In Season

Tap Into the Secrets of Picking the Best Melons

Refreshing watermelon pizza.
Refreshing watermelon pizza. (Renee Comet - For The Washington Post)
By Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Lately, we've seen people dancing at the market. More specifically, they're doing the melon mambo: shaking the cantaloupes, holding the honeydews to their ears and tapping the watermelons like they're Ricky Ricardo's conga.

As much as we'd like to join the crowd, that's really no way to choose a melon. And choose you must, because melons in all their varieties are in overdrive right now.

Let's face it: That June raspberry depression was intense this year. You know, the one caused by the realization that you were holding the final pint of the season, the last sweet berries, disappearing bite by bite. Where have all the cobblers gone, long time passing? And blackberries are, so far, of no help. They haven't yet come back for a second fruiting.

But just when we thought summer was about to play out, here come the melons: the antidotes, the last surprise before earnest butternut squash sets, well, in earnest. Melons are traditionally an August treat, but not this year. "They're later than usual," says Bernadine Prince, co-director of the Freshfarm Markets in the District and Silver Spring, "because of the cold spring and the ongoing drought."

Maybe dancing is in order.

Choosing melons remains a mystery to lots of people. When we were kids, how many times did we wait patiently for the big one in the tub of ice on the back porch? Our mothers would slice it open and exclaim, "Oh, I got a good one!" As if the whole thing's a bolt from the blue -- or a complete letdown, like getting socks for your birthday.

There's no need for surprise. Despite their thick rinds, melons should be perfumy and sweet. The only way to get a good one? Do the same thing you should do for peaches, nectarines and apricots: Put it up to your nose and breathe in. If the thing doesn't smell irresistible, it probably isn't.

That said, Heinz Thomet, who sells melons at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, says you shouldn't be indiscriminate with your nose. "Smell the soft indentation where the stem once was," he says. That's the only secret to a good cantaloupe, a terrific Crenshaw or Sharlyn.

Watermelons are what Thomet knows best. He grows them on his certified-organic farm, Next Step Produce, which sits on about 80 acres in Charles County.

You can't just smell watermelons. Not his, not anyone's. So how do you get a good one?

Yes, there's that incessant tapping to find a hollow sound, a sign of ripeness; a dull thud means the melon is not quite ready. Some people report a musical, even tonal, sound. "But that doesn't tell you how sweet it will be," Thomet cautions.

At harvest, he pays close attention to the last corkscrewy tendril right at the stem of the watermelon. When that little spiral turns brown, he picks the lot and brings them to market, offering red, yellow and orange varieties. Some of his ultra-sweet orange behemoths this year weigh in at upward of 15 pounds.

But missing that tendril at the market, Thomet says, consumers should look at the saturation of color on the rind -- not all over, but on the light spot where the melon was resting on the ground. If that spot is yellow, the watermelon is sweet, ready to eat. If it's white, the watermelon was picked too soon. If it's brown or soft, the thing may have begun to ferment inside.

A good one in hand, you can quickly discover that melons lend themselves to global fare, including pizza and seviche. They're sweet, perfumed and strong-flavored.

Most melons cannot be cooked, however: They'll turn to foam in the pan. So capitalize on melon's charms with fresh herbs, a little wine, minced vegetables or a light palette of vegetables. Make melons the centerpiece of easy dishes, strong flavors and summery notes.

Then join us in the real melon mambo. Melons are sweet, ripe and perfect -- and at their peak right now.

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough are the authors of the series of "ultimate" cookbooks, including the latest, "The Ultimate Cook Book" (Morrow, 2007).

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