Ripe down to the rind

Aug 3, 2005 at 12:00 am

Try this. When you find that perfect, sweet, fragrant cantaloupe — the summer that passes without one is a failure — seed it, cut or scoop out the uniformly orange flesh and drop it in a blender or food processor. Add a pinch of salt and whirr until it’s a thick puree.

Now either run this through your ice cream maker, or pour it into a baking pan, freeze, and scratch it into crystals with the tines of a fork. You’ll end up with an icy summer dessert (or breakfast, or a snack with the all-night infomercial channel) similar to sherbet, in the first case, or granita, if you forked it up. Non-fat, too, if you care about such things.

You can do the same thing with a less perfect melon by adding a little honey to boost the sweetness, but it’s not the same.

Melons are all around us, as is usual in the dog days, and can make late summer tolerable on those days and nights when there’s a constant sheen on your skin, so much moisture in the air that sweat has nowhere to go, and fatigue rides on your shoulder, smirking wetly and whispering torment.

Better still, new varieties are showing up almost weekly, it sometimes seems, visually interesting and puzzling. What’s this baseball-sized thing that looks like a picture-book watermelon? What’s that oblong fruit (vegetable?) with skin as tough, wizened and malformed as the Elephant Man’s hindquarters? Why is that one covered in dangerous thorns and how the hell do you attack it as a food source?

I ambled through a couple of big produce markets over the weekend and was taken aback (alas, alack) by the number of melons I didn’t recognize and in some cases had never heard of. Research was called for. The results follow here.

If you think melons are fruits, you’re right. If you think they’re vegetables, you also right. All melons are gourds, although gourds are not melons. Cucumbers and squash are related to both. They all grow on vines, and the family name is Cucurbitaceae, or the less stuffy Cucurbits, though neither is likely to come up in conversation, even with the most aggressively chatty produce guy.

You can be forgiven if you think cantaloupe and muskmelon are the same thing, although technically they’re not, the former being a smooth Italian melon that’s not often seen on this side of the ocean. As for “mushmelon,” that’s just mushmouth talk for the same web-skinned item we pureed in the opening paragraph. The three names, as a practical matter, are interchangeable.

Unlike watermelons and other smooth-skinned sorts that have to be cut from the vine, muskmelons pop off, or “slip” from their stems when ripe. And that’s as ripe as they or any other melons are going to get. If you leave them at room temp for a day or too, they’ll get a bit softer, juicier, but no sweeter.

While fully ripe cantaloupes-muskmelons-mushmelons have a strong but pleasant fruit aroma at the stem end, other melons have no smell at all, no matter how ripe. So there are different methods for choosing one or the other.

One of my other favorites, the honeydew, is also smooth-skinned, is commonly twice the size of a muskmelon, and is the sweetest of all (the bigger the better), with bright green flesh. You may see the less common orange-flesh honeydew, sometimes called “Temptation.” Although it gives off no scent, the seeds inside a ripe honeydew will often rattle when it’s shaken. If you hear them, trust it.

Here are some more tips and descriptions of familiar melons, and mysterious newcomers. File them inside your own “melon,” or stick this column in purse or wallet for your next encounter with the Cucurbit family:

Tokyo King or Japanese Gift Melon– Included in this imported variety are the Emerald Jewel and the almost crisp-fleshed Emerald Pearl, both reported to be exceptionally sweet with white or green meat. The more general name refers to the fact that, because of their cost, they’re given as special, carefully boxed treats. This, for the trend-conscious, is the melon of the moment.

Casaba – A mildly flavored, large melon with a ropy yellow rind, its flesh is the color of ivory when fully ripe, which you can dope out by pushing on the blossom end — it should give a little bit.

Crenshaw, Cranshaw – With plenty of aromatic appeal and pinkish flesh some describe as salmon-colored, this looks similar to the casaba, but with less ropy or ridged skin. Look for one that’s yellow with a few traces of green, soft at the blossom end and a stronger, sweeter smell than other ripe melons.

Ambrosia – Watch for this one, a muskmelon with more intense color, aroma and flavor than the variety we all know.

Galia – This honeydew group includes Middle Eastern, Israeli, Passport and Mediterranean, which have light gold-green webbed rinds, pale green or white flesh and are especially blessed in smell and sweetness.

Butterscotch – Haven’t found this one yet, but Martha Stewart has. The name comes from the flavor of its green-and-orange melon meat, even gnawed right down to the rind. Sounds like one worth watching for.

Sprite – North Carolina is shotgunning the country with this specialty melon, the kitten of the gourd family. Crisp like an apple with a very sweet taste that combines honeydew, pear and apple, it’s only about the size of a softball. I heard an older woman cooing over a selection of them in a produce section recently, sounding more like she wanted to adopt one than buy it.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]