Ho Ho Ho. Merry Christmas!
Today from the Hollywood Farmers Market I bring you Christmas in July. What I mean to say is I bring you a visit from Santa Claus, in the form of a melon. A super sweet Santa Claus melon.
I love summer melon, even when it has a ridiculously wintery name like Santa Claus. Melon replaces dessert many nights in this house during the summer. However if I am entertaining I might serve it as a palate cleanser after the meal, but before dessert. I almost always include a bit of melon in our Hollywood Bowl Picnics too.
I also enjoy the presentation of melon. Some people peel them so well, it’s a pleasure to watch them work. My peeling technique is a bit clumsy so I typically prep my melons behind closed doors. But I am working on my skills, and there is always next summer. Who knows, melon peeling tableside could become a tradition here as well.
Santa Claus melons are in a group of melons (like cantaloupe and honeydew) that are known as muskmelons. They probably originated in Asia Minor and were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Muskmelons, along with squash, pumpkins, watermelon, and cucumbers fall into the very large genus Cucumis. The familial resemblance is obvious so I won’t bore you with more on their similarities.
Melon season in California begins in June and lasts the whole summer long. Sunshine is the vital element in its production; without plenty of seasonal heat, these aromatic flavor bombs just wither away. This is one reason buying melons grown locally and seasonal is the only way to get the very best quality. I am sure you have had disappointing melon. It can be so bad that it actually makes you forget just how good a properly ripened summer melon can be!
It’s a bit easier to choose cantaloupes and other texturally netted melons because they are thin-skinned. This makes them highly fragrant when ripe, so smell its naval when choosing. The stem end will also give a little when pressed. So go ahead and sniff and poke, it’s fun and perfectly acceptable in polite society. But keep in mind that these melons only ripen properly on the vine, so it’s easy to get a dud if you can’t be assured of a locally grown melon.
However, Santa Claus and honeydews are considered thick-skinned. They take a bit more guess work. They don’t even give off an odor when ripe. But a good way to determine ripeness is to feel the rind. It shouldn’t feel slick. Also, contrary to your natural inclination– it’s okay to choose melons with brown freckles or spots on its surface. These discolorations indicate sugar. Fortunately these thick-skinned varieties continue to ripen after picking and can also be stored a bit longer than cantaloupes. So if you’re not sure, keep it around a day or two before cutting into it.
Ripe melon is intensely sweet and pairs well with many strongly flavored foods. Classic pairings include hard or brined European cheeses, cured meats, and aromatic herbs. I swear by the melon and anise combination. It’s an unusual pairing that works on so many levels. The same is true with ancho chile powder. Try it if you don’t believe me. You’ll enjoy a sweet kick in the kisser I promise.
This time of year, when melons are at their peak, I like to experiment with new flavor combinations. So when I was thumbing through a recent issue of La Cucina Italiana I saw a Melon Caprese Salad. I actually heard a bell go off in my head! Juicy, ripe melon takes the place of tomatoes in this otherwise classic caprese. The crisp juicy fruit, paired with the soft, supple cheese, and the fragrant pesto is a revelation.
So Merry Christmas, Ho Ho Ho and don’t talk to me while I am eating…
SERIOUS FUN FOOD