Cantaloupes that aren't, and other myths about the melons in our lives

August 24, 1994|By Steven Pratt | Steven Pratt,Chicago Tribune

First, let's answer this nagging question: What's the difference between a muskmelon and a cantaloupe?

They're both ivory-yellow, solid and wrapped in fishnet rinds, but one's got seams, right?

Wrong, or at least not exactly, says Chuck Voigt, a vegetable specialist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The melon without seams is what many people call a cantaloupe, but technically it's not a cantaloupe, he says. It's really a muskmelon without seams, called a western muskmelon, which is different from an eastern muskmelon with seams, which is what most people call a muskmelon.

Got that?

"I don't know many people who have ever seen a true cantaloupe," Mr. Voigt says. "A true cantaloupe is really more like a casaba melon with no netting. It's an exotic melon grown in sub-tropical areas and rarely found here," he says. "It's like yams. True yams are found only . . ."

Hold it! Let's stick to melons. What is it most people are going to encounter in the way of melons when they're grocery shopping this summer? What are they all about?

Let's start with the western muskmelon -- that's the one without seams that people think is a cantaloupe. This is a melon you can buy almost year-round in the produce department. It's a shipping melon, Mr. Voigt says, grown in Arizona, Florida and places where the weather is mild.

"The marketplace is geared to the western-type shipping melon. Food service wants consistency, it wants solid flesh. But, really, it's a hard muskmelon," he says. It has corky textured netting with a fairly tight lace pattern.

On the other hand, the eastern muskmelon -- the one people actually call a muskmelon -- is loose-netted with definite seams or gullies.

"Traditionally, it has softer, sweeter, more melting orange flesh and is less shelf-stable," Mr. Voigt says. "Everything that makes it attractive to diners and unattractive to shippers," Mr. Voigt says. "A lot of eastern muskmelons come from southern Indiana, where they can be picked at a riper stage.

"Melons don't develop after picking. If they are picked early, they soften but don't ripen and won't get the extra kick of sugar from being left on the vine," Mr. Voigt says. "So in most instances around here, the eastern type is a better flavor bet. They start coming in July and keep up through the frost in late September and early October."

The eastern melons don't last as long: only about a week under refrigeration and about three days on the counter. Either way they are high in beta carotene, vitamin C and folic acid.

The ideal way to eat them is to buy them from a roadside stand right after harvest and eat them as soon as you get home. Barring that, look for one in the store that is firm but not rock hard. Find the blossom end (opposite the scarred end where the stem was broken off) and apply light pressure with your thumb. If it's mushy, the melon is starting to rot. If it's hard, it is too green. "It should just have some give," Mr. Voigt says.

Most muskmelons should show a "mellow yellow color" beneath the netting. One that's bright green was picked too early. A ripe fruit also should smell sweet, even the western variety, he says.

"If they smell like a pickle, they are green. If they have the aroma

of muskmelon wine, they're rotten."

Sweet honeydews

Honeydew melons, with their smooth ivory rind and lime-green flesh, can be almost too sweet when you get them very fresh and ripe. "That's how they get away with picking them green in Texas and shipping them up here," Mr. Voigt says. They are harder to grow than muskmelons, which is why the price seldom comes down.

If you are looking for the best honeydew, select one with a white to pale yellow skin that still remains firm when you press the blossom end. They should have a sweet, melony smell, rather than a musky odor. If the blossom end is soft or the skin too yellow, "chances are they've gone past," says Mr. Voigt.

"Watermelon is a pretty different critter," Mr. Voigt says. "All the other melons are hollow in the center with seeds contained in the cavity, but the watermelon is a totally different genus and species with seeds more distributed through the flesh. It also has a very hard, thick rind. It's almost as different as a squash."

The flesh color runs from white to yellow to pink to dark red, and the skin color can be white to almost dark green, often striped. The so-called seedless watermelon isn't really seedless, Mr. Voigt says. The seeds are just undeveloped so you can chew them up and swallow them.

Most people like to thump a watermelon to determine its ripeness, says Mr. Voigt. A good specimen should not sound mushy, nor should it give a hollow echo. A solid, deep resonance shows there is plenty of water and the flesh is firm.

*

The following are some novel ways to prepare melon that your grandmother probably never heard of.

Grilled Chicken Salad With Melon Relish

Serves 4

juice of 3 large limes

1/4 cup honey mustard

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

salt, freshly ground pepper to taste

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