Crazy for Cantaloupes
New Jersey grows a variety of cantaloupe called the Athena melon (years ago, we called them muskmelons), which are usually sweet with very soft flesh and are highly perishable.
I remember in our produce store growing up, my father would bring in loads of them in the summer, and you could smell their sweet scent for miles, but unfortunately, they would only last a day or two before they went bad.
Thatís why most stores today sell popular California cantaloupes, which are high in sugar content and are good keepers that usually last up to a week.
Like many other households today with just two people, both of whom work, my wife, Bette, and I shop once a week and rely on produce to keep for weeks. However, since produce is meant to be eaten, not stored, we now depend on farmers and stores to offer produce that will last longer. This means picking and buying the product greener and not as ripe, which Iím not crazy about, but itís a sign of the times.
Seasons and Varieties
Great fragrance is the hallmark of a good ripe cantaloupe. If I've got a crate or two of them in the truck, it doesn't matter what other produce is in there. When I open the door to unload, the warm, rich, sweet summer smell of melons is the first thing that hits me. Usually the least expensive and probably the most popular melons on the market, cantaloupes are sweet, fragrant, and juicy, with a pinkish orange to bright orange flesh. Grown primarily in California and other western states, cantaloupes are round, with a golden, tightly netted skin.
Although good cantaloupes from the West are available from June through December, they are best between June and September. That's when the California crop is at its peak, and I think that state grows the best cantaloupes. Arizona is next, New Mexico and Texas also grow big cantaloupe crops.
Almost all cantaloupes commercially grown in California are of the Hale's Best group of varieties. Several strains are on the market, each with a few distinct characteristics. Other varieties include Hymark and Mission.
Selection and Storage
Color and, more importantly, fragrance ó not softness at the stem end ó indicates ripeness. A cantaloupe with a golden color and a ripe, sweet aroma is going to be a ripe, sweet melon. Donít push the stem end: If your neighbor presses a thumb there, and I press mine there, eventually youíre going to feel something soft even if the melon is grass green.
For some reason, cantaloupes with tighter netting seem to have a firmer, crisper texture and cut better than those with the looser, more open netting.
If the stem end is rough with portions of the stem remaining, the melon was harvested prematurely. Shriveled, flabby or badly bruised product signals poor quality. Also avoid melons with growth cracks, mottling or decay (mold or soft sunken spots on the surface). A mature cantaloupe will be well netted or webbed with a smoothly rounded, depressed scar at the stem end.
A cantaloupe on the green side will ripen if you leave it out at room temperature until any green undertones in the rind have turned golden, and the melon has a rich smell. But during the summer, thereís no excuse for taking home a green melon, as in-season melons should have been picked fully mature and ripe, with little or no green showing.
When ready to eat, cantaloupe will take on a yellow background appearance, acquire an aroma and soften. Because cantaloupe is shipped in a firm state to avoid damage, it usually needs a few days at room temperature to soften and become juicier.
I think melons taste better and have a better texture at room temperature, but if you like your melon chilled, refrigerate it right before you're going to eat it. Cut melons, of course, have to be refrigerated, but wrap them tightly in plastic to preserve moisture. If you don't want everything in your refrigerator to smell and taste like cantaloupes (and vice-versa), it's a good idea to put the melon in a heavy plastic or glass container with a tight-fitting lid.
High in folate and vitamins A and C, cantaloupes are great eaten as is for breakfast or dessert or cut up with other melons and fruits in a salad. Because cantaloupe is easy to cut, it can be used as an appetizer, in salads, as a breakfast plate garnish and in compotes and desserts.
During the heat of summer, we love to offer our guests the following refreshing dessert that represents the best of all worlds: cut-up cantaloupe and seasonal summer fruits in a watermelon basket.
I love August in New Jersey and all the opportunities to enjoy great fruits and vegetables that the season offers. Hope you savor every bit of this special month. To your health!