Scoping Canteloupe Fruit: Use your melon literally and figuratively to create muskily aromatic dishes to serve all through the meal.

July 31, 1996|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Cantaloupe season is in full swing and supermarkets have mountains of melons.

At first glance cantaloupes may look alike. So how do you single out the sweet ones? The ones that are ready to eat? The ones with vivid orange flesh and lots of juice?

Cantaloupe customers have several approaches. There are thumpers, shakers and sniffers. Pokers, too.

The thumpers and shakers are having fun, but they may not end up with the best choice. According to the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, the sniffers and pokers will have more success. Especially if they use their eyes, too.

Look for melons with stem ends that are smooth and well-rounded. The stem end should yield to light pressure when given a gentle poke. Avoid melons with bruises and discolorations (although it's perfectly all right for one side to be "bleached" where the melon touched ground).

Choose cantaloupes that are slightly golden -- not a dull green -- under their netting. The netting should cover the whole rind.

They should feel heavy; the heavier the melon the juicier the flesh.

But most of all, a sure sign of a tasty cantaloupe is a sweet, musty aroma.

Ah, cantaloupe perfume. It's one of the best. You even can smell it through the shrink wrap on ripe, market-cut melons (as long as they're not too cold).

If you end up with a less-than-perfect selection that needs more ripening, you can improve the flavor of uncut melons by leaving them at room temperature for two to four days. The fruit will not become sweeter, but it will turn softer and juicier.

Once ripened or cut, cantaloupe should be refrigerated, but don't remove the seeds until just before you're ready to serve the melon; the seeds keep the flesh from drying out.

Serve melon just slightly chilled for the most flavor and fragrance.

For appetizers and first courses:

Slice and wrap with prosciutto (dry-cured Italian ham); serve with a squeeze of lemon.

Slice and sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese or sprinkle with a little salt and garnish with finely chopped mint.

Cut in half and fill cavity with chilled wine sauce made by combining 2 1/2 cups full-bodied red wine (such as zinfandel, shiraz or Cotes du Rhone), 1/2 cup sugar and a cinnamon stick in a heavy-bottom large saucepan; boil until reduced to about 1 cup. Strain and chill. Pour into chilled melon halves; serve.

For breakfast:

Pile blueberries in cantaloupe halves and add a dollop of yogurt. Garnish with fresh mint.

Prepare a cantaloupe and strawberry streusel (recipe follows). Cantaloupe is seldom cooked, but in this recipe it's combined with strawberries, slathered with yogurt, covered with a luscious streusel topping and heated slightly. The results are delicious. Accompany with frozen yogurt and this dish becomes a dessert.

Salads

Use cantaloupe halves as a bowl for cold summer salads, such as chicken salad tossed with curry mayonnaise, grapes and toasted pecans -- or tuna salad with basil-scented mayonnaise (stirred with a little Dijon mustard), capers, celery and finely minced red onion.

Or use slivers of cantaloupe as a garnish for crisp green salads. Grilled portobello mushroom and cantaloupe salad can be a first course or main dish (recipe follows).

A simple green salad matched with a balsamic vinaigrette is topped with slices of cantaloupe and grilled portobello mushrooms; crumbled herb/sun-dried tomato-flavored feta cheese is sprinkled over the top.

Or combine with other fruit and make a fruit salad. Drizzle with a orange liqueur if you like.

Fruit salsa

Combine diced cantaloupe with minced red bell pepper, jalapeno chili, cilantro and rice vinegar (recipe follows); serve with grilled chicken, pork or fish.

Desserts

Fill small cantaloupe halves with port or dry white wine. Or slice and cover with a syrup made by boiling 1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup lime juice, 1/3 cup water and 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom for 2 minutes; chill. If desired, serve with cantaloupe sorbet (recipe follows).

Cantaloupe sorbet

Makes about 6 servings

1 cup sugar (see cook's notes)

1 cup water

1 large, lushly ripe cantaloupe, about 20 ounces

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

optional garnish: sprigs of fresh mint

Make the sugar syrup: Combine sugar and water in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat. When sugar dissolves, reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 6 minutes. Remove from heat; cool.

Remove rind and seed cantaloupe; cut into 2-inch chunks. Place chunks in food processor fitted with the metal blade; add lemon juice and 1/4 cup sugar syrup. Process until smooth. Pour into canister of ice-cream maker. Process according to manufacturer's directions.

Scoop into chilled bowls or goblets or onto a wedge of melon of a contrasting color, such as honeydew. Garnish with fresh mint and pass an assortment of cookies.

This sorbet also may be served between courses as a palate cleanser.

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