Taste it, Don't Waste it! Melons

Photograph by Sherri Brooks Vinton.

Is there any fruit more evocative of delicious summer eating than a fresh, juicy melon? Looking at a nice, ripe watermelon, I can almost feel the grass between my ten-year-old toes, candy-pink triangle in hand, juice running down my elbows and my determination to get serious distance spitting those seeds. I remember my dad. Bermuda shorts on a hot summer day. Half of a seeded cantaloupe in one hand, salt shaker in the other, about to dig in. Light and refreshing, sweet and full of perfume, melon is truly one of the prizes of the summer market.

It happens from time to time, though, that a huge honking melon can be a little too much of a good thing. Whether you simply can’t polish off a melon before it starts to wither or you just find yourself facing a bit of melon fatigue halfway through the fruit, here are some fresh ideas for enjoying every last bite of this seasonal treat.

Different Kinds of Melon

Peak season offers lots of different varieties of melons. Grocery stores rely mainly on the popular seedless melon, a hybrid variety that has been bred so that its seeds do not develop. Outside of the supermarket, you might find heirloom varieties, such as Delice de la Table. Grown for their great flavor, heirlooms reproduce "true" so their seeds can be saved and passed on through generations of growers.

Melons are part of the gourd family. Although the botanical genus also includes members, such as the bitter melon, that we would consider vegetables, the fruit that most eaters readily identify as melon can be divided into two large categories. Watermelons, which have crisp, juicy flesh that is solid throughout, and muskmelons, highly perfumed fruits with a hollow, seeded core.

Popular melon varieties include:

Watermelon:round to oblong green to green-and-white striped fruit with a range of flesh colors that includes white, yellow, orange and red.

Cantaloupe: a variety of webbed muskmelons with sweet, orange flesh.

Casaba: a golden-skinned melon with hints of green and shallow furrows that run from top to bottom. The Casaba is a hearty “winter“ melon that can be harvested relatively late and has a long shelf life. It has a smooth skin.

Honeydew: a pale green to golden yellow round melon with a pastel green flesh. Also smooth skinned like a Casaba.

Crenshaws: a cross between a Casaba and a Persian melon. These melons have greenish-yellow, slightly ribbed skin. Their pink to orange flesh is the sweetest of the hybrid melons.

Choosing a Good Melon

First, it’s important to find a good melon. Your best bet is to seek out the market or roadside stand that sources their fruit locally and seasonally. Melons do not like to travel. Because they suck up and contain a lot of water, melons can retain high levels of any toxic inputs that are applied to them in the field. Look for melons that are raised using organic or IPM (Integrated Pest Management) methods to avoid exposure.

I used to think that you could sniff out the best until a trusted farmer told me that by the time the melon gives off its perfume, it has passed its prime. To find the just-right melon, follow these tips:

  • The melon should be fully colored all around. Even the “ground” or “field” spot, the lightly colored patch where the melon touched the field, should be creamy and ripe looking, not white or green, which indicates an unripe melon.
  • There should be slight give on the stem end of the fruit, but it shouldn’t be soft or mushy.
  • Pick the melon up. It should feel heavy for its weight.
  • Give the melon a good flick with your finger. It should sound hollow.

Now that you’ve got your melon home, what to do with it? The best tasting melon never knows the chill of the refrigerator, which dulls its flavor. If you like cool melon, put it in the icebox briefly, just before serving.

Prepping Melon

It’s very important to wash your melon thoroughly before cutting into it. Melons grow on the ground so they are particularly susceptible to harboring dirt-borne pathogens. Added to which, some varieties’ craggy skin creates a network of nooks and crannies that hold onto dirt. To get rid of all of that, just give your melon a good scrub with a vegetable brush and maybe a little unscented dish soap. Pat it dry and you’re ready to dig in.

Here’s how I cut the rind off of my melon. First, cut off both the stem and blossom ends, deeply enough to expose the delicious melon flesh. Set the melon, cut-end down, on a large cutting board. Using a large chef’s knife, cut the rind away in big planks by running your knife just under the rind, from the top of the melon to the bottom. Repeat cutting strips from top to bottom all the way around the melon. You will end up with a rind-free ball of melon flesh. If you are dealing with a seeded melon, such as a cantaloupe or Crenshaw, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Now you’re ready to dig in or proceed with your recipe.

Melon Gazpacho

One thing I love about gazpacho is its versatility. While the standard Spanish version, which features tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers is divine, there are a lot of twists you can take that will expand your chilled soup repertoire. Fruit soups are one such variation.

The key to keeping the soup from tasting like a smoothie in a bowl is to include a strong balance of savory ingredients — and maybe even a little spice — to keep it firmly out of desert territory. Here is a master recipe. You can swap out the watermelon, tomatoes and jalapeno for honeydew, tomatillos and a few tablespoons of chopped cilantro. Or try cantaloupe, cucumber and a teaspoon of cumin. Feel free to mix and match depending on what is fresh and appealing at the market.

Ingredients: 

2 cups chopped tomatoes, about 2 medium

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 jalapeno, seeds and ribs removed

1 shallot or small red onion, peeled and halved

4 cups of diced watermelon, seeds removed (about 2 pounds)

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

Assorted garnishes, such as cooked shrimp or scallops, diced avocado or minced chives (optional)

Method:

Combine the tomatoes, garlic, jalapeno and shallot or onion in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Pour into a large bowl. Add the watermelon to the machine and puree until smooth. Drizzle in the oil and vinegar while the motor is running. Add the watermelon mixture to the tomato mixture and refrigerate at least one hour, and up to one day, to chill. Season with salt and pepper to taste, garnishing if you like.

More Ways to Taste – Not Waste – Melon

There are lots of ways to use up extra melon. Try some of these on for size:

  • Granita: puree 2 cups of chopped melon with 4 tablespoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice. Transfer to a brownie pan and freeze, scraping and stirring with a fork every half hour for two hours to get a pleasingly slushy set.
  • Agua fresca: puree leftover melon with sugar to taste. Thin with water, chill and serve this refreshing beverage over ice.
  • Salsa: in a medium bowl add, in this order as you prep them: 2 tablespoons lime juice, one chili minced to a paste with salt, 1 small onion finely diced, 1 tomato diced and 2 cups diced melon. Stir and serve with chips.
  • In a cake: muskmelons such as cantaloupe and honeydew are closely related to squash, making them a surprising but ideal candidate to add to cakes. Look for recipes that use warm spices, as you would in pumpkin bread.
  • Rind Pickles: don’t forget the rinds. Pickled watermelon rinds are more like candy than pickles. Mix up a batch and you’ll have sweet melon flavor all year long.