When I was growing up in Baltimore, it was a pretty backwater town. We still had a "melon man," who drove a horse-drawn wagon piled high with enormous ripe watermelons. Occasionally, my father would stop to purchase one. At the time, I was more interested in sneaking a lump of sugar to the horse; now, I realize those were the sweetest melons I ever tasted.

That was 25 years ago, but melons have been cultivated since the time of the Pharaohs. In fact, certain stones on Mount Carmel are called "Elijah's melons" -- legend has it that the owner of the land refused to supply food for the prophet, so as punishment, his melons were turned into stone.

All melons belong to the same species, but there are hundreds of varieties. (When it comes to cross pollination, melons are positively promiscuous.)

Melons lack the starch reserves of other fruits. As a result, they don't ripen or become sweeter once picked. They will, however, become softer. Consequently, the melon should be left on the vine until the last possible moment. When the sugar level reaches its highest, the melon will break cleanly away from the stem.

Other tests for ripeness include pressing the stem end, otherwise known as the "button" or "eye": It should be slightly yielding. A ripe melon emits a perfumed scent. Avoid melons with soft or dark spots. When possible, avoid melons with part of the stem left on; they were probably cut off the vine before ripe.

The best way to enjoy melon is simply halved, seeded, and eaten with a spoon. But there are many other ways to savor the fleshy fruit. Melon and prosciutto ham is a classic combination; so is a melon half filled with port. Melon also does well in chilled soups and salads. The hollowed shell of a watermelon can be sculpted into an ornamental bowl or basket and filled with fruit salad. Then there's the intoxicating dessert from my friend, Nick Hall, who likes to cut two small holes in the top of a watermelon and fill the fruit with tequila.


(4 servings)

Here's a nice, cool soup to refresh you during the dog days. Use the ripest melons you can find, and feel free to substitute any of the many varieties that may be available in your area.

1 medium-sized, ripe cantaloupe (approximately 2 cups cubed melon)

1 medium-sized, ripe honeydew (approximately 3 cups cubed melon)

2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice

Juice of 1 lemon

Juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons honey, or to taste

1 spice bundle of 2 cloves, 2 allspice berries, and 1 stick of cinnamon, wrapped in cheesecloth

1 cup light cream


1/2 cup yogurt or sour cream

Sprigs of fresh mint

Peel and seed the melons and coarsely dice the flesh. Combine the melon, fruit juices, honey, and spices in a large saucepan and simmer over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the melon is very soft. Allow the soup to cool to room temperature, discard the spice bundle, and pure'e the soup in a blender or food processor. Chill the soup over ice or in the refrigerator. The recipe can be prepared up to 2 days ahead to this stage.

Just before serving, whisk the cream into the soup. Serve the melon soup in chilled glass bowls. Garnish with a spoonful of yogurt or sour cream and a sprig of mint.

Per serving: 183 calories, 3 gm protein, 42 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, .6 gm saturated fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 35 mg sodium.


(Makes 4 to 5 cups)

This unusual salsa makes an interesting accompaniment to fish. It doesn't keep particularly well, so prepare it in small batches.

1 ripe cantaloupe (approximately 2 cups balls)

1/2 ripe honeydew melon (approximately 2 cups balls)

1 medium-sized cucumber

1 small purple onion

1 jalapenåo pepper (or to taste)

4 tablespoons chopped coriander or flat leaf parsley

Juice of 1 to 2 limes, or to taste

1 tablespoon brown sugar (optional)

Cut the melons in half and scrape out the seeds. Using a small melon baller, cut the melon into balls. Peel and seed the cucumber and cut into 1/4 inch dice. Finely chop the onion. Seed and mince the jalapenåo.

Not more than 2 hours before serving, combine all the ingredients. The salsa should be a little sweet and a little sour; add more lime juice or brown sugar to taste.

Per 1/4 cup: 23 calories, .6 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, .2 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium.


(4 servings)

This unusual salad can be served as an appetizer or dessert.

1 ripe cantaloupe (approximately 2 cups balls)

1/2 ripe honeydew melon (approximately 2 cups balls)

3/4 cup tightly packed fresh mint

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

3 to 4 tablespoons brown sugar

Juice of 2 limes (or to taste)

Cut the melon into balls, using a melon baller. Stem the mint and cut into thin slivers, reserving 4 whole sprigs for garnish. To prepare the sauce, combine the yogurt, cardamom, brown sugar and mint in a large serving bowl. Whisk to mix. Correct the seasoning, adding sugar or lime juice as necessary. The sauce should be both a little sweet and a little sour.

Gently stir in the melon balls and slivered mint leaves. Garnish with mint sprigs and serve at once.

Per serving: 140 calories, 3 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium.


(16 servings)

Drunken watermelon is great for summertime parties. The idea comes from an old high school buddy.

1 large watermelon

12 ounces of gold tequila, approximately

Cut two or three 1-inch holes in the top of the watermelon. Pour in as much tequila as melon will absorb and replace the plugs. Let the flavors ripen for 2 to 3 hours. Cut the watermelon into slices and serve.

Note: Warn your guests that they are not eating innocent watermelon. This is one of the few desserts I know that can lead to intoxication!

Per serving: 83 calories, .6 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, .4 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 mg sodium.

Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.

Here is a glossary of some common and exotic melons:

Boule d'or: This "golden ball," as the French name translates, looks like a gold-hued honeydew. The taste is similar to that of a honeydew too.

Canary: An elongated yellow melon with a ridged rind, it is more pungent than a honeydew.

Cantaloupe: Named for Cantalupo, a papal garden near Tivoli where the variety was developed, a true cantaloupe has a fragrant orange flesh and deeply-ridged rind. What most of us call cantaloupe is actually a muskmelon.

Casaba: A large, onion-shaped melon with a yellow, deeply ridged rind, it is similar in taste to a canary.

Cranshaw: Large, roundish melons with smooth yellow rinds dappled with green, cranshaws ripen later than most melons. They are available into November.

Honeydew: This spherical fruit, with its smooth, cream-colored rind, is one of the most popular melons. Given its honey-like sweetness, the name is particularly apt.

Muskmelon: Similar to cantaloupes, but smaller and sweeter, muskmelons have netted rinds and shallow ridges.

Watermelon: Watermelons can be round or oval, bright red, pale pink, or even yellow. Farmers test the ripeness of a watermelon by thumping it: As long as it sounds metallic, it isn't ripe. -- Steven Raichlen