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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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July 28, 2008 9:38 AM

Smellin' the melon

Posted by Nancy Leson

In the heat -- if we can call it that -- of summer, you'd think every melon you get your hands on would taste sweet, ripe and delicious, right? Wrong. I don't know about you, but for the life of me, I can't seem to crack the code on choosing melons. I've been burnt a zillion times, having spent real money expecting a thrill, and inevitably getting something tasteless and under-ripe or mushy and over-ripe. During melon season, no less. Then, this weekend, while shopping at Shoreline Central Market, I ignored the watermelon samples over at the "Taste me!" kiosk and let my nose lead me to nirvana: a perfumed pile of Galia melons:


From the outside it looked like a cantaloupe, but when I got it home and sliced it open, the fragrant green flesh more closely resembled a honeydew -- at first a grave disappointment, since honeydew is my least favorite of all the melon varieties. "I paid six bucks for this!" I thought. Yes, I did: but first I put it back, twice, before giving in to the splurge -- the sweet musk made me do it. Besides, it was bigger than those little "personal watermelons" I've been bringing home lately -- with win-some, lose-some luck in the deliciousness department. And then I tasted the Galia. Wow.

"Here, try this, it's better than candy," I said to Nate, who, like his mom, isn't a big fan of honeydew, but loves a good ripe cantaloupe and never, ever says no to candy (just ask Dr. Joe, his dentist). His eyes grew big and we both knocked back half a melon before I said, "Hey, stop! Let's save some for tomorrow."

I'm not the only one who finds choosing a ripe melon an exercise in exasperation. In his you've-gotta-buy-it book "How to Pick a Peach," L.A. Times food columnist Russ Parsons makes me feel better in his chapter on melons by noting: "Choosing the right melon is one of the more confusing rites of summer -- and you probably don't know that half of it. Some people say you should thump melons. Some say you should give them a sniff. Some claim the secret is all in the skin. Some tell you to play with their bellybuttons (the melons', not the people's)."

It's important to understand the difference between a mature melon and a ripe one, Parsons says. "Melons continue to ripen after picking -- the flesh softens, and the aromas and flavors become more intense -- but don't get any sweeter." Check the blossom-end of the fruit, pressing gently for a bit of "give." If the melon's firm, leave it at room temp for a couple of days.

Here are Parson's tips on choosing smooth-skin melons (like honeydew) vs. rough-skinned melons (like cantaloupe or for that matter, Galia):

For rough-skin melons:

1) Check the "netting" or the "scaling" -- the textured part of the fruit's skin. It should be tan or golden and raised above the background skin, which should be golden-hued, not green. Parsons notes that some rough-skinned melons are also ribbed, and in a mature melon the ribs are more pronounced.

2) One of the best indicators of ripeness is the "couche" -- the place where the melon rested on the ground. It should be creamy or golden and pronounced, but ideally not so much so. If there's no couche, he says, the melon may have been picked too early. If it's too big, the melon rested in one place for too long.

3) A "clean belly-button" is important: rough-skinned melons should be harvested when the fruit slips easily away from the vine, leaving no trace of a stem. Any stem at all indicates the fruit was harvested too early.

4) The sniff-test: "When fully ripe, these melons develop a heavenly, musky floral perfume that you can smell at the other end of the produce section" -- which proves my point about those ripe Galias.

For smooth-skin melons:

With exception to checking the couche, unfortunately none of the above-mentioned tricks work for smooth-skinned melons. "You don't have to be a psychic to choose a good melon," Parson says, but it wouldn't hurt. Smooth-skinned melons are "devilishly hard" to choose because they have no netting. Instead do this:

1) Look for subtle color hints -- keeping an eye out for the difference between a "hard" green or white and a more golden "creamy" color. When fully mature, the melons develop a slightly waxy texture. Also look for "sugar spots" -- brown flecks on the skin's surface, though Parsons says you'll find these only at farmers markets because supermarket produce managers tend to wash off these "imperfections."

2) When it comes to watermelon, the couche-test rules, but the traditional "rap test" may still work if you've got a good ear. Rap the melon near the center with your knuckles, and if it sounds like you're knocking on a hollow-core door, you've got a winner.

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