If you’ve ever heard me talk about produce before, you know that I gush about the topic. From the time I was 16 until almost the end of college, I worked in grocery stores. I worked every job in the store, pretty much, except for meat cutting (which is frightening on a lot of levels). The job I liked the most? Produce department.
It was hard work in produce. Lots of boxes to lift, pallet jacks to maneuver, rotten fruit to cull, and dumb customers to handle. But it was a fulfilling job, and being around such beautiful fruits and vegetables was – as odd as it sounds – the closest to a spiritual experience I’ve ever enjoyed.
When I worked in produce at HEB Central Market in San Antonio (which, if you’re not familiar with the store, is like foodie heaven), I frequently handled the melon section and the soft fruit (peaches, plums, nectarines) section. I learned a lot about melons, and since it’s summer, I figured I’d share some of my favorite melons and melon-picking tips here.
My favorite melon is probably the galia melon. It’s like a blend of cantaloupe (well, what people think is cantaloupe) and honeydew. It’s got a skin that is firm enough not to bruise too badly and thick enough to hold a slice in your hand while you cut chunks off the melon, but the skin is thin enough to be able to smell through it for ripeness. And there’s a lot of flesh and a relatively small seed cavity, so you get a lot for your money. It’s also really sweet, but not so sweet that you want to stop eating after a few pieces. The problem with galias, though, is that you can’t find them in many places.
My second favorite is the sprite melon. If you can find a sprite melon in the U.S., it was probably grown in North Carolina, so the melon now has an extra point of pride for me. I’ve heard the sprite melon is the sweetest melon you can find in the U.S., with a sugar content much higher than anything else. It’s also a small melon, so you and a friend can eat it in one sitting. The problem with the sprite melon is its thin skin and relatively small amount of flesh. It can bruise easily, it’s prone to seeming more ripe than it is, and it’s a lot of work to get a little bit of fruit. But it’s kind of worth it – very, very sweet and kind of a light pear-like flavor. And here’s an interesting thing you can do with a sprite melon (or any melon): take the flesh (especially if it’s overripe) and blend it into a puree. Use this puree to make a different kind of mojito. Muddle mint in a glass with some ice and rum, then add the puree in place of the sugar syrup and lime and soda. Sprite melon goes great with mint. Oh, and I’m going to take full credit for this “sprite melon mojito” cocktail recipe, thankyouverymuch!
I like watermelons well enough, but I’m not really a fan of the pocket melons you find everywhere these days. Purehearts are the most common breed you’ll find in the store, and it’s essentially a small (hence “pocket melon”) watermelon without any seeds or cavities. They’re expensive as hell for what you get, and they aren’t particularly sweet. They’re just convenient. So by trading convenience for taste, you’re essentially getting the McDonald’s of melons. Ick. Give me a good old fashioned seeded watermelon that’s giant and crumbly when it’s overripe. Those taste better, and plus you can spit the seeds and feel all country-like.
Good old cantaloupes are great too, especially if they’re from Texas, and especially if they’re from my homie’s parents’ farm.
Melons to avoid
Santa claus melons and canary melons. Resist the fun names – these melons aren’t that great. First, they’re kind of hard to find, but when you find them, they’re probably old. People don’t tend to buy them because they don’t understand them, so the odds of getting an old, overripe one with a lot of bruises is more likely in a typical grocery store. They’re also kind of fussy, difficult to determine when they’re ripe, and they bruise easily (despite the thickish feeling skins). And when you get inside, there are big cavities of seeds, and the flesh isn’t very sweet. Actually, my experiences with santa claus melons usually taste like cucumbers. Yuck.
Picking a melon
There are a lot of myths about picking melons, and I found when I worked in produce that people would violently defend their folky methods of picking them. But here’s the truth: you can reliably pick a good muskmelon, but you can’t reliably pick a good watermelon (unless you have high-tech equipment).
All melons (well, all fruits) have two ends: the stem and the flower. The stem end is clearly where the stem used to be. The flower end is the other end, the part that grew out and away from the stem. There are two broad melon categories: muskmelons and watermelons. Watermelons are the thick-rind melons you’re thinking of when you think of “watermelon.” Muskmelons are everything else – the thin-rind melons like honeydew and cantaloupe.
To pick any melon, you first want to examine the rind for major soft spots, bruises, rotting areas, and so on. Avoid these obviously bad melons.
To pick a good muskmelon, smell the flower end of the melon. If you can smell some sweet goodness, it’s a nice, ripe melon. You may also smell some strong floral smells, which is also pretty good. If you can’t smell much, it may not be ripe yet, and it may never ripen. Next, look at the stem end. If the stem is really green, then the melon was picked recently. You’ll want to give it time for the stem to “die” and turn brown or black with mold before eating it, giving it more time for the melon to ripen and increase sugar content inside. If the stem is black with mold (often the case with cantaloupes and galias), make sure it’s not rotted and soft to where your finger breaks the skin when you push on the stem. A little bit of mold is fine, though.
To pick a good watermelon, you basically just need to assure it’s not horribly bruised or rotted, and then you just take your luck. The rind is too thick to smell anything, and the rind is also too thick to really tell anything from thumping it. That’s right – you can’t thump a watermelon to tell if it’s ripe. I’ve had several-generation watermelon farmers tell me that they can’t even tell anything from thumping a watermelon, so don’t look like an idiot thumping it in the store…and be suspicious of any produce clerk helping you pick out a ripe one by thumping it. You can tell something from thumping if you have a sophisticated meter on the skin of the melon to detect slight variations in sound and vibration, but, really, who has these meters laying around? The same is true for watermelons as is for muskmelons regarding the stem, though. If it’s green, it’s fresh off the vine and may need time to ripen. Mostly, though, with watermelons you’re just trying to avoid a big soft spot in the rind (which will often occur near the stem end or on the yellow part of the rind where the melon rested on the ground as it grew).
Some produce departments will be willing to plug a watermelon for you (really, all the good produce departments should be willing). Plugging is the only way to determine ripeness before buying a watermelon, but be sure you’re willing to commit to buying it if the plug turns out good. Plugging is simply just like carving out a small, long chunk of the melon to show the flesh – kind of like how they drill ice cores in the arctic. If the flesh comes out awesome from the plugging, then you buy it. If it comes out dry and gross, then you don’t.
Cutting a melon
When you get your melon home, don’t put it in the fridge. Only put cut melon in the fridge in tupperware or something airtight.
To cut a muskmelon, cut it in half vertically (the cut running from stem to flower). Then, cut the half-spheres into long slices in the same direction. If the rind is firm enough, and you know what you’re doing, and you have a sharp enough knife, you can hold the slices in the palm of your hand and run the knife along the inside of the rind toward you to cut away the flesh in long slices. Otherwise, put the slices on their sides on a cutting board and trim the skin off from the side. Next, you can cube the rind-less slices of flesh or just leave them in slice form. This guide is a pretty good step-by-step for what I’m talking about.
To cut a watermelon, you can either cut it in half vertically or horiztonally. Place the cut side down on a cutting board so it’s stable, and start cutting large slices from it, keeping the rind on to act as a handle when you eat it. Or, if you’re careful, you can cut horizontal wheels of melon off the whole melon and then cut the wheels into quarter slices. This second method is a bit dangerous, though, because the round side of the melon may make it move on the cutting board. You can trim a small piece off the bottom to make it flatter and not roll. Always use a giant knife for cutting watermelons. You can also trim the rind off if you so choose.
Have a lot of leftover melon? Put them in salads, desserts, or use the delicate sugar taste to make purees for cocktails or blended drinks. You can also freeze leftover melon in an airtight ziploc bag, which makes it easier to use for blended drinks later anyway.