Let’s get this straight. A cantaloupe is a muskmelon, but not all muskmelons are cantaloupes. The terms are often used interchangeably, but our juicy, orange local melons are more specifically North American cantaloupes, a variety of the muskmelon that includes a range of green, ribbed and elongated melons, too. The term “musk” derives from the Persian word for “perfume” and refers to the distinct fragrance of the ripe fruit.
Right now, our local muskmelons are coming into our farmers markets, field-ripened and ready to eat. (Melons shipped from faraway fields have been picked underripe for easier shipping and handling, then ripened in the warehouse, which explains why they can often taste bland and have a mushy texture.)
When choosing melons, look for those with a creamy beige color beneath a raised, netted skin. They should have a heady, topical, musky scent you can pick up from yards away. The buttery, juicy flesh is best when the melon feels heavy for its size, and is nearly overripe.
The vine of a field-ripened melon will naturally slip from the fruit when it’s picked, so avoid those with little stubs of vine sticking from the end. The stem end should yield slightly when pressed with your thumb. Once home, refrigerate the melon whole for up to 5 days and once it is cut, leave the seeds intact (they prevent the flesh from drying out).
My grandfather used to sprinkle his melon with a little salt because the contrast accentuated the fruit’s natural sweetness (he did this with bananas, too).
As a sweet, serve melon for breakfast with a dollop of vanilla yogurt and plenty of fresh raspberries. Freeze melon chunks and toss into the blender for an instant melon granita and garnish with chopped fresh mint. Or simply serve chilled melon slices drizzled with Campari. Tossed into a blender with a dash of lemon juice and a few ice cubes and bananas, melons make a refreshing smoothie.
Melons are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, along with cucumbers, winter squash and zucchini, and they’re delicious when seasoned with savory flavors. Toss melon chunks in a salad spiked with a vinaigrette of lime juice and hot pepper, or toss with a flurry of herbs, olive oil, lemon and feta or gorgonzola. Melon wrapped with prosciutto, a favorite antipasto in Tuscany, is also delicious paired with thin slices of salami or smoked turkey.
Toss chopped melon in your favorite gazpacho recipe and season with lots of lime juice. Try substituting finely chopped melon for tomatoes in your favorite salsa recipe and serve with chips and slices of creamy avocado. But don’t wait. Melons, and these last days of summer, are here, now.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.