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The Many Melons Of Summer

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 26, 2011

When I was growing up on our farm in east Tennessee, we always had a melon patch. I’m not sure what varieties my parents tried besides cantaloupes and watermelons, but knowing them, it was probably most anything they could get seeds for. Disease, pests and lack of water eliminated most varieties after a single attempt; cantaloupes lasted a few planting seasons longer and watermelons longer still.

Even the watermelons didn’t do well, but they did well enough that we’d have a few every summer, fresh picked in the morning and chilled all day. My parents claimed if we swallowed the seeds they’d sprout in our stomachs, but I swallowed them anyway after a brief seed-spitting competition with my siblings.

That garden of my childhood existed in the ’60s, and there were few seed options. My parents might well have had more success today with more — and more adaptable — varieties. As someone without a garden, though, I’m hugely thankful for the different melons now available in supermarkets and, even more so, at farmers markets.

I always like to eat a slice of melon, but that’s just the beginning. I use melons in salads, chilled soups, dressed with sweetened yogurt and mint, in granitas and even grilled.

Melons are members of the same botanical family as cucumbers, squash and gourds. Unlike zucchini and cucumbers, however, they’re lusciously sweet (at least the ripe ones), and unlike luffas, they’re edible and not good for scrubbing in the tub (although cucumber-melon bath additives are popular).

Most familiar melons are cultivars (variations of) of the muskmelon (Cucumis melo). This list includes cantaloupe, honeydew, casaba and Crenshaw melons. They’re distinctive for their hollow, seed-filled interior. Watermelons (Citrullus lanatus) are relatives.

These days you may be able to find melon varieties such as the French charentais (which looks like a cantaloupe and also has orange flesh but has deep greenish ribs running top to bottom), horned melons, canary and galia at some supermarkets or farmers markets. And new varieties appear often. Although they all have similar flavors, they have subtleties worth exploring. Some are closer to their muskmelon roots, while others are less aromatic.

Choosing a ripe melon can be tricky. In all varieties, the belly button should have no trace of stem, and the melon should be firm overall but slightly soft at the blossom end. Check the spot on the melon where it rested on the ground, it should be a creamy golden-colored oval, distinctive but not too large.

Rough-skinned (netted) melons are easiest. The netting should be distinct and raised, the background should have almost no green tinge, the belly button should have no trace of stem, and there should be a distinct melon odor. If you can’t smell a netted melon, don’t buy it.

Smooth-skinned melons are more difficult to choose. Their appearance can be deceptive, and they have little odor. The skin will feel waxy. At farmers markets, look for brown flecks on the skin. These are called sugar spots and are an indication of ripeness. Produce managers at stores usually wash them off.

Store whole melons at room temperature if they are under-ripe. They will continue to ripen and develop complexity. Most melons are best served chilled (a plus when the temperature is 95 and the humidity is 70 percent), but not cold. Like white wines, they are best at 50 to 55 degrees, but the flavor is muted at the 40 degrees of most refrigerators, so pull completely chilled melon out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving if you can.

My favorite summer breakfast is chilled cantaloupe and several rashers of good American bacon on the side with cheese (brie, blue or chevre) and a croissant. If I get up early enough, I enjoy this on my balcony, before the day’s heat becomes oppressive. While it’s exciting to have such melon variety now, I still appreciate the simple classics of my parents’ garden. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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