Melon Melange

Their shapes are sensuous, their colors appealing, and their flavors soft and luscious

Juan Canary, Crenshaw, and French Charentais may sound like faraway islands, but they are actually the enticing names of exotic melons - sweet, succulent, luscious melons that can add a touch of the tropics to an ordinary summer day.

It's easy to get passionate about these fruits, especially when they're in season. Although imported melons are available year-round, the domestic season is now upon us.

Melon is welcome at any table, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Served as an appetizer, entree, side dish, or dessert, it can be casual enough for a back stoop, or elegant enough for the dining room.

Lush and fleshy, melons can be perfection unadorned, but they often improve with a slight embellishment.

Even the most common presentations are refreshing: honeydew or cantaloupe lightly cloaked with a veil of prosciutto, the traditional watermelon basket of mixed melon balls, a simple ripe wedge of any melon with a squeeze of fresh lime, maybe a touch of salt.

To truly transport your tastebuds, try some more unusual combinations: smoked chicken and hot chili flakes, green peppercorns and raspberries, watercress and parsley, basil and bacon, cayenne and cilantro, sesame oil and cucumber. With a touch of imagination you can raise your culinary consciousness.

You can make cold soups, sorbets, and more elaborate desserts like gingered cantaloupe tart or minted melon mousse. Or you can try surprising and savory salads created with melons that satisfy the yearning for cold, refreshing meals and restorative tastes.

So, what are all these varieties of thirst-quenching melons that hold such seductive promise?

The proliferation of crossbreeds has simplified the classifications and "melon" has become an official catch-all for all but the watermelon family, which is a different species.

Musk melons, which originated in Asia, including American cantaloupe and Persian melon, are distinguished by pebbly, netted skin. Winter melons, so-called because they ripen into the fall and winter months, have a smooth skin. They include honeydews, Crenshaws, and casabas).

Watermelons, which have their roots in Africa, are solid-fleshed and have seeds scattered throughout, or are seedless.

But whatever the variety, the most commonly asked question is, how do you know when melons are perfectly ripe?

There are no hard and fast rules. We've all seen people rapping melons, and sniffing, shaking, and squeezing them.

The only true test with a watermelon is to cut into it, so it often pays to buy it already sectioned.

With cantaloupe, the indentation at the stem end should be flat and smooth, indicating the melon separated easily from the vine. Somewhat softened blossom ends (opposite the stem end) and a weighty size of five pounds or more is recommended for honeydew, Persian, and Crenshaw; coupled with fragrance, that should keep you on track. But even smell is not always an effective test.

Generally, the longer the fruit has ripened on the vine, the sweeter and more flavorful it will be. Most melons will become juicier and softer after they're picked, so it's best to let them sit at room temperature for a day or two. Always avoid those with dents and bruises, and beware of a slightly fermented scent. Most melons exude their best flavor when served at room temperature, or perhaps briefly chilled. The exception is watermelon, which is always best served very cold. However, refrigerate them if storing for more than one day.

RECIPE

Thai Melon Salad

1/4 medium seedless watermelon (about 2 pounds)

1 large honeydew melon (about 2 pounds)

1 large cantaloupe (about 2 pounds)

Juice from two limes (about 1/2 cup)

1 cup dry roasted, unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped

3/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)

Core, seed, and cut all the melons into approximately 1/2-inch cubes. The yield will be approximately 3 cups for each type of melon. This is rather labor-intensive, but well worth it.

Squeeze the fresh lime juice over the melon mix and gently toss. Add cilantro and cayenne pepper and toss again. You may chill salad at this point if you wish.

Just before serving, sprinkle with peanuts.

Serves 6 to 8.

COMMON AND EXOTIC MELONS

Casaba - a large, white-fleshed melon with pale yellow, furrowed skin; it has greenish-white flesh. Keep until skin edges toward white, then refrigerate.

Cavaillon - a small round melon with gray-green rind that pales to cream, and has bright orange flesh. This is also an import.

Crenshaw - a large golden yellow melon with golden flesh. Often sold in halves, be sure to check the skin rather than the flesh - you don't want green skin, and the texture of the skin should be smooth. Unripe whole Crenshaws will ripen at room temperature.

French Charentais - (also sold as Charmel, Savor, and Alienor) This melon is ripe when the gray background under the green stripes begins to turn cream. It should be aromatic and smell sweet, and has a firm, juicy flesh. This melon is imported to the US.

Galia - a round, netted melon that looks like a cantaloupe, with a dark green flesh; also cucumber-like in flavor.

Honeydew - a large melon with smooth, white-green skin and beautiful pale green flesh. There are many varieties like orange honeydew (orange flesh, tastes like a mix of cantaloupe and honeydew) and golden honeydew (cream-colored flesh with a tropical taste).

Juan Canary - an oval, yellow melon with yellowish flesh; the flavor is reminiscent of a cucumber according to some.

Persian - a large, netted, gray-green melon with a deeper orange flesh than cantaloupe and a little firmer in texture.

Santa Claus - so-called because it has a long ripening season, a striped yellow and green rind that should be smooth and bright, with yellowish-flesh.

Sharlyn - an oval-shaped melon with greenish rind that turns to peach, it has a sweet, peach-like flavor.

Watermelon - a pale, dark, or variegated green melon with smooth skin, it comes in many varieties. Ice Box watermelons are round and small. There is a yellow-fleshed variety called Yellow Doll, a Sugar Baby watermelon, and a seedless variety.

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