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Archive for Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Melons an ‘edible drink’ for steamy summer days

June 29, 2005

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Cut up some chilled melons, and watch them come running.

That's all it takes to draw a crowd on a hot summer day - a slice of cool cantaloupe, watermelon or what have you, sweet as candy, juice running down your chin.

Sound good?

Linda Cowden thinks so.

"People are hot, and melons are cold and wet and refreshing. They're mostly water, and they have potassium in them, so they're good for re-hydrating when it's really hot," says Cowden, produce buyer for the Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Iowa.

Bob McMullen feels much the same way.

"Melons replenish your immune systems, like sports drinks do, only it's more natural. It's what I call an edible drink, with a lot of water and a lot of good vitamins. It's a good way to cool down. When they become available, people are just hungry for them," says McMullen, produce manager at Hy-Vee Food Store, 4000 W. Sixth St.

As the thermometer creeps - or soars - upward these days, it's probably best to think cool thoughts, and realize that melon season is rapidly approaching.

Sure, there's a selection now of various melons in grocery stores around Lawrence. But soon the produce aisles will be bursting with them.

There will be locally raised watermelon and cantaloupe available at farmers markets and fruit stands, of course.

But supermarkets are sure to offer more melons - shipped in from across the country - such as casaba, honeydew, Santa Claus, Sharlin, Galia, crenshaw, Juan Canary, Persian and others.

The appeal of melons is easy to understand. All you have to do is try living through a Kansas summer.

"Melons are a sweet, cool treat when it's hot," says Kevin Irick, who cultivates 10 acres of produce (including watermelon and cantaloupe) at his Leavenworth County farm, about eight miles north of Lawrence.

"If they're chilled, a piece of melon is awesome."

Thumping or rolling?

Which raises an important question: How do I pick a good one?

There's the rub. No method for picking out a good, ripe melon has yet been perfected.

Though it seems like everyone has a theory.

"I've seen people roll 'em on the floor. One lady said the way it rolls - if it leans to the left or to the right - tells her it's ripe," Hy-Vee's McMullen says.

"One lady said it's how it would stand up on its end."

Well, she's close.

Turns out, the produce manager says, the best way to choose a ripe melon is to hold it firmly, with one hand placed at each end, and press.

A ripe melon will give slightly.

Then there's the age-old thumping method, the idea being that a ripe melon - when properly thumped - will produce a nice, hollow thunk.

McMullen, though he doesn't rely on that method himself, thinks melon thumpers might be on to something.

"A lot of times, a watermelon will have a slight hollowness to it in the middle. If it's ripe (and you thump it), you can actually hear that sound echoing through the melon," he says.

"The more it ripens, the more it opens up and you'll get that sound to it."

Melons are huge business at Hy-Vee, McMullen says, especially watermelons.

During the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, his store will go through 20 or 30 bins of them, with 60 watermelons to a bin.

He offers another method for picking out a good watermelon that's ready to slice and eat:

"A lot of people think they need to be shiny and bright, but they should have a dullness to them. And avoid melons with a flat side; they might be a little too old," McMullen says.

"A melon that's been picked properly should have a round look to it."

Ask your farmer

That's fine, but Leavenworth County farmer Irick says all it takes to detect a ripe melon is a good sniff.

"The smell is what sells them. You have a truckload of cantaloupe, people can smell them and come straight to you," he says.

"Some people pick them up and shake them; people have all kinds of strange ideas. I've seen every trick in the book. Well, if they smell good, they usually taste good."

Mike Garrett, owner of Mike Garrett Farms, 1563 U.S. Highway 40, agrees it's best (at least when it comes to cantaloupe) to trust your nose.

"(It's) the smell of it. Cantaloupes are pretty predictable; they're going to smell good if they've just been picked," says Garrett, a third-generation truck farmer whose main crops are watermelons, cantaloupes and pumpkins.

Mark Lumpe, owner of Wakarusa Valley Farm, 965 E. 1000 Road, offers perhaps the most surefire method for finding ripe melons.

"Ask your farmer (at a farmers market or fruit stand) to pick you one. He's going to pick you a ripe one, because he wants you to come back," he says.

Lumpe grows a variety of certified-organic produce on about six acres of his Douglas County farm, including cantaloupe and three types of watermelon with different colors of flesh: Festival (red), New Orchid (orange) and Sunshine (yellow).

There's no need to sell Lumpe on the virtues of melons. He's already a big fan.

"We live for melons," he says. "When it's hot, and people are ready for a break, there's nothing better than a cold melon. It's one crop that I would always grow."

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