Beyond watermelons: summer’s most refreshing fruit
By Jamie Collins
Illustrations by Helen Krayenhoff
Photography by Angela Aurelio
Melons are the epitome of summer; there is nothing as satisfying to the soul as a sweet, juicy melon on a swelteringly hot day. They also have an interesting history and come in more delicious varieties than most people know.
Melons are in the cucurbit family and share that genus with about 960 other fruits and vegetables, including cucumbers, gourds, summer and winter squashes and even loofah. (Yes that scrubbing sponge in your shower is eaten when immature, and can be found in Indian curry dishes). Most members of the family are grown in trop- ical and subtropical areas as annuals and are characterized by hairy stems that give way to large leaves and tendrils that can spread several feet. Melon flowers are unisexual, and bees are the primary pol- linators that carry the pollen from male to female flowers, producing a young fruit called a pepo.
Wild melons are thought to have originated in Africa and Asia and were used as canteens for fresh water by African bushmen many centuries ago. They were one of the earliest plants to be domesticated, first by Egyptians about 4,000 years ago. Eventually, melon seeds made their way to Europe through the Moorish trade routes and to the Americas via early settlers and slaves.
Records of early American settlers planting casaba and honeydew date back to the 1600s and by the 1800s, heirloom melons in all colors of the rainbow and flavors galore grew in farmers’ fields. But sadly, by the 20th century, melons were hybridized for commercial production, resulting in the loss of many unique and tasty varieties. In supermarkets today, typically only watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew melons can be found—a travesty for the many beautiful, aromatic and delicious vintage varieties that have fallen by the wayside. The grocery store varieties—especially when they have been shipped in from other parts of the country or world—are tasteless in comparison to local heirlooms. The local melons are vine-ripened and harvested when their sugars are at their peak, which is important since melons don’t continue to ripen and sugar up much after they are picked.
Tasty Types of Melons
My all-time favorite melon variety—besides a really flavorful and sweet red watermelon—has to be the piel de sapo, pictured at right, a late-harvest melon whose name translates to “toad skin,” and is also called Christmas melon. Because it holds up so well, you can keep one in cold storage for about six weeks after picking—and make it part of your holiday feast!
This 8-inch-long, football-shaped, mottled, two-toned melon originated in Spain and is the most common melon grown in the La Mancha region. The flesh is hearty and white to light green in color. At the peak of ripeness, its skin turns from mottled green to yellow with green mottling.
The flavor is similar to that of honeydew but is much richer and sweeter with a crisp, dense texture. Because the scent is half of the taste, the floral aroma of the piel de sapo adds an extra sensory delight. The canary melon is a close relative of the piel de sapo although it looks quite different because the skin is bright yellow.
While the Spanish have their toad-skin melon favorite, the French favor the Charentais that have been growing in the Poitou- Charentes region since the early 1900s. The skin of this heirloom melon, pictured on p. 13, is light green-gray, and the firm, bright orange flesh has an intoxicating scent paired with an exquisite ambrosia flavor.
Tasting a bit like the best cantaloupe you’ve ever had, Charentais are very diverse and lend themselves to being paired with soft cheeses like feta and goat and adding sliced almonds, pistachios or hazelnuts. They are also wonderful served with a salumi platter. Charentais melons are very perishable, so it is best to eat them right away or store them in the refrigerator.
The chilacayote is a favorite of Oaxacan farmworkers on the Central Coast. While the chilacayote is in the same botanical family as melons and you might find yourself having brought one home thinking it was a watermelon (see illustration at left), the chilacayote is actually a bottle gourd—Cucurbita ficifolia to be exact. I include this unusual cucurbit here because it is often used in sweets as a true melon might be.
I first came across chilacayotes by surprise while taking a tour of third graders around my farm. One of my field workers had tucked a row of seeds brought back from his hometown into beds along the outer edge of the field. It was a great surprise to the kids and me when we saw the large, oblong specimens— especially when I was asked to explain what they were and did not have an answer. The children seemed to take this as a sign that the fruit had appeared magically in the field. They were thrilled to harvest a few of their discoveries and take them back to their classroom. The next day, I was able to explain to the teacher that this strange, 4-pound fruit with bright green and white snakeskin-patterned skin is traditionally grown in Oaxaca. Its vines, I had learned, are used to flavor soups and the immature fruits are used like zucchini, which is also a member of the cucurbit family.
The white pulp of the ripened chilacayote—sweet and similar in consistency to immature coconut meat—is made into a sweet, celebratory drink called agua de chilacayote by cooking the pulp until it is soft and then blending it with fresh pineapple, water, cinnamon and dark brown sugar (or piloncillo—unrefined sugar cane found in a cone shape in Mexican markets). The pulp is also used to make candy for Day of the Dead celebrations by cooking it down with sugar, milk, spices and candied figs or other seasonal fruit.
How to find—or grow—a good one
How do you know if a melon has been picked ripe and will therefore be sweet and flavorful? Signs of ripeness vary with the type of melon, but these are some useful tricks. Does the melon feel heavy for its size and does the blossom end give a little when pressed with a finger? Take a whiff—is it fragrant? You should be able to smell the strong scent of a ripe melon. Oftentimes, I find myself checking melons in grocery stores just to see if I can find one with an adequate indica- tion of ripeness. They almost never have a scent.
One way to find fresh, vine-ripened melons is of course to grow them. Melons need daytime soil temperatures to be at least 70–80° F and nighttime temperatures no lower than 50° for the four months of their growing period, so they thrive best in the warmer microcli- mates of our region. They also need well-worked, nutrient-rich soil to allow their roots to dig down 3–4 feet. Seeds should be planted directly into the ground (about one foot apart for smaller varieties and three feet apart for watermelons) in rows that are 4–6 feet wide. Using newspaper, straw or black plastic to mulch during the early part of the summer will help keep the seedlings warm and give them a head start, resulting in higher melon yields.
Another way to locate reliably delicious, ripe melons is at the farmers’ market. Happy Boy is an organic grower in Soquel and grows heirloom yellow and red watermelons, French Charentais, honeydew and piel de sapo melons that can be found at their weekly farmers’ markets in Monterey and Santa Cruz. Pinnacle Farms out of Hollister also grows wonderful organic melons in many varieties such as cantaloupe, watermelon, canary, Galia and more, which are available at their farm stand on Saturdays at 400 Duncan Ave. in San Juan Bautista as well as farmers’ markets in Aptos, Hollister and at Monterey Peninsula College.
Chilacayotes can be purchased late in the season from the Tu Universo Organic Farm’s booths at the Everyone’s Harvest farmers’ markets in Pacific Grove and Marina and at Natividad Medical Center in Salinas. Seeds for planting your own may be ordered at www.heirloomseedswap.com.
Melons are super hydrating and contain large amounts of fiber, vitamin C and potassium. Melons with orange flesh contain vitamin A while red watermelons contain lycopene—both amazing antioxidants that may help prevent cancer.
Don’t believe the myth you were told as a kid that if you swallow watermelon seeds, a watermelon will grow inside you. Melon seeds contain the amino acid arginine, are loaded with B vitamins and are a good source of magnesium, fiber, protein and heart-healthy fats.
Melons are most flavorful when served at room temperature. The trick when preparing dishes containing melons is to keep it simple. Here are some refreshing ideas utilizing melons:
1. Watermelon, feta cheese and pepitas or sunflower seeds make a delicious salad.
2. Mix melon chunks, cilantro, onions, raw jalapeños, garlic and a splash of white wine vinegar for a salsa.
3. Combine chunks of melon with fresh mint and a squeeze of lime.
4. Add melon chunks to a traditional Italian panzanella salad: tomatoes, bread cubes, basil, olive oil and vinegar. (See the Cachagua General Store’s panzanella salad recipe by going to www.ediblemontereybay.com and clicking on the “RECIPES” tab.)
Jamie Collins of Serendipity Farms has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley for 12 years. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.
Summer Scallop and Melon Crudo
Courtesy Chef Santos Majano, Soif Restaurant, Wine Bar & Merchants, Santa Cruz
2 Charentais melons
5 sea scallops*
2 ounces smoked applewood bacon
1 cup basil leaves
Fresh lime juice
1⁄2 cup canola oil
Sea salt to taste
Petite greens and edible flowers for garnish
Peel melons, remove seeds and cut into thin slices. Dice bacon and brown in pan. Remove and place on paper towel.
In a small saucepan, bring water to a boil. Quickly blanch the basil for 3–5 seconds. Re- move and shock in ice bath for 1 minute. Squeeze basil to remove the extra water. Place basil in blender with oil and blend until completely incorporated. Strain liquid through a cheesecloth. Set aside.
To assemble plate, first arrange one layer of melon. Slice each scallop horizontally into four thin disks and place over melon slices. Drizzle with lime juice and sprinkle generously with sea salt. Top each scallop slice with bacon. Sprinkle with petite greens and edible flowers for garnish. Drizzle basil oil over the plate and enjoy!
*Note: Make sure to buy the freshest scallops you can find, and let your fishmonger know you’ll be serving them raw, so he or she gives you a top-quality selection.