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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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Posted by L

11:05 AM, Jul 28, 2008

Tomorrow is misspelled.

Posted by Lighten Up

11:10 AM, Jul 28, 2008

But you still knew what was meant, didn't you?

Posted by Nancy Bryant

11:14 AM, Jul 28, 2008

Nancy, I spent my high school years in Hermiston Oregon, the land of luscious melons, but I CANNOT for the life of me find a good one these days.
Thanks for doing the legwork for your readers!

Posted by Nancy Webster's-challenged Leson

12:03 PM, Jul 28, 2008

The sun'll come out to-morrow (hold the extra "m") and I fixed my typo, L. I'm working without a net here on my blog software -- no spellcheck and no copy editor either, my friend: I write, edit and post without any aid. So feel free to let me know when I've goofed. As for you, "Lighten Up": thanks for sticking up for me! I owe you a slice of Galia melon.

Posted by Lighten Up

1:59 PM, Jul 28, 2008

You're on! I love melons and would love to try a slice of Galia! I'll be there tom-morrow! ;-)

Posted by Debs

9:13 PM, Jul 28, 2008

For rough skinned melons especially, I've always smelled the spot where the stem was. It should smell strongly of melon. My mother taught me this and it's never failed me.

That Galia you found sounds delicious!

Seattle Local Food

Posted by shirokuma

5:23 PM, Jul 29, 2008

At least in the typical Yokohama/Tokyo supermarket, we're unlikely to find more than one or two varieties of melon--usually the perennial popular honeydew or musk melon-type of fruit. I've never seen a cantaloupe, much less a Galia. The same rules of ripeness do apply, though.

Of course, a trip to one of the department store food halls people always mention will turn up a much wider choice--usually packaged to the hilt and often at a price per melon that you would blanch at paying to feed your family a well-rounded meal--with everything from black watermelons (they look like the bombs you see in old cartoons like "Popeye"), which, sliced, reveal shockingly yellow flesh, to the "mini musk", which is about as big as a largish softball and was no doubt cultured to enable us working class folk to have a taste of the forbidden fruit without taking out a second mortgage.

Posted by shirokuma

8:06 PM, Jul 29, 2008

While we're being grammatical, "perennial" should have been "perennially" ... :)

Posted by Linda

4:34 PM, Jul 30, 2008

I liked today better than the larvette story or "Double Dog Dare You".
Just to let you know a delectable way to eat watermelon:
Cut into cubes,
Squeeze lime juice over it,
shake a little sumac berry (ground).
It's not my recipe, but I am dying to tell you who it belongs to!!
loyal listener,

Posted by Steve

12:00 PM, Jul 31, 2008

Galia melons are great. And you can grow them in a western Washington garden. Look for the varieties "Galia" and "Arava" in the seed catalogs.

Posted by this is ed

8:00 AM, Aug 02, 2008

You unfortunately missed out on Fruit Picking 101 from Zada Sam, the original candy, "down the old way". A weekly lesson for me, no doubt!

Also, Buba Lil was no slacker when it came to picking the perfect cantaloupe.

Mastering this, I now make my weekly pilgrimage to Tanner's, where it is difficult to go wrong among the many melon varieties offered. My biggest dilemma, especially w/the ridiculous east coast humidity, is overbuying (or misplanning who will be home) & not getting to all my better than candy delicacies in a timely fashion.


Posted by this is ed

8:02 AM, Aug 02, 2008


Posted by First Million Bucks

9:37 AM, Aug 02, 2008

Yo, Ed: You're right about the (original) Bub's melon prowess (summer, canteloupe; winter, grapefruit -- the appetizer-of-choice). Now, get over to Tanner's, find some "real" tomatoes and slice one and eat it, preferably with a hunk of the "schmaltzy piece" on the side.

Posted by stubborn

11:32 AM, Aug 02, 2008

Smooth skinned melons are simple, they "develop a waxy texture" so runs your hands over them: smooth,easy, no go: rough and hard to run your hand across, good melon.

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