To many of us, biting into a crescent of drip-down-your-face melon is the very essence of summer. So it’s hard to believe the juicy, tender fruit is actually directly related to gourds (such as unyielding, cold weather winter squash and pumpkins) as well as decidedly savory cucumbers. Yet unlike their brethren, hollow, watery melons are generally consumed mature, when the flesh becomes sweet, and their rind is tough but not prohibitively hard.
As for that seasonal favorite, Watermelons, their smooth, stripy shield is even edible; often used for pickling. The most popular melon in the U.S., however, is actually the bright orange Cantaloupe, which is velvety and fragrant, and the sweetest is the justly named Honeydew; with pale green innards and a
creamy yellow rind. And that’s just the best-known three; you can find a mind-boggling assortment of melons at farm stands, gourmet shops and greenmarkets nowadays, such as the spicy Crenshaw (a cross between a Casaba and Persian melon), the jelly-like, impressively spiked Horned Melon (whose flavor betrays its relation to cucumbers), as well as the oblong, pear-like Canary, and the elegant French Charentais.
With all of this variety to choose from, it’s no wonder restaurants are eager to incorporate melons into everything, from drinks to desserts. At Brooklyn’s Catalonia-inspired Cassette, you can kick off your meal with a tumbler of “Pink Noise,” comprised of watermelon, jalapeno, tequila and lime, and ruby cubes of melon moisten a market Ceviche at Crave Fishbar, along with heirloom tomato, popped quinoa and chile. The rind is pickled in a traditional preparation at the Southern-fried Root & Bone, and tossed with red onion in a jalapeno and key lime vinaigrette, and Jams updates the classic combo of cantaloupe and prosciutto by turning it into a trendy toast, along with quivering globes of burrata. John Fraser showcases the seldom-seen Toybox melon at Nix, by sprinkling it with cardamom-infused sea salt and a scoop of housemade cottage cheese. Lest we forget to mention HARBS, which plays up its sweet side with a stacked melon crepe cake, anchoring green and orange balls of fruit in clouds of downy cream.
So, most of us are aware of the sniff test when it comes to choosing melons, but what else should we look for in order to effectively pick peak produce? Search for a symmetrical melon heavy for its size and free of blemishes or soft spots. In all varieties, the belly button should have no trace of stem, and the melon should be firm overall but slightly tender at the blossom end. Check the spot on the melon where it rested on the ground, it should be a creamy golden-colored oval, distinctive but not too large. Don’t see one? The melon’s not yet mature. Also, find the spot where the stem was attached. Clean indentations should appear on melons that detached naturally from the vine, like watermelons.
When it comes to rough-skinned melons like cantaloupe, the “netting” should be distinct and raised, the background should have almost no green tinge, the belly button should have no trace of stem, and there should be a distinct melon odor. If you can’t smell a netted melon, don’t buy it. Smooth-skinned melons are more difficult to choose. Their appearance can be deceptive, and they have little odor. The skin will feel waxy. At farmers markets, look for brown flecks on the skin. These are called sugar spots and are an indication of ripeness. Produce managers at stores usually wash them off.
Store whole melons at room temperature if they are underripe. They will continue to ripen and develop complexity. Most melons are best served chilled but not cold. Like white wines, they are best at 50 to 55 degrees, but the flavor is muted at the 40 degrees of most refrigerators, so pull chilled melon out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.
Besides eating them raw (remember, each and every part of a watermelon can be consumed!) what can you do to make the most of melons? How about cutting the flesh into chunks, freezing them, then blending into a refreshing summer slushie? You can also puree bits and pieces into a smooth, crème fraiche-dolloped, fresh mint leaf-strewn soup. Needless to say, melon is awesome in salad (we love it with briny black olives, mild red onions and feta cheese), or as part of an antipasto platter; wind wedges with speck or prosciutto, or string olive oil-drizzled balls on skewers, along with petals of basil and marbles of mozzarella.
Melon is a must in sorbet, or finely diced into a sprightly salsa — and believe it or not, you can even bake with it; just spoon puree into the batter for quick breads or cake. Of course, our favorite use for melons is to fashion them into vodka or rum-soused cocktail vessels or beer-bloated kegs; the ultimate adult alternative to the childhood pastime of playfully spitting out the pits!
113 Franklin St., btwn. Noble St & Greenpoint Ave.
945 2nd Ave., btwn. 51st St & 50th St
Root & Bone
200 E 3rd St., btwn. Aves. A & B
1414 Ave of the Americas at W. 58th St.
72 University Pl., btwn. 10th & 11th Sts.
1374 3rd Ave. at E. 79th St.