Alan Tangren: Cool off with summer melons
Dear Alan: At this time of year the selection of melons at the market leaves me bewildered. Do you have a favorite?
Alan: Melons start coming to market in early summer, just when we need them. They are a welcome sight for thirsty eyes and they slake that thirst right away, as they need little preparation.
Just cut them open, scoop out the seeds and serve. If you really want to work hard, you can slice them and serve with a drizzle of sweet muscat wine or draped with prosciutto.
Melons have been growing for thousands of years in the Middle East, all the way from Egypt to India, but they do well in any temperate area that has a growing season that is long enough and hot enough.
Columbus brought melon seeds to the Caribbean on his second voyage. They were eventually cultivated all along eastern North America, as far north as New England. We are lucky that our part of California has ideal growing conditions for melons, especially the Central Valley and the foothills.
My uncle used to grow large crops of muskmelons on the Bierwagen Farm in Chicago Park. But almost any backyard has room for a hill of melons.
watermelons & the rest
Over their long history of cultivation, many varieties of melons have been developed. They all come from two botanical species, easily distinguished as watermelons and then all the rest.
There are several named varieties of summer melons, known as muskmelons, worth looking for, particularly at growers markets. Ambrosia has delicate, yellow-orange flesh, an intense musky aroma and great flavor.
Passport is a green-fleshed melon with very little netting on the skin. They are a pale green or light yellow when ripe, and the very sweet flesh shades from pale green to almost white.
True cantaloupes, named after a town near Rome, are different from muskmelons and are harder to find. They are more typically grown in Europe. They are smaller and more spherical than muskmelons and their skin is harder.
Try the French Charentais type or the Israeli Haogen if you see them. Charentais have very aromatic dark orange flesh inside a smooth skin that ranges from green to grey. They are always rather small, no more than 2 pounds.
Haogen has spicy-rich, pale green flesh inside a skin that ranges from green to orange. It has definite suture marks on the skin that are dark green. All these cantaloupes and muskmelons are at their best in July and August.
Other types of melon come to market later in the summer. These include Honeydew, Crenshaw and Canary. They are at their best in late summer into fall.
Ripe Honeydews can have green or orange flesh, but they always have a very smooth rind that is usually creamy white, but can have a splash of yellow. They are not as aromatic as muskmelons, but their flesh is very sweet, and they keep better than muskmelons.
I think Crenshaw melons make some of the finest eating. They are oval in shape, but a little pointy at the stem end. They have a thin, wrinkly skin that is variously spotted and stripped with green and gold. Inside, the delicate orange-pink flesh is thick and aromatic.
Canary melons are shaped like Crenshaw, but have bright, canary yellow skin. The white flesh is tender, juicy and very sweet.
WHICH ARE THE BEST?
Lest we forget — watermelons. These are not usually distinguished by variety at the market, but by other characteristics. They can be seeded or seedless, large and blimp-shaped or small and round. Many of the modern varieties have been bred to fit into a home refrigerator. Most watermelons have bright red, very juicy sweet flesh, but there are some good ones with yellow flesh as well.
I’ve never had much luck with picking a watermelon by giving it a thump with my finger. A ripe watermelon will have a patch of yellow skin where it rested on the ground while it was growing. Also, look for watermelon skin that has a waxy bloom, dull and not shiny. Watermelons that are large for their variety and symmetrical in shape are usually better tasting.
The best muskmelons and cantaloupes in the market are the ones that smell good. The most aromatic will be the best. Look for those that show creamy yellow or gold skin under their netting. They will often have a flattened side that is paler in color.
The stem end should be moist and not moldy. The stem of most ripe muskmelons will have slipped off during harvest.
Honeydews and other late melons should give to gentle pressure on the blossom end.
Store ripe melons at room temperature for several days. Refrigerate only for a few hours before serving
All melons are easy to prepare. Cut into wedges or other convenient shapes and scoop out the seeds. Small cantaloupes can be served as a half, seasoned with sweet wine or a little salt and pepper. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a refreshing dessert.
Cut larger melons in thin wedges and use a paring knife to separate the ripe flesh from the rind, then serve as slices or cubes.
I find nothing can surpass serving perfectly ripe muskmelon draped with prosciutto or other kinds of ham in paper thin slices. Melon also makes a great addition to summer salads with other fruits.
I recently cut watermelon into cubes and served it caprese-style with sticks of fresh mozzarella, chopped mint and basil. The salad was drizzled with olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar, seasoned with salt and pepper
To make Mexican-style agua fresca, purée small chunks of watermelon flesh in a food processor or blender. Thin with some water and add sugar and lime juice to taste.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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