There are three main kinds of melon that people are most familiar with in the U.S.: cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon. Cantaloupes in North America are actually a misnomer for musk melon. A true cantaloupe, which we rarely see, is more common in France.
Meanwhile, honeydew melon was originally known as White Antibes Winter or Melon d’Antibes Blanc d’Hiver and grown in France and Algeria during the 19th century. One of these melons found its way onto the menu at a fashionable New York hotel in 1911. A dinner guest was so besotted that he saved the seed and sent it to Melodew breeder John E. Gauger in Swink, Colorado, to grow. In 1915, Mr. Gauger aptly renamed it Honeydew.
And while we may think of watermelon as a quintessential American summer food, the earliest records of them being grown date back 5000 years ago to ancient Egypt, according to the USDA. Who knew?
Melons are a summer food, with most varieties at their best between May and August. Specific times depend on where you're getting the melon from. For example, while local melon and watermelon in New York are at their peak in July and August, watermelons shipped from southern locales can be found in markets all summer.
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Once melons are harvested, they don’t get any sweeter. What you pick is what you get. Unlike bananas and pineapple and other climacteric fruits, melons should be left on the vine as long as possible to catch the last surge of sucrose. You won’t know how well your melon was grown unless you speak directly to the farmer at the market, so you have to be creative:
You want a cantaloupe that’s symmetrical, weighty for its size, and rounded. The dense netting on the rind should be uniformly distributed. The color is crucial: Look for a ‘loupe that has more of a yellowish cast rather than green. This means it’s riper.
It should be weighty and rounded. There should be no obvious defects or blemishes both on the green-fleshed and the orange-fleshed versions. Look for any minute cracks in the skin that signal maturity and a yellower tint than green. Whereas cantaloupe yields to a little pressure when it’s ripe, honeydew does not soften. It’s thus harder to tell when it’s ready. Since honeydew has long growing times, you won’t see them at their peak until late in the summer season.
It’s hard to judge its ripeness apart from using an MRI on an intact melon like they do in Japan, says Goldman. For gardeners, you want to keep the melon on the vine until it stops putting on weight. For consumers, turn the watermelon over and look for a light-colored spot. That’s the ground spot, which indicates where it rested when it grew. If it’s yellow rather than white, it means it’s riper.
Here are more tips for buying watermelon:
Melon doesn’t have a long shelf life, so refrigerate it as soon as you can to last longer. A melon post-harvest lasts up to a week. A watermelon, which belongs to a different horticultural group, lasts three to four weeks (melons belong to the genus and specie Cucumis melo while watermelons belong to Citrullus lanatus). If it’s cubed, it will perish faster, so Goldman suggests making watermelon juice, a smoothie, or a sweet and savory gazpacho.
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According to Goldman, some of the best melon recipes are the simplest. For a snack, cut up your favorite sweet melon and extract the seeds. Put it in a blender or food processor and puree. Combine it with simple syrup and lime juice. For decadent results, place the mixture through an ice cream machine.
When it comes to more formal eating, you can make a classy and simple appetizer by draping thinly sliced prosciutto over a slice of melon and drizzle with lime juice and a sprinkle of salt, sugar, or pepper. For a classic protein-filled summer salad, cube watermelon and sprinkle liberally with feta cheese and mint leaves, then toss. You can also cube your favorite melon and add thinly sliced red onion, salt, pepper, virgin olive oil, and white wine vinegar. (Cooking with beautiful kitchen tools—like these copper measuring cups from the Women's Health Boutique—makes life so much better.)
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Goldman, a veteran gardener, says “melons were my first garden love and they still are.” For the refreshing taste, they sure are healthy: Among other nutrients, cantaloupe is high in vitamin A, honeydew has potassium levels comparable to bananas, and watermelon is high in the antioxidant lycopene. They contain 54, 61, 46 calories per one cup diced, respectively, according to the USDA. As for sugar content, watermelon has about 18 grams of the sweet stuff per wedge, according to the USDA. By comparison, honeydew has around 10 grams of sugar per wedge, while cantaloupe has eight grams of sugar per wedge.