Hyde Park, N.Y. The melon's rind holds inside itself a great mystery. Is the fruit ripe yet? Will it be moist and delicious or woody and disappointing? And, most tantalizing and unknown of all, how much delicious fruit inside the rind will be lost to the cruel confines of a refrigerator?
Most fruits start to lose some of their delicious perfume the minute they are picked. Compounding the trouble is the fact that cooling the fruit dulls and destroys even more of the fruit's complex taste. The trick is to find melons that are ripe enough to eat, luscious and still safe and wholesome.
There are more melon varieties in stores now than ever. It seems that with each passing month even more appear in pyramids and deep bins in farmers' markets and stands as well as supermarkets.
Guidelines to use when selecting a melon are:
l Get to know your produce purveyor. You don't need to get on a first-name basis to observe this basic rule. You can learn a great deal by simply looking around the market. In a well-run market or section, fruits and vegetables are displayed in neat, attractive displays that help to preserve the flavor and freshness of the item. Signs identify produce shipped in from other parts of the state, the country or the world.
- The area should be kept clean, and past-its-prime produce removed and properly discarded. This is not just for appearances' sake. One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel, if it stays around long enough.
- Choose melons that are heavy for their size. Pick the melon up with both hands. Pick up a few more. Pretty soon, you'll know exactly what is meant by "heavy for its size."
- Get to know your melon. Each variety has a slightly different appearance, smell and sound when it is fully ripe. Cantaloupes, for instance, are known as full-slip melons. This means that, when they are fully ripe, they slip away from the vine, leaving a smooth scar on the fruit. Other varieties are cut from the vine, so some of the stem will be intact.
- You may see folks sniffing melons, shaking them to hear the seeds slosh around inside or thumping them as they would a loaf of bread to see if it is ready to come from the oven. The melon you are buying should have some hint of a sweet melon aroma.
- If you have a friend or co-worker who seems to have a sixth sense about melons, ask them to take you shopping sometime. Watch them, ask questions and evaluate the melon you get when you try the same tests yourself. Melon selection, like melon growing, requires patience, skill and a little luck.
- Once you've brought your melon home, try to eat it as soon as possible. Rinse the melon well to remove dust or debris from the market or field.
Cut with care
Use a sharp knife to cut the melon, and a well-scrubbed cutting surface. Melons are round, of course, and can be unwieldy in the kitchen. Hold small- to medium-size melons securely with one hand and cut the fruit.
Insert the tip of a chef's knife (the blade should be longer than the melon's diameter) into the widest part of the fruit. Lower the heel of the blade toward the cutting surface. Turn the melon, and complete the cut to make two melon halves. Take a metal spoon and scoop out the seeds and the liquid surrounding them.
The melon is now ready to cut into wedges to serve on the rind, perhaps with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a scattering of cracked peppercorns. Or you may wish to cut melon balls. A combination of melons, and scoops used to make balls of different sizes, can create a colorful and tasty fruit salad.
To make melon balls from a halved melon: Insert the melon baller into the fruit, twisting the scoop to make a perfect round. Continue to make balls until you have taken away a relatively even layer of melon. Slice away the scooped melon (and reserve the remaining melon flesh to make pureed smoothies or soup).
Continue to make another layer of melon balls, until as much of the melon is shaped as possible.
Melon ballers come in a range of sizes and shapes, from tiny scoops the size of "petit pois" (the French term for small young, green peas) to oval, fluted or scalloped scoops.
The following recipe is adapted from "The New Professional Chef," Seventh Edition (John Wiley & Sons, to be published October 2001).
Summer Melon Salad with Prosciutto
1 1/2 cups cantaloupe balls
1 1/2 cups honeydew balls
1 1/2 cups watermelon balls (seedless preferred)
3 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
Cracked black peppercorns, to taste
Cut the melons into balls as close as possible to serving time. Keep them chilled until you are ready to serve the salad. Arrange the melon and prosciutto on chilled plates and drizzle each serving with a teaspoon of the balsamic vinegar. Scatter with cracked peppercorns, if desired.
Makes six servings.
The following recipe is adapted from the "The Culinary Institute of America's Book of Soups" (Lebhar-Freidman, due to be published October 2001).
This cantaloupe soup is a surprisingly delicate and pleasant starter to any meal served on a hot summer day. Sparkling wine or seltzer may be added to the soup just before serving.
For an unusual presentation, serve the soup in wine glasses. Dip the rims of the glasses into lightly whipped egg whites, then into granulated sugar, and chill.
Cold Cantaloupe Cream
1 medium cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and cut into large chunks (about 6 1/2 cups)
1 quart apricot nectar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons honey
Sachet: 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 3 whole allspice berries, 1 whole clove, and one 2-inch cinnamon stick, all tied up in cheesecloth pouch
1 cup half-and-half, chilled
1 pint lime sherbet or granite (optional)
8 mint leaves
Place the melon, apricot nectar, lemon juice, honey and sachet in a soup pot. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until the melon is tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove and discard the sachet. Strain the soup through a sieve, reserving the liquid. Puree the solids in a food processor or blender. Combine the puree with enough of the reserved liquid to achieve a soup consistency. Chill thoroughly.
Whisk the half-and-half into the soup. Serve in chilled wine glasses or bowls, garnished with a scoop of lime sherbet if desired, and a mint leaf.
Makes eight servings.