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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

The time is ripe for melons

Recipes: Try melons with race, salsa

By Courtney Taylor
Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledgers

Cantaloupes, are among the diverse lineup of melons.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

. . .

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Food for Thought

Whether you prefer the good old-fashioned watermelons and cantaloupes or casaba, Crenshaw, Korean or honeydews, all are nutritious and ready to eat or easy to employ in main dish salads, desserts, even as first courses.

Melons are divided into two main categories: muskmelons, and, in a category all by itself, watermelon.

Muskmelons come in two principal varieties: those with netted skin, such as cantaloupe, Persian melon and Santa Claus, and those with smooth skin, such as casaba, Crenshaw and honeydew.

Muskmelons have a hollow central seed cavity while watermelons are solid, with seeds scattered throughout their flesh.

These melons are most popular in the United States, but crossbreeds and newer hybrids are making their way into the markets in an extensive array of shapes and sizes. Look for orange-fleshed honeydews, light-green-fleshed Santa Claus melons and yellow-fleshed watermelons.

Just as diverse as the melon lineup are opinions about what makes a good melon. Preferences in taste and texture differ from culture to culture, region to region, person to person. Some like a crisp flesh and a cucumber or pear-like taste, while others prefer a silky, smooth texture and a ripe, sweet heavily perfumed flavor.

As melons ripen, the sugars develop, sweetening the flavor and softening the flesh.

So in the midst of melon season, we find ourselves in the produce section or the farmers' market, a melon in each hand, weighing the question of ripeness. We smell, knock, shake and press the fruit, all in an attempt to guess at what texture, moisture and level of sugar lies beyond that opaque rind.

To help you make the best choice, here are a few things to look for in good melon.

Overall, a melon should be free of soft spots; a hard, smooth, rounded surface is best. A melon should be heavy for its size. Weigh a few of about the same size and pick the heaviest. A hard-skinned melon will have a hollow ring when knocked, and the skin should be fully colored. The scar at the base of a melon should have a faint but noticeable aroma. Shake it; if you hear seeds rattling, it's overripe.

The selection process may take a little time, but savoring a melon at its most delicious point is worth waiting for. Which brings us to the question of how to store melons once you've brought one home.

Cantaloupes will ripen after picking. If they are hard when bought, store them at room temperature until they show signs of ripening, then store them in the refrigerator.

Honeydews, on the other hand, do not become sweeter when kept at room temperature. Buy ripe honeydews and store them in the refrigerator.

Unripe Crenshaws will ripen at room temperature as will Casabas.

Watermelons should be picked and purchased ripe. Store watermelon at room temperature and chill before serving. Or for practical purposes, buy cut pieces in packages.

Because cold air retards the release of volatile aromatic oils in the melon, remove them from the refrigerator about half an hour before you are ready to serve them. Most melons taste best when only slightly chilled.

Most people relegate melons to the breakfast table or to fruit salads, but they are much more versatile. Try them in a green salad, a main course, a sauce or as dessert. When combining melons with other flavors, try to enhance, not overpower, the melon. That's not to say, however, that you can't enhance with strong flavors. Melons of all kinds have an affinity for tart, spicy and herbaceous flavors, such as chilies, black pepper, citrus, vinegar, mint and basil.

Salt has long been a partner of the sweet melon. A sprinkling of kosher salt and a squeeze of lime juice takes plain watermelon to a different dimension. Consider, too, the Italian custom of wrapping a thin slice of salty prosciutto around a sweet piece of melon. Smoked meats are a perfect foil for sweet, soft melon, while soft, tart cheese like chevre are great with a crisp Asian melon. Pureed cantaloupe makes a delicious base for mixed drinks — add a splash or rum or vodka for a refreshing summer cooler. Or use the puree as a base for a cold soup or sauce.