The Sweet Taste of Melon
Copyright © 1998 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.
With the summer just around the corner our thoughts turn to the old-time picnics at which whole watermelon were kept cool in the stream until lunch time. Does that bring back some memories of the good ol' days for you?
In one of the stories in the Arabian Nights, a child buys a melon to quench his thirst. On cutting it open he sees a tiny city, so he enters this microcosm filled with buildings, people and animals. This tale, a variation on the house of Peter Pumpkin Eater's wife, shows the melon's Near-Eastern origin and its importance to the people there. The fruit found its way to Spain via Arabs and Moors and from there, on Columbus' second voyage in 1493, to the New World.
There are countless varieties of melon-so many, in fact, that it is impossible to keep up with them all and they are cultivated all over the world: Israel, Spain, Portugal, all the Mediterranean countries, South America, South Africa, Mexico, Chile, southern United States, southeast Europe and Holland and the Middle East, all producing excellent, quality fruit. These members of the squash, or gourd, family cross-pollinate so promiscuously that farmers know they must plant them well separated from each other.
Of the basic types, the musk melon, sometimes called netted melon or nutmeg melon, includes what Americans call the cantaloupe. The musky scent and netted skin, looking rather like a large nutmeg, accounts for the name of the this group. The flesh is usually orange, occasionally green. The skin can be ridged in segments, but always has the characteristic raised, netted pattern on the skin, whether golden beige or green. The Persian melon is another larger musk melon, with finer netting on its darker-green rind and pinker flesh.
The true cantaloupe, named for the town of Cantalupo near Tivoli outside Rome, is widely grown in Europe. It is smaller, rounder and exceptionally aromatic. The skin is hard, sometimes rough, scaly, or segmented, but never netted like the American cantaloupe. The French Charentais is a delectable example, but American growers do not like its small size and fragility, so it is hard to find in the United States. The lovely Israeli Ogen, named for the Israeli kibbutz where it was bred, has succulent, aromatic green pulp and green stripes that segment the skin and is another true cantaloupe.
All musk melons and cantaloupe need to ripen on the vine for the natural fruit sugar to reach its peak (what we call ripeness). At this point, a separation layer in the stem pulls away from the fruit, and a ripe meloncan be picked easily, leaving a scar. One whose stem has been torn or cut has been picked prematurely and, once picked, cannot grow sweeter. Other ways to help determine ripeness are a heady fragrance and a smooth softness around the blossom as well as the stem end. On American cantaloupes, the background color behind the netting should turn from green to golden tan. Cantaloupe is very high in vitamins A and C, with a considerable amount of folic acid.
One of my very favorite uses of melon is in the following salad:
Ripe Melon and Watercress Salad with Prosciutto
6C watercress leaves, large stems removed, washed well and spun dry
2 medium Belgian endives, cut in julienne strips
1C ripe cantaloupe, peeled and cut into julienne strips
1/4 lb. imported prosciutto, cut in julienne strips
1/3C toasted pinenuts
6 edible flowers of choice
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. honey
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
For the salad: Toss all the ingredients (except the pinenuts and flowers) together in a large bowl and chill, covered with a damp towel.
For the vinaigrette: Whisk the vinegar, honey, salt and pepper together in a bowl until combined. Whisk in the olive oil.
To serve, mix some of the vinaigrette with the salad and toss gently to coat. Add the pinenuts, and additional dressing as necessary. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Divide among six chilled plates, garnish each with an edible flower and serve.
MAKES: 6 servings
Winter melons ripen slowly and are harvested later, while still unripe (even after frost), and stored in cool, dry, airy places where they will keep until Christmas or later. Lacking the separation layer in the stem, they can withstand cold. When ripe they still have no aroma. Their skins are harder, so they travel well, with a texture varying from smooth to furrowed, and in many colors. Their flesh can be white, pale green, or orange. In southern Italy it is the custom to keep them hanging on walls protected by a roof-gutter. The Cavaillon is a celebrated French winter melon not grown commercially in the United States.
Honeydew, with creamy white skin and green flesh, is a popular winter melon in America, but supermarket specimens are too often underripe and flavorless. To choose a good one, don't sniff for smell. Instead, look for a creamy rind with a touch of yellow (not dead white or greenish white). Feel for some softness and a matte finish, avoiding hard, shiny skins; a little roughness to the rind is a sign of sweetness. A flavorful honeydew should be heavy for its size, weighing at least five pounds. Honeydew is a rich source of vitamin C, with some potassium.
Of the many new hybrid melons on the American market, the oval Casabaweighs four to seven pounds, with lengthwise wrinkles meeting at the pointed end, pale-yellow skin and creamy, mild flesh. Canary melon is a variant with a brilliant canary-yellow and roughly corrugated skin. Santa Claus,yet another type, is slightly smaller, with a smooth, splotched, dark-green and yellow skin. As it is a winter melon, it has no scent.
The Crenshaw (sometimes Cranshaw), a cross of the Casaba and cantaloupe, is rounded at the stem end and pointed at the blossom end. It has dark-green skin that becomes golden yellow as it ripens, is somewhat wrinkled and has a very sweet salmon-colored flesh with an excellent full flavor. It has a strong, almost spicy aroma and weighs four to six pounds or even more. The Persian, a large, nearly round, gray-green melon with smooth skin under a light gray netting has flesh with a deep salmon color and a good, full flavor The Galia, from Israel, looks like a cantaloupe with a yellower color behind the netting and greenish flesh.
If watermelon refreshes us on a hot summer day, imagine how it must taste to someone lost in the African desert during a drought. The aptly named watermelon originated on that great continent, where the explorer David Livingstone found large stretches of them growing wild in the Kalahari Desert. Each melon, 92 percent water, is an oasis in itself.
Long before Livingstone's discovery, African slaves brought the seed to this continent, and by 1629 it was growing in Massachusetts. The giant melon prefers a hot, dry climate and sandy soil, so the deep South is where it thrives in the United States, but it is also grown in tropical and subtropical regions all over the world. The little town of Hope, Arkansas has the right combination of climate, soil, seed and tradition to produce champion melons. The 1991 Guinness Book of World Records gives the prize to a 279-pound specimen grown in 1988 by Bill Rogerson of Robertsville, North Carolina. Dr. Livingstone, I presume, would agree that that's a thirst-quencher.
The watermelon belongs to a different genus than other melons, which are distant relatives. Botanically it is close kin to the cucumber, another gourd. Watermelon shapes come small and round, or large and oval, and melons weigh anywhere from five pounds up to thirty or forty pounds, or many times higher for the giants.
Smooth, green skin and scarlet flesh punctuated with black seeds add to the watermelon's appeal. Depending on variety, the skin can vary from deep, solid green to lighter green with darker, wavy stripes. Yellow-fleshed varieties, ranging from orange to pale yellow, now seen on the market are more novel than new: the yellow watermelon has actually been around for a while. Some people may like it, but for most of us the vibrant red is part of the melon's attraction on a hot summer day.
Of the four basic types of watermelon commercially available, the Picnic is large and oblong (15-45 pounds), with red or yellow flesh. The round Sugar Baby and Ice-Box varieties (5-15 pounds) are convenient for ordinary households. The Seedless(10-25 pounds) is oval or round, with the obvious advantage of no seeds.
The best way to choose a good whole watermelon is to choose a good grocer. Aside from cutting out a plug, look for firm, even, symmetrical melons with a waxy sheen on the skin. The underside is yellowish (not white or very pale green) where it sat on the ground, but otherwise the skin should have the green markings typical of its variety. Cut watermelons should have strong color and flesh that is crisp, not mealy, dry or watery. Seed color can vary from black to gray to white.
Watermelons need to wait about a week after picking for best flavor. Uncut melons kept at room temperature can improve in flavor, so don't chill yours until soon before you plan to serve it. The flesh of cut watermelons should be covered with plastic wrap and chilled.
The best way to serve watermelon is ice-cold, straight from the refrigerator. It is the most thirst-quenching of all fruits and is usually served simply cut in wedges. It can also be liquefied and made into exotic drinks, refreshing sorbets and ice creams. Frozen cubes of watermelon make excellent substitutes for frozen pops. The fruit can be hollowed out and the shell carved, wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen for later use as a natural container for fruit desserts.
In Greece watermelon seeds are toasted as a snack, much as we eat sunflower or pumpkin seeds. In Italy the rind is candied, in contrast to Americans' pickled rind as a savory condiment. Italians also like to make watermelon puddings, particularly thegelu u muluni of Sicily, made with ground almonds, chocolate and cinnamon. Americans prefer simpler watermelon desserts, such as fruit cups, melon balls or ices. On a hot summer day nothing beats a slice of fresh watermelon.
As for nutrition, watermelon is high in vitamin C, fairly high in vitamins A and B, with some potassium. It has so much water that there is little room left for calories (80 per 10 ounces)-just the thing for dieters.
Since the sweet, cool nectar of a ripe melon is the perfect refreshment in hot weather, the fruit benefits from simple treatment, perhaps nothing more than a wedge of lemon or lime. In the United States melons are commonly eaten for breakfast, or for dessert. As an appetizer, Italians like to serve it with paper-thin slices of prosciutto, the fine ham from Parma. The French serve Charentais melon halves filled with a sweet wine such as Barsac, Marsala, Port or Madeira as an hors d'oeuvre. The English like their winter melons sprinkled with a little ground ginger. Indeed, ginger in any form seems to go uncommonly well with the fruit. Melons large or small can be scooped out and mixed with other fruit and put back in the shell, with or without liqueur added.
We tend to overchill melons, robbing them of their flavor. On the other hand, well-chilled melons are more refreshing. The best treatment for all melons is to keep them at room temperature until ripe, and chill only briefly before serving. Since the flesh next to the seeds has the most intense flavor, take care to remove only the seeds and leave the top layer of flesh.
If you find yourself in San Francisco, don't miss an absolutelyfabulousdinner, incredible atmosphere (and even fresh melon on your dessert plate) at Flying Saucer, 1000 Guerrero Street, telephone: (415) 641-9955.
Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.