Seasonal Eats: Melons
Did you know that melons, squash and cucumbers are all part of the same gourd family? If you think about it, most melons have a very similar structure to winter squash, with thick flesh and an inner seed-filled midsection. That being said, squash are classified as vegetables, while melons are sweet and juicy fruit — which is why you’ll seldom see people chowing down on raw wedges of zucchini, and playfully spitting out the pits on a hot summers day.
And while watermelon is an iconic seasonal favorite, it’s only the tip of the icebox (the classification for miniature-sized fruits, alongside seedless, picnic, and yellow-flesh) as far as melons are concerned. Sure, there’s creamy, orange Cantaloupe and mellow, pale-green Honeydew, but also strawberry-scented Crenshaw, sugary Japanese Sprite, and fragrant, French Charentais, as well as Chinese Bitter Melon, generally used in stirfries, and even the African Horned Melon, with a tart taste and dramatic golden spikes.
So how are restaurants taking advantage of this wealth of summer melons? At hot, East Village newcomer, Bruno, you’ll find ribbons of mixed melons paired with crisp rounds of cucumber, daubed with buttermilk and tapioca and offset with strands of fleshy succulents. Gabriel Kreuther is practically making art with melons at his newly minted, eponymous restaurant in the Grace Building, layering cantaloupe in a Foie Gras Terrine, along with duck prosciutto and porcini preserve. At Virginia’s, honeydew and mint add extra freshness to Citrus-cured Salmon, and at Williamsburg’s chic Loosie’s Kitchen, juicy watermelon mingles with golden beets and creamy burrata, finished with chive vinaigrette, pecans, and peppery leaves of watercress. All the way out in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, you can share giant, rose-colored punch bowls of a watermelon-based cocktail at Cebu, spiked with fruit-infused vodka and ginger liquor, balanced with mint and lime. And for dessert, look no further than the funky ChikaLicious, currently serving Yellow Watermelon Sorbet and Lemon Curd, set atop cream fraiche cream and intriguingly vegetal swirls of yellow tomato puree.
Most of us know to sniff melons before we buy them, since ripe fruits give off an especially sweet aroma, but there’s a lot more to choosing a perfect melon than that. Look for symmetrical melons heavy for their size and free of blemishes or soft spots, then roll them around and check for the couche (the spot where it rested on the ground while growing). Don’t see one? The melon is not yet mature. Lastly, find the spot where the stem was attached. Clean indentations should appear on melons that dropped naturally from the vine.
Once you get them home, keep uncut melons at room temperature for two to four days or until fully ripe, then refrigerate for up to 5 days. Refrigerate cut up melon in a covered container up to 3 days, but remember that the fruit is highly aromatic, and their smell will easily penetrate (not to mention absorb) other foods. Always wash melons in warm soapy water before cutting to get rid of any impurity on the rind that might be carried from the knife blade to the flesh. Simply slice the melon in half and scoop out the seeds and strings. Melons can be shaped into halves, quarters, wedges or cubes, or scooped into fun, bite-sized balls with a melon baller. Most melons will benefit from a squeeze of lemon or lime juice to enhance the flavor, and are best served at room temperature.
As far as raw preparations go, melons present endless possibilities — freeze into chunks and use as ice cubes in drinks or cocktails, puree into gazpacho, cook into jam, or dice into a salsa that pairs perfectly with fish. Toss with creamy feta and fresh mint for a fabulous summer salad, blend with ice and lime juice to create a refreshing granita, wrap with thin slices of prosciutto for an elegant appetizer, or combine with arugula, seared tuna and avocado for a light, healthy dinner. You can even carve large melons into extravagant
serving bowls, to hold a fresh, party-ready fruit salad! But remember that certain varieties give themselves perfectly to cooking, too — remember Chinese bitter melons and heavy winter melons? They can be sautéed and braised, steamed and roasted, deep-fried and even grilled, for unique, melon-centric dishes that will doubtless become staples in your house, throughout the rest of summer and beyond!
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