THE LOPES have landed and I'm in love again. Cantaloupes, melons that in the slang of local fruit-and-vegetable stands are referred to as "lopes," have arrived on the eating scene.
Recently I spent some time with one that was drop-dead delicious. Its bright orange flesh was the perfect texture, soft but not squishy, firm but not chewy. It had remarkably sweet flavor, yet it wasn't cloying. I ate chunk after chunk after chunk.
There are several schools of thought on how to pick a good cantaloupe at the market.
There are the "shakers," shoppers who pick up a lope and jiggle it from side to side, listening for sounds of interior movement. If they hear a commotion, they discard the melon, believing it is too ripe.
I scoff at the shakers. There is, I think, no link between sloshing and sweetness. The only thing shaking a cantaloupe accomplishes is that it irritates the owners of the stand, who understandably don't want their goods shaken. Or stirred.
Next are the believers in "undercolor." These folks examine the ,, color of the skin underneath the cantaloupe's netting. They look for a golden glow, which, they believe, is a sign that the melon is ripe. A bright green undercolor means the melon needs a few days to ripen. A white undercolor, the theory goes, means it is past its prime.
The undercolor method may work for some sharp-eyed folks, but I have trouble distinguishing between the golden glow and over-ripe white. Sometimes I am right, sometimes not.
Usually I rely on the third method of lope inspection, sniffing. If the lope smells good -- the unmistakable perfume of the fruit in its prime -- then I go for it.
I used both the sniff and the undercolor methods to land the lope I bought Sunday at the Baltimore Farmers' Market. And I was lucky. I happened to see the owner of the stand, Robert W. Knopp Jr., and I asked him if this was one I could eat for breakfast.
Knopp has been growing cantaloupes on his family's farm in Severn for years. He gave this lope his nod of approval as one that was ready for immediate consumption. Twenty minutes later I was home and eating it for breakfast.
Fixing it was easy. I simply sliced off the skin and cut the melon flesh into chunks. I set some chunks in a bowl on the breakfast table, and some more in a bowl in the refrigerator.
tTC My family feasted on them all day long. Cantaloupe is one of those few foods that tastes like dessert yet is good for you. It is loaded with vitamins A and C, rich in beta carotene and is full of fiber.
Later, looking for a new way to spend time with my sweet companion, I found a recipe for fritters made with slices of lope and basil leaves. Basically it called for dipping the lope chunks and basil leaves in a batter made of egg, flour, salt and club soda, then frying them in a skillet filled with hot oil.
I found the recipe in an Italian cookbook, "A Fresh Taste of Italy," by Michele Scicolone (Broadway Books, 1997, $30), where it is called "Melone E Basilico Fritti." I call it "Fried lopes."
Cantaloupe and basil fritters
1/2 small, ripe cantaloupe at room temperature
1 bunch fresh basil
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup club soda or cold, sparkling mineral water
oil for deep frying.
Peel and seed cantaloupe. Cut it into pieces about 2-by-1- 1/4 -inch.
Remove 12 basil leaves from the stem, rinse in cool running water.
In a small bowl, combine the flour and salt. Add the eggs, mineral water or club soda, and 1 tablespoon of the oil and whisk until just blended.
Pour 1 inch of oil into a deep, heavy saucepan. Heat the oil to 375 degrees on a thermometer.
Pat the cantaloupe and basil leaves dry. Dip the pieces, one at a time into the batter, then slide them carefully into the hot oil. Do not crowd the pan, or the pieces will stick together. Turn the pieces to brown evenly. When golden brown and puffed, about 1 minute, remove the pieces with a slotted spoon and drain them well on paper towels. Reheat the oil briefly. Fry the remaining melon and basil leaves. Serve immediately.
Pub Date: 7/23/97