A cantaloupe doesn't have the smooth sheen of a honeydew or the artistic green striations of a watermelon. It's a homely fruit, like kiwi and coconut, that hides its sweet nature under a rough exterior.
Close your eyes, though, and this ugly duckling begins to shine. Pick one up. Hold it close to your face. Take a deep breath, and smell the fruity, musky scent of summer. This is the smell of farmer's markets, where cantaloupes spill onto the lowered tailgate of pickup trucks; a few enticing slices propped up near the edge for sampling. For me, these are as irresistible as a just-frosted cake, so I inevitably carry home several ripe ones to savor at my leisure.
How do I tell if they're ripe? Well, unlike bananas, tomatoes and peaches, cantaloupes don't ripen after they're picked. That means you have to pick a ripe one to get a ripe one. Fortunately, it's a lot easier to select ripe cantaloupe than watermelon--just follow your nose. Give one a good, deep sniff--a ripe one will have that musky sweet smell that gives them their common name: muskmelon. An odorless one is likely to be tasteless, too, so it goes back in the pile.
Another way to test the ripeness of a cantaloupe is to press on the end opposite the stem end (which looks like the melon equivalent to a belly button). It should give a little. You don't want a lumpy or mushy melon, though--it's past it's prime and will be more water than flavor.
Of course, cantaloupes, along with other melons, are mostly water to start with--about 94%--so they're definitely low-cal. Half of a small cantaloupe has only 60 calories, but that doesn't mean they're nutritionally empty, though. They're packed with vitamins along with flavor.
The melon we know as cantaloupe is named for Cantalupo, a village near Rome where it was first grown in Europe. In this country, "cantaloupe" is used as the name for several varieties of muskmelon, also sometimes called netted melons for the coarse raised network that traces their surface.
Melons came to the New World with Columbus on his second trip, and were so enthusiastically adopted that later visitors thought the melons were North American natives. They certainly seem native to our part of the country, where many backyard gardens would be incomplete without a few vines.
Whether your cantaloupe comes from your garden or the grocery store, the flavor is fullest at room temperature, although I find it more refreshing served slightly chilled--the choice is yours.
Cantaloupe is a perfect mix with other melons and fruit--kiwi, bananas, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, grapes and raspberries, to name a few. I love it for dessert just tossed with blueberries, but you can also puree it with strawberries and orange juice for a delicious--not to mention fat-free--shake. Add a little sparkling wine and you have a tantalizing cold soup.
For a rejuvenating snack, light first course or even dessert, try this easy fruit compote. Vary the ingredients according to what's available at your favorite farmer's market and substitute freely. Think of it as the equivalent of a vegetable stew and add what you have. Just be sure to use fresh fruit--the frozen kind just sogs up this dish as it thaws.
1 cup orange juice
1/4 cup lemon or lime juice
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup honey
1 to 2 tablespoons orange liqueur
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups cantaloupe chunks (or one cup cantaloupe and 1 cup watermelon)
1 cup pineapple peach or pear chunks (fresh or canned)
1 cup cut-up strawberries or blueberries
1/2 cup raspberries or blackberries
Combine liquids, mint and nutmeg and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened. Remove it from the stove and strain out the mint, then pour it over the fruit and chill for several hours.
For a fast treat, try this twist on an ice cream soda: layer scoops of ice cream with chunks of cantaloupe and top with lemon-lime soda.
Okay, so we all know how terrific cantaloupe is with sweet things, but have you ever eaten it with cheese and thinly sliced ham? That's an old Italian favorite. Or try it as a delicate last-minute addition to a stir fry. You can even brush it with equal amounts of vinegar and honey and broil or grill it--this is wonderful with fish or grilled pork.
I admit it though: of all the ways you can eat cantaloupe, my favorite is perfectly plain--just the sweet, juicy goodness and me.