Summertime, and the melons are juicy.
There are at least 25 kinds of melons in this world, from Bailan to Winter Melons, from Canary to Crenshaw, from Apollo to Santa Claus. But in this country, when we talk about melons – something we do not do often enough, to my way of thinking – we talk about the Big Three: cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon.
By themselves, or preferably with a squeeze of lime or lemon juice, these melons cannot be beat. So sweet. So pure.
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The challenge lies in knowing what to do with them other than serving them au naturel. And there are several good options: puree them into a cold soup, freeze them into a refreshing granita, serve them as a sweet element in a salad.
All of which are excellent ideas. But they are also kind of … expected. Been there, eaten that.
So if we are going to break out of the melon rut, we'll have to find unusual ways of presenting them, new preparations that still bring out the best of the fruit.
We’re talking about something unexpected, something along the lines of using cantaloupe in a pasta sauce. We’re talking about Spaghetti al Melone.
Spaghetti al Melone comes to us from TV cooking star Giada de Laurentiis, who in turn got it, she has said, from her Italian grandmother. It mixes the expected, spaghetti and Parmesan, with a couple of unexpected ingredients, cantaloupe and whiskey.
Tying it all together is a cream sauce made from heavy whipping cream and butter.
You could argue that anything would taste great when covered with enough heavy cream and butter, and you might be right. But Spaghetti al Melone stands on its own as an exceptional dish because of the way the cantaloupe works with the cream sauce.
The melon makes the spaghetti a little sweet, but not unpleasantly so. Rather, it seems like a natural enhancer of the cream sauce, giving it body and an intriguingly unexpected note.
As delighted as I was by the Spaghetti al Melone, I was even more excited to make my next dish, Watermelon Kimchi.
Kimchi is that (usually) spicy Korean side dish made from cabbage or other vegetables. And, as it turns out, not just vegetables. You can use the rind of a watermelon to make it, too.
It is extraordinary. The watermelon rind, bland but crisp and refreshing, makes the perfect foil for the very spicy, but lightly sweet sauce that is common to most types of kimchi.
This distinctive flavor, and its fiery color, comes from the liberal use of crushed Korean red pepper, which is also called gochugaru. I found it at an international food store (unexpectedly, the brand I used was made in China). For the true kimchi taste, be sure to use this pepper. Any other substitute will not produce the same flavor.
To cool down after the spicy kimchi, I made a version of the most refreshing drink I have ever had.
I first encountered fruit shakes many years ago. It was in the summer. In the desert. During a heat wave.
It was hot, I’m telling you. And then I saw a stand selling fruit shakes. I ordered one, had my first sip, and it was as if I’d sipped and gone to heaven.
To make a fruit shake, all you need is cantaloupe, milk, sugar, ice and a blender. Put them all together and you have a cool and remarkably satisfying Cantaloupe Fruit Shake.
Yes, it sounds like a smoothie. But I first had it before I’d even heard of a smoothie. Besides, “fruit shake” is a much more sophisticated term than “smoothie.” “Smoothie” sounds like something you would say to a child to trick him into swallowing his medicine.
No tricks needed here. Fruit shakes are the ultimate thirst-quencher on a hot summer’s day.
The next dish I made also combines the hot with the cool. I grilled chicken breasts and served them with a honeydew salsa, and the salsa is a marvel of balance and proportion. Sweet and cool elements come from the diced honeydew, which is offset by the heat of minced serrano chile.
Acid is provided by both lime juice and lime zest, and lime is also, of course, a perfect pairing with the honeydew. Cilantro adds extra depth and freshness, with a subtle bite provided by chopped red onion.
The salsa is a star. Try it with fish, too.
Finally, I tried a recipe that seemed so unusual I couldn’t resist. You start out with a basic beef stir-fry – this one uses sugar snap peas in place of the more common pea pods. Then, when it is all cooked, you lace it with sticks of fresh watermelon.
The watermelon works to bring out the best of the hoisin sauce, and vice versa. It adds a cool, crisp contrast to the garlic-ginger-onion warmth of the rest of the dish.
It’s like a little bit of dessert in every bite.
Spaghetti al melone
Serves 4 to 6
Recipe from Food Network, by Giada De Laurentiis
1 pound spaghetti pasta
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan
One 2-pound cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, diced into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature
1/4 cup whiskey
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for seasoning
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and place in a serving bowl. Add the Parmesan and toss well.
Place the cantaloupe in a food processor and blend until chunky. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, heat the cream and butter over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the butter melts and the mixture is smooth, 2 minutes. Add the melon, whiskey and lemon juice. Simmer until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and 1 / 2 teaspoon pepper.
Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss until coated. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Per serving (based on 6): 620 calories; 30 g fat; 18 g saturated fat; 93 mg cholesterol; 19 g protein; 63 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 1,295 mg sodium; 258 mg calcium.
Serves 8 to 10
Recipe from Food Network Kitchens
1/4 seedless watermelon, rind removed and peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces, flesh reserved
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
6 cloves garlic
One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1/2 medium onion
1 cup Korean chili flakes
1 bunch scallions, sliced
Sprinkle the watermelon rind with the salt and toss to combine. Set aside for at least 30 minutes until the moisture has drawn out. If you want a salty-spicy combination, drain the rind and pat dry with paper towels. If you want just spicy, rinse the rind before patting dry with paper towels.
Add 1 cup of the watermelon flesh, fish sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger and onion to a food processor. Pulse until combined. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the Korean chili flakes. Add the drained watermelon rind and the scallions and toss to combine. Transfer to a jar and let it rest for at least 12 hours before serving. Refrigerate after a couple of days.
Per serving (based on 10): 58 calories; 2 g fat; 0 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 11 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 2,286 mg (if unrinsed) sodium; 24 mg calcium.
Cantaloupe fruit shake
Recipe by Daniel Neman
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and cut into large chunks (about 2 cups)
1 cup milk
3 cups ice
Place sugar in a blender and blend for 10 to 15 seconds. Add cantaloupe, milk and ice, and blend until smooth and slushy, about 30 seconds. Serve in tall glasses.
Per serving: 82 calories; 3 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 8 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 25 g carbohydrate; 24 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 57 mg sodium; 106 mg calcium.
Beef and watermelon stir-fry
Serves 4 to 6
Recipe from Southern Living.
1 pound sirloin strip steak, cut into thin strips
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons cold water
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons dry white wine, divided
2 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 medium-size sweet onion, halved and sliced
12 ounces fresh sugar snap peas
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
16 ounces watermelon, cut into sticks (about 2 cups)
2 cups hot cooked rice
Toss together steak, garlic, cornstarch, cold water, soy sauce, sesame oil and 1 tablespoon of the wine. Let stand 30 minutes. Meanwhile, stir together hot water, hoisin and the remaining 1 tablespoon wine.
Remove beef from marinade, discarding marinade. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper; cook half of beef in 1 1/2 teaspoons hot canola oil in a large skillet over high heat, without stirring, 45 seconds or until browned; turn beef, and cook 30 seconds or until browned. Transfer to a warm plate. Repeat with another 1 1/2 teaspoon oil and beef.
Stir-fry onion in remaining 1 tablespoon hot canola oil in skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes or until tender. Add sugar snap peas, ginger and crushed red pepper; stir-fry 2 minutes. Add beef and hoisin mixture; stir-fry 1 minute or until slightly thickened. Remove from heat. Stir in watermelon. Add salt, black pepper and red pepper to taste. Serve immediately with hot cooked rice.
Per serving (based on 6): 391 calories; 18 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 73 mg cholesterol; 24 g protein; 30 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 519 mg sodium; 63 mg calcium.
Grilled chicken breasts with honeydew salsa
Recipe by Bon Appetit
Yield: 4 servings
1 1/3 cups finely diced, peeled and seeded honeydew or other melon
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro plus 1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons finely grated lime peel
1 teaspoon finely chopped seeded serrano chili
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
4 boneless chicken breast halves with skin
Combine diced melon, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, finely diced red onion, lime juice, olive oil, grated lime peel and chopped serrano chili in medium bowl. Toss to blend flavors. Season melon salsa to taste with salt and pepper.
Spray grill with nonstick vegetable oil spray; prepare barbecue (medium heat). Sprinkle chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Grill chicken breasts until skin is crisp and brown and chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Slice chicken breasts and arrange on plates. Top with melon salsa and cilantro leaves and serve.
Per serving: 283 calories; 15 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 82 mg cholesterol; 30 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 81 mg sodium; 23 mg calcium.