Split melons now lie on tables at farmers markets like suns pulled from the sky. Their varieties circle the color wheel — pink, green, yellow and orange — but it's the deep apricot-colored cantaloupe that beckons me.
Others feel the same way. Of all the melons, cantaloupes are the most popular. So when the first cantaloupes arrive this month, get in line early. If the farmers market has sold out of them, look for the "farm fresh lopes" signs at roadside stands, and pull over to nab one. Then head home, slice that sweet, round fruit open, and take a bite of one of summer's lightest, freshest tastes.
Depending on when seeds are started, the cantaloupe harvest around the country can begin as early as June and continue throughout the summer. Ripe cantaloupes should be stored in the refrigerator, unripe ones on the counter for a few days. They should be washed thoroughly before slicing, and leaving the seeds in until just before eating helps to keep a halved melon moist.
There are some easy guidelines to picking a ripe cantaloupe. It should have a mild, musky aroma on the stem end; an odorless cantaloupe is likely to have little taste. A ripe melon should have firm, khaki-colored skin with even netting. Avoid cantaloupes that are soft or bruised, and those that have cracks or shriveling, or an attached stem. The stem can mean that the fruit was harvested too early, because a melon ready for harvest will easily slip its stem. The stem end should yield to pressure, but not be mushy. Also, growers say cantaloupes with tighter netting have a firmer, crisper texture.
That raised netting on its skin is a hallmark of the fruit known to Americans as "cantaloupe" — technically, it's a netted muskmelon. The true cantaloupe is not grown commercially in the United States, but melons have long roots here.
Explorer Christopher Columbus brought melon seeds to the New World, and both native peoples and European settlers spread the fruit. By the 1600s, they were grown from Florida to New England.
Beyond that, ancient melon history is a little murky, although there is a biblical reference in Numbers 11:5 as Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt: "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic, but now there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."
Cantaloupe has been a fruit for the ages partly because of its health benefits. It's a nutrition powerhouse — high in vitamins C and A, plus potassium. If that isn't enough, consider that a quarter of an average-size cantaloupe has about 50 calories.
I've always eaten slices of fresh cantaloupe unadorned, but there are many alternatives. The first time I saw someone sprinkle salt on a slice of lope, I recoiled. Some find that salt — or even pepper — enhances cantaloupe's flavor. I still don't care for salt on my melon, but I have come to appreciate its varied uses. It's ideal for soups, smoothies, fruit cocktails, salsas and sorbets.
However you slice it, it's a taste of summer, straight from the sun to you.
This dish is delightful as part of a summer breakfast or brunch. It can be prepared the night before. The recipe is adapted from Vegetarian, consultant editor Nicola Graimes (Barnes & Noble Books 2002).
Makes 4 servings
1/2 of a ripe, medium cantaloupe
8 ounces fresh pineapple (or 8-ounce can pineapple chunks in their own juice)
8 ounces seedless green grapes, washed and halved
1/2 cup white grape juice
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
Remove the seeds from the melon half and use a melon-baller to scoop out evenly sized balls of melon.
Using a sharp knife, cut the skin from the pineapple and discard. Cut the fruit into bite-size chucks.
Combine all fruits in a glass serving dish and pour the juice over the fruit. Toss lightly. Cover and chill. Just before serving, place mint leaves over the fruit.
As a vegetarian, I like this salsa on top of veggie burgers, and pescetarians have told me they enjoy it over grilled fish. It's good served with tortilla chips, too. The recipe is from Crazy for Chipotle by Lynn Nusom (Northland Publishing 2004).
Makes about 3 cups
1 medium, ripe cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and diced
1/2 medium red onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 chipotles in adobo sauce, rinsed and finely diced
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon gold tequila
Put all of the ingredients in a medium bowl and lightly mix. Refrigerate for 1 hour before serving, so that the flavors can blend.
This recipe is adapted from At Home with Michael Chiarello (Chronicle Books 2005).
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 1/4 cups superfine sugar*
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
2 large cantaloupes, halved, seeded, peeled and cut into half-inch cubes
1 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
*Superfine sugar can often be found in the alcoholic drink-mix section of the grocery store. Or, to produce superfine sugar at home, pulverize granulated sugar in a blender or process in a food processor fitted with the metal blade for about 2 minutes.
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water over low heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the mint, remove from heat and let cool completely.
Working in batches, process the melon chunks in a food processor until a smooth puree forms. Pour the sugar syrup through a fine-mesh sieve held over the melon puree, discarding the mint leaves. You may need to press down on the mixture with a spoon to get all of the liquid through. Add the salt, and stir to mix well.
Pour the cantaloupe mixture into a 7-by-12-inch baking dish. Place uncovered in the freezer. Every 30 minutes, remove the dish from the freezer and scrape the contents with a fork, forming shaved ice crystals. Repeat until the mixture is almost completely frozen but still grainy, 3 to 4 hours.
Place the granita in the refrigerator 30 to 45 minutes before serving, so it will soften slightly. Serve in small glass bowls or stemmed glasses.