RECIPES: Fire and Ice Watermelon Salsa, Watermelon and Tomato Salad with Mint and Chili, Watermelon Feta Mint Salad, Agua Fresca, Watermelon Rind Pickles, Melon and Cucumber Salad with Feta, Black Pepper, and Mint, Kiwi Honeydew Smoothie , Arugula and Melon Salad with Prosciutto and Balsamic Dressing, Watermelon and Como de Toro Peppers Salsa, Watermelon Salsa
It seems most of the ingredients I write about for Market Fresh is produce Columbus brought from the New World to the Old, but in this instance it is about a crop Columbus brought to the New World on his second voyage.
The melon was introduced to Europe and the Americas, and they are believed to be native to Southwest Asia and Africa. The muskmelon is thought to be one of the earliest plants domesticated in Europe and the New World at the same time. There is evidence of watermelon being cultivated in the Nile Valley as far Back as 2000 years B.C.E., and watermelon seeds were found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb as well. The Moors brought melons to Europe in the 13th century, and there are records of Native Americans growing honeydew and casaba melons by the 1300s. Now melons are grown commercially in half the states of the USA, but the majority of them come from California, with Texas, Arizona, and Georgia following behind.
Melons are related to cucumbers and squash, and are actually a berry! Most melons are eaten as fruit, while some are considered a vegetable. Of the latter, think of Winter melon and bitter melon. When eaten like this, melons are sautéed, stir-fried, and pickled. They are valued for medicinal purposes as well as their flavor.
Most melons come from two main species — Cucumis melo and Citrullus lantanus. The first account for the muskmelons; cantaloupe, honeydew, Persian, canary, casaba, etc, while the latter covers the more than 1200 varieties of watermelon, which range in size from under a pound to over 200 pounds.
Originally from southern Africa, watermelons shapes range from oval to round, and the rind can be pale green with lighter or darker stripes to uniformly dark green with a little paler patterning. The flesh ranges from yellow to red.
At the farmers markets, different varieties come in at different times, so keep your eyes peeled. When selecting one, look for the pale spot where the melon was resting on the ground-it should be a creamy color rather than green or white. This will signify a mature melon. The melon should feel heavy for its size also, and if you thump it, it should give off a mid-range “thup” sound. Too high pitched and the sugars will not have developed. Too low-a real deep bass-y sound-and the melon may be over-ripe and turning mushy inside.
Muskmelons include cantaloupe, Charantais, honeydew, honeyloupe, Crenshaw, Ananas, Ambrosia, and Rocky Sweet, among others. You can find all of these melons at the farmers markets. One the things that all of these melons share, besides a pocket of easily removed seeds in the center, is a lovely fragrance that is so hard to describe yet so much a part of the enjoyment of melons. When wine-geeks want to describe a lushly fragrant wine with exotic tones to it, “melon” is often the word used.
There are many melons available, but the most popular in the USA remains the Cantaloupe. The name derives from the town of Cantalupo near the Vatican, but the melon was around in ancient Persia and India well before that. The cantaloupe we know now with its netted skin and orange flesh is not the original Cantaloupe, however. The old-school Cantaloupe actually looks more like a French or Charentais melon, which are derived from the Cantalupo. These have a smooth pale skin with deeper furrows that are a darker green. They are also smaller than the modern cantaloupe. Should you encounter a ‘rockmelon,’ just know that this is the Australian/New Zealand name for cantaloupe.
Ambrosia is a cantaloupe hybrid from the Burpee’s seeds folks, and what the cross is seems to be a secret. The flavor is like cantaloupe, but more floral and sweeter with a finer textured flesh. All of the above-mentioned melons have flesh that runs in the orange spectrum, from a light sunny orange to a deep orange. The flesh is smooth eating, juicy and sweet. In some instances the sugar content is so high the melon seems almost fatty.
Honeydews are a smooth skinned melon with a creamy colored skin with flesh ranging from pale white green to almost emerald green. When selecting honeydews, the skin should be creamy colored with patches of orange showing. Honeyloupe is just what it sounds like — a cantaloupe-honeydew cross. The outside looks like a honeydew with smooth pale skin tinged orange, but the flesh is deep coral orange with a smooth moist texture, very sweet and fragrant with exotic flowers. Another melon found at market is an heirloom hybrid from the 1800s, the Ananas. Oval shaped with yellow/pale green skin with some scaling on it, this melon has pale white-green to deeper jade green that is moist and can be incredibly sweet. Casaba melon is an older variety that has a smooth skin with furrows near the pointed end. The skin is a lovely yellow with undertones of green, and the flesh is a pale creamy green color. This melon is not as sweet or fragrant as the aforementioned, but it has a nice subtle flavor with hints of cucumber that make it excellent for pairing with other vegetables and for use with entrees such as in a “salsa” for topping seafood or poultry. The Crenshaw is a casaba/Persian cross, and looks like a paler casaba with yellow green skin and pale orange flesh. It is more fragrant than the casaba, and is considered one of the sweetest melons when grown under the right conditions.
How to Select Melons
When selecting muskmelons, always look for ones that feel heavy for their size, and they should have a little give at the flower end when pushed gently. The stem end should be smooth, and neither moldy nor dried out. For melons with webbing, the netting should be firm, and avoid melons with a lot of dark green undertones. A light tap should give a “thup” sound. And one thing all muskmelons should have is a lovely aroma! If it doesn’t have that characteristic melon smell don’t buy it. Some scaling on the rind is okay, but avoid melons with a lot of scratching and bruising, or uneven, deformed areas. A moldy smell or fuzzy stem end is also a bad sign.
How to Store Melons
When you get your melon home, you can keep it on the counter for 3 days, and then you should eat it. It will keep in the refrigerator 2-3 days once opened. Many sources warn of salmonella and melons. In an effort to avoid this, rinse the melon well and wipe the knife between slices. If you wish, you can peel the entire melon and then halve, seed, and cut it up and store it in an air-tight box in the refrigerator, or just take slices as you go being sure to use a clean knife and avoid the peel.
Ways to Use Melon
When buying melons, think beyond prosciutto and melon. Try it in a salsa, use it in ceviche, or in gazpacho. Use in a beverage such as an Agua Fresca, or a salad with arugula and a light balsamic dressing, or as a foil to grilled shrimp. If you have kids, or want to reach out to your own inner-kid, make yourself a batch of melon popsicles. You won’t find anything better on the ice-cream truck!
Look for melons at Pinnacles (Phil Foster Ranches) and at Munak Ranch. And if you aren’t sure which melon to get, you can always ask Frank at Munak to pick one for you, and ask him what he looks for when selecting. The season for melons started in late July, and you can expect it to run into October, but the best time for melons is right now!