Summer in D.C.: sweltering doesn’t feel like strong enough a word to describe the air outside. But there is at least one good thing about summer here – fresh melons. This is the time of year they are at their fragrant, juicy, delicious best. Good ones can be found in grocery stores not just farmers markets during these hottest months. They are an excellent choice for health reasons as much as for their versatility in the kitchen.
Melons are beloved around the world and come in many types. Common melons in the United States are cantaloupe (also called netted or musk) melons, honeydew, and watermelons. These can usually be found year-round in stores, but the best ones arrive now. Less often seen, but sometimes found at farmer’s markets, ethnic stores, and occasionally even regular chain groceries are charentais, horned melon (kiwano), Crenshaw, Piel de Sapo (toad skin) melon, and a multitude of Asian melons, to name a few. A couple of interesting melons fall outside our normal definition of them as a sweet fruit: the winter melon and bitter melon. Both commonly used in various Asian cuisines. Even further afield, papaya is called “tree melon” in Latin America. Whichever melon you favor they are all good and good for you!
Melons grow rapidly on large vines in the heat of summer and store copious quantities of water. This is no accident. Melon fruits become irresistible to birds and mammals because of their sweetness and their life-giving water as the heat continues and water becomes hard to find. So animals eat the melons, getting a meal plus water and the melon gets its seeds dispersed. Win-win. For us heat-oppressed humans, this can be a great way to stay hydrated. Water gets boring and sports drinks can have additives we don’t care for. Melons contain potassium plus smaller amounts of calcium and magnesium, all important electrolytes. A large slice of watermelon on a hot day isn’t just delicious, it’s smart, too.
Other health benefits of melons are that they are rich in nutrients. Cantaloupe contains vitamin A (3.5 ounces (100 g) nets you 112% RDA), plus beta carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which are all important for eye health and other functions. Watermelon has a similar profile, but less vitamin A (20 % RDA is still respectable) and a good deal of lycopene (twice that of a similar serving of fresh tomato). Melons also contain a whole slew of other vitamins and antioxidants. In a city where stress rules and the summer stillness traps pollution, more antioxidants seem like proactive prevention. We all want to be beautiful, inside and out! And with all of these benefits comes one more- low calories. There are only 34 calories in 3.5 oz.
What else do melons have going for them? Flavor, aroma, sweetness, juiciness- they are wonderful to eat. Any melon on its own is delectable. Add some ham or prosciutto and you have a classic salty-sweet (and the ham fills in the missing electrolyte, sodium). Make a salad with mint, borrow from the spice palates of the world and get creative: add chilis, cinnamon, or curries. A fantastic dinner once was Thai Larb Gai in half a cantaloupe. Quench your thirst too: a friend treated us to a fantastic Filipino drink of shredded melon in sugar water. There is even a recipe for cantaloupe cupcakes out in the electronic ether if baking suits you. The aforementioned winter and bitter melons are used in soups and stir-fries, and the adventurous eater can try those with regular melons. However you slice it, melons are versatile ingredients for summer dining.
So get on out there and pick up some summer perfection. Looks for melons that sounds a bit hollow when you rap them (don’t worry, you’ll look knowledgable to any foodie near you if you do this). The smell can be another good indicator of readiness- ripe melons often have a strong melon perfume. Be prepared, melons are heavy. If we have to bear the heat, we can do it with a smile and a little sweet, succulent melon.