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In Season - Melons

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Written by Sophia Markoulakis   
Wednesday, 05 August 2009
ImageWhen my husband and I owned our first grocery store, we always had a trained produce journeyman prep and maintain the produce section and always tried to hire people who were proud of their craft. Over the years we learned much from them, like the art of selecting the perfect melon. To this day my husband is the go-to person in the family for picking out the best melon and wears his badge proudly. He's entitled - he spent more time with the produce guys than I.

Melons, like cucumbers, belong to the Cucumis group. Within this large botanical group are several families, including netted melons. Netted Melons, or Muskmelons, have a net-like web pattern on their rind like a cantaloupe and are fragrant. (Though cantaloupes belong to another melon family, they are commonly grouped within the muskmelon family.)  Besides cantaloupes, Charentais, and Persian melons fall into this category. Other than their obvious fragrance, muskmelons also "slip" from the vine at the stem end when ripe. Ideally, this is how they should be harvested and sold.

Non-fragrant melons, or Inodorus melons, are also referred to as Winter Melons and include casabas, crenshaws, and honeydews. These melons don't have the fragrance advantage to signal when ripe so it is up to the grower to determine ripeness. This also makes it more challenging for the shopper to select.

Some selection tricks that I've learned over the years include:
  • - Avoid any melon with cracks or soft spots.

  • - Select fragrant muskmelons that gently give when pressed at the stem end.

  • - Choose melons that feel heavy for their size, but don't "slush" when shaken, which can often be a sign of over ripeness.

  • - Muskmelons should give off a slight fruity, perfume-like scent. If the scent is too strong or off smelling, it is probably over ripe.

  • - Since inodorus melons don't offer a scent, select ones with dull, not shiny skin. This dullness is a sign of sugar content. Also, look for a slight yellowing on green varieties such as honeydew.

  • - Some winter melon varieties often have an unripened spot on them where they rested on the ground. Choose a melon with a spot that is yellow or at least appears to be in the ripening stage. If the spot is white, the melon was most likely harvested too soon and won't be as sweet.

When out and about, look beyond the common cantaloupe or honeydew. At farmers' markets, you'll often discover unknown varieties, typically only found in seed catalogs. Inquire about them and their origins. Many are hybrids of a muskmelon and winter melon, taking the best aspects from each. Some specialty melons that you'll likely run across in stores include:

  • - Sharlyn melons have a spicy-sweet note that enhances its fragrance and is very perishable. When ripe, its greenish netting has orange undertones.

  • - Galia melons are a cross between a honeydew and cantaloupe. Very sweet and juicy and a lovely light green when ripe. The stem end should give to pressure like a cantaloupe.

  • - Ananas is an heirloom from France and can be found at farmers' markets and grower stands. This muskmelon has a reputation as being one of the best tasting melons available today and is said to taste like its namesake, pineapple in French.

  • - Israel or Ogen is a green-fleshed muskmelon and was developed on a kibbutz. It resembles a cantaloupe with flesh more akin to a honeydew. Very sweet and fragrant.

Though not as romantic as unusual heirloom melons found at fruit stands along picturesque farm trails, hybrid melons specifically bred for the mass commercial market such as the "Tuscan-Style" by Dulcinea Farms are a no-fail option. I've never purchased one that wasn't perfect in texture, fragrance, and flavor. During melon season, these are often on sale at chain supermarkets.

Once harvested, melons won't get sweeter, but they will continue to ripen and develop, becoming more juicy and soft. The best way to store a melon once you bring it home is to keep it at room temperature for a day or two. If it is still quite firm, continue to keep it out for up to a week. Winter melons do have the reputation of being the better storage melon so keep that in mind when shopping.

Since melons are best enjoyed in season still warm from the sun, they should be enjoyed as soon as possible. This month's challenge is to enjoy this amazing fruit beyond the usual preparation. Since melons contain so much sugar, they pair extremely well with savory and salty foods. You have two opposite flavor components working harmoniously like other classic sweet-salty food items. Next, add a third component like texture to the mix and you've got an amazing blend of ingredients in the works. One thing to consider when experimenting with melon in recipes is to be aware of a melon's water content. Winter melons, especially ripe ones, have a high amount of water so keep that in mind when pureeing or freezing. Flavors of the melon in its whole state will be diluted when the melon's texture is altered.

Incorporating Melons into Recipes

This month's "in season" recipes include some great summertime ideas not always associated with melon. They include some sweet-salty pairings, refreshing drinks and desserts. They are perfect warm-weather dishes that take little time, but provide big rewards.

Drinks

Berry-Melon Agua Fresca from Sunset is a refreshing cooler for a hot summer day. For an alcoholic version, add a shot of vodka to each glass and serve over ice.

Honeydew Mojitos with Melon Balls and Mint from Martha Stewart Living stars pureed honeydew and a mint-flavored simple syrup. This pitcher-size recipe can be made before guests arrive, alleviating the stress of mixing individual cocktails.

Cool Melon Sipper from Cooking Light is more like a smoothie with its frozen melon pieces and vanilla frozen yogurt. Regardless of the erroneous title, it's a quick and refreshing way to serve this seasonal fruit.

Kiwi-Melon Smoothie from The Monterey County Herald is a healthy version of a blended drink with the addition of soymilk and soy yogurt. Perfect for those looking to boost their soy intake.

Appetizers and Salads

Brochettes of Melon, Proscuitto, and Fresh Mozzarella from Bon Appetit skewers bite-size pieces of melon, proscuitto, and mozzarella dressed in a light basil-flavored olive oil. This appetizer would be a great start to a grilled leg of lamb.

Chilled Crenshaw Melon Soup from Vegetarian Times has only a few ingredients and borders on a dessert. Could work great as a lead-in to a warm-weather Sunday brunch.

Green Tomato and Honeydew Melon Salad from Gourmet makes a striking all-green presentation. Tart green tomatoes contrast nicely with sweet honeydew. Jalapeños add to the flavor mix.

Melon Panzanella from Eating Well is in the salad category but could easily be served as a main dish. It has arugula for bite, proscuitto for salt, bread for texture, and melon for sweetness.

Main Dishes

Grilled Mahi-Mahi with Avocado-Melon Salsa from Bon Appetit is a great recipe for a weeknight meal. Prepare the salsa while the grill is heating up allowing the flavors to blend while the fish cooks.

Beef Kefta with Melon Slaw from the Food Network Magazine has incredible Eastern flavors like cinnamon, paprika, and cumin paired with a bright-flavored cantaloupe slaw.

Grilled Lime-Curry Rubbed Hanger Steak with Fresh Melon-Cucumber Chutney from Gourmet pairs related fruits melon and cucumber in a piquant chutney.

Desserts

Cantaloupe Sorbet with Melon Confetti Compote from Bon Appetit has a double dose of melon, both flavored with a touch of sweet wine. Consider preparing just the compote and serve over vanilla frozen yogurt or fresh berries.
Melon Granita with Lime from La Cucina Italiana is like an adult snow cone-simple and fun. Make sure to taste the melon before beginning the recipe and adjust the sugar accordingly. Add or remove 1 teaspoon of sugar at a time depending on the sweetness of the melon.
Seasonal Fruit and Melon Kabobs with Fiery Chile Sauce from Food Network's BBQ with Bobby Flay pairs the grill with spicy marinated fruit kabobs. These would be great served with a fruit-flavored microbrew and a vanilla-flavored butter cake.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 04 August 2009 )
Thank you
RosemaryR (Registered) 2009-08-05 10:05:07

Great article. Melons are always a bit of a mystery to me. There are some great tips in this article. Thanks.
spm (Author) 2009-08-05 12:41:26

Glad you found the article useful. Mystery melons are fun to buy this time of year, especially the hybrids that look like one type on the outside, but have a surprising texture and flavor on the inside.
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