Seasons by the Sea: East End Treasures

Several melon varieties grow exceptionally well on the South Fork
Summer is not over yet, and the farm stands and markets still have plenty of our local and justifiably famous cantaloupes and watermelons. Laura Donnelly

Corn and tomatoes will be plentiful into October, but the locally famous treasures you should be enjoying right now are melons. The East End has long been famous for outstanding cantaloupes. Growing up, I remember hearing that Carl Yastrzemski’s family in Bridgehampton grew the best around. Why is our area so favorable for growing melons? They thrive in sandy soil and appreciate long, warm, sunny days.

There are a number of varieties that grow particularly well here — musk, cantaloupe, and watermelon. Some specific varieties are Early Canada, a small oval-shape type with stripes and few seeds, or Yugoslavian Hello, a cannonball-shape yellow watermelon that’s sweet and seedy. The Early Crimson Sweet X Charleston is large and round with sugary flesh and is a consistent and reliable variety to grow. Golden Jubilee, a hybrid from Asia, has a yellow rind with bright red flesh inside. Cream of Saskatchewan has pale stripes and pale flesh and is delicious served ice-cold or turned into a sorbet.

When choosing cantaloupes or musk melons, look for deep ribs and good solid “netting,” that rough tan pattern all over the melon. The stem will break away from the vine when completely ripe, and the aroma should be rich and perfumey. Color is not that important, but you don’t want to see a lot of green and/or soft spots.

Melons can sit out at room temperature for about a week but should be refrigerated once ripe . . . but not for too long. You should try to find the ripest available, chill it, and eat it A.S.A.P.

Another piece of advice that is critical but seldom included in recipes or stories about melons: You must give them a really good scrub with a brush before slicing into them. Any fruit or vegetable that is growing on the ground is going to get deer, rodent, bird, raccoon, etc., scat all over it. Once your knife slices into the fruit, those bacteria are introduced into the edible flesh. Sorry to be Debbie Downer, just remember to do this!

Melons are great for so many reasons: They are cheap and plentiful in season, everybody likes them, kids have fun spitting out the seeds, they’re easy to grow, and they’re healthful. Members of the musk melon family are rich in potassium, vitamin A, and beta carotene. Watermelons have vitamin C and lycopene, the phytonutrient believed to aid in heart health.

Vine-ripening is important for all melons because they don’t store starch or get any sweeter after harvest. Except for watermelon, melons are fruits of Cucumis melo, a close relative of the cucumber, and are natives of the subtropics of Asia. The plant was domesticated in Central Asia or India, according to Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking,” and arrived in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the first century. Their large size and ability to grow fast made them a popular symbol for fertility, abundance, and luxury.

Watermelons are a distant relative of other melons, originally from Africa, and they have more antioxidants than tomatoes. A good watermelon should seem heavy for its size, with a bit of yellowing under the skin indicating chlorophyll loss, therefore ripening. Some believe a solid sound should come from thumping the melon but they all sound alike to me.

Regarding recipes, some people like the now-ubiquitous watermelon and feta salad. You can combine a similar variety of flavors with the melon (jalapeño, red onion, cilantro, lime juice) to make a fluke or flounder ceviche. Melon soups are as easy as slice, puree, add a dash of lemon or lime juice. Use two different kinds of melon to make a swirly, colorful, light, and healthy cold soup. One of my favorite drinks is just watermelon and pineapple with a few tablespoons of grated ginger pureed into a smoothie. If you feel inclined to add vodka, tequila, or rum to it, well, that’s a fine cocktail, too.

Summer’s almost over but our farms are still cranking out lots of delicious fruits and vegetables. Don’t start shopping for apples and pumpkins just yet! Explore the stands and markets for our justifiably famous East End cantaloupes and watermelons.

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