diced 1 pound carrots, coarsely chopped 4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth 1 cup peeled and diced cantaloupe 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons ground coriander 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 3 tablespoons plain yogurt 2 tablespoons milk

Heat oil in stock pot over low heat. Add onion and cook slowly, stirring, about 7 minutes. Add carrots and continue to cook, stirring, about 35 minutes.

Add stock. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Add cantaloupe, salt, coriander and cumin. Cook 2 minutes.

Strain and reserve liquid. Transfer carrots and cantaloupe to blender or food processor and puree until very smooth. Return puree to pot and add reserved liquid. Chill in refrigerator 2 to 3 hours.

Combine yogurt and milk in small bowl and stir until smooth. Reserve until serving.

Pour soup into chilled soup bowls just before serving. Decorate surface by spooning 3 simple lines of yogurt mixture across surface of each bowl. Using handle end of spoon, lightly drag across 3 stripes at 90-degree angle to make feathered decoration. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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