When I was a kid, my mother’s go-to recipe for any school function or family picnic was a fruit salad served in a scooped out watermelon half. She would cut the edges in a zig-zag pattern and top the whole thing with toasted coconut. I honestly thought she was a wizard. Turns out she just knew what would win over a crowd, and it starts with a bunch of chopped melon.
September is a glorious time of the year in Lake and Mendocino Counties and there’s nothing like celebrating the bounty with this month’s Harvest of the Month: Melons! A melon is any of various plants of the family Cucurbitaceae with sweet, edible, fleshy fruit. Melons in genus Cucumis are culinary fruits, and include the majority of culinary melons. While most are tropical, they grow with relative ease throughout the U.S. to brighten our breakfast plates and make brunch the joy we know and love.
The best-known melon with roots close to home is probably the Orange Crane melon, an heirloom fruit developed in Santa Rosa by Oliver Crane. It’s a regional favorite, and has earned a spot on the Slow Food movement’s Ark of Taste which offers hope for its continued success. Our local farmers markets have a varied selection of melons right now. Many look like cantaloupes, but just taste and you’ll find a range of flavors under that familiar skin; there’s a whole bouquet in there, hitting floral and musky notes that will show off anything it’s served alongside. Bonus: Your kitchen will also smell so good.
Home gardeners in Northern California know our cooler evenings make it hard for some melons to ripen. So-called “short-season” melons are the best bet to grow locally, and no less delicious for their faster path to perfection. A few years ago I tilled my kitchen waste (which included a melon rind and seeds) into an outsized planter I then filled with succulents. Doing yard work a month or two later, I found several vines trailing from the pot, each sporting several golf ball-sized melons. It was too late in the season for them to reach full size, but they testify to how vigorous these plants are.
Melons are susceptible to some insects, but there’s another threat that many gardeners may initially misconstrue. Have you walked outside and found a melon some distance from the patch, looking like the victim of an impromptu rugby scrum? Where’s your dog?! It turns out their creative approach to play can turn a melon into a ball with no melon baller needed. Consider fencing them in if this has happened to you, because heaven knows the dog is gonna try again.
Melon is probably at its best cut in half, seeds scooped out and eaten in the moment with your favorite spoon while barefoot in your kitchen. That said, it’s happy to play along with your desire to experiment. Chunks of melon wrapped in prosciutto are a fancy appetizer for a reason; the salt in the ham brings out even more of the sweet liquor notes in the fruit. Some folks dash their melon with some combination of salt, lime, and chile for a similar effect; start with a pinch of salt and see how you like it. When it’s sweltering out, toss melon chunks in the blender with lime juice, a dash of salt (see a pattern here?) and spoon or two of sugar, some water and ice for a heavenly agua fresca.
Watermelon and cucumbers harmonize beautifully in a chunky chopped salad topped with ribbons of mint and basil; it makes sense, since they’re “cucu” culinary cousins of a sort. Is that too watery for you? Salt it by adding some goat milk feta, and please invite me over. If you feel like a cocktail, a melon sangria is the perfect way to send off summer and prepare for fall.
Many melons are happily interchangeable in recipes, though watermelon’s texture sets it somewhat apart from its peers. All are fabulously hydrating and each have their own unique nutritional benefits, so let taste and variety guide your choices (but don’t forget the honeydew! So beautiful and cooling on a hot day). However you enjoy them, do it now, while they’re in season, and enjoy the moment.