You know you're in the heart of the summer when the melons come out to play.
Watermelons, with their bright red smiles, a drop of juice glistening on each slice. Honeydews, green and festive, temptingly arrayed on a plate. Merry, golden cantaloupes, sweet and softly yielding.
Melons are summertime's gift to us, an apology for the heat and humidity, an effort to make things right. And they are so cool and refreshing, they do actually improve your life. When you're eating a melon, it's hard to feel anything but happy.
Watermelons belong in a cooler on a bed of ice, ready to be eaten at a picnic. Cantaloupe and honeydew turn breakfast into something special. All they require is a wedge of lemon or lime.
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You already know about cantaloupe wrapped with prosciutto (if you don't, take a chunk of cantaloupe, wrap it in a thin slice of prosciutto and eat. Repeat until blissful). Perhaps you've had a honeydew smoothie (blend honeydew melon with crushed ice and milk. It's a remarkably refreshing treat). And if you haven't had chicken or tuna salad mounded in half of a small cantaloupe, now is the time to start.
To celebrate the joy of all things melon, I went a slightly different route. I stuck close to the light-and-healthy basics, with melon-rich salads and a silken panna cotta for dessert.
To begin with, I chose a salad that is almost as popular as cantaloupe wrapped with prosciutto. It is a terrific example of a simple dish packing a huge dividend of flavor; it has a high taste-to-effort ratio.
The dish is a Watermelon, Feta and Basil salad, and it is nothing more than watermelon, feta cheese, basil, a bit of red onion and a simple vinaigrette. What makes it so extraordinary is the way the flavors play off one another. The cheese, with its salty tang, adds a richness that is balanced by the edge of the vinaigrette and onion, all of which plays under the smooth, cool blend of basil and watermelon.
It is one of those dishes that achieves culinary perfection. If you're at my house in the summer, you're as likely as not to be served it.
A more ambitious and complicated use of melons is a Picante Three-Melon Salad. Wonderfully low in calories (don't tell anyone; they don't have to know), this salad hits the taste superfecta: it is sweet, sour, salty and spicy.
It is also gorgeous. Bite-sized cubes of red watermelon, yellow watermelon (or cantaloupe, if you can't find it) and honeydew bring vibrancy to the plate, while the flavor is enhanced with lime juice and rind, salt, chili powder and just a small amount of minced chipotle chiles.
Spicy heat is mostly provided by a minced serrano chile (a jalapeno will make it less hot), with additional flavor coming from onions and cilantro.
The clever folks at Food Network magazine came up with a wonderful foil for melon - arugula. Their concoction, Honeydew and Arugula Salad, is one of those cases of opposites that play very well together.
The primary feature of arugula is that it is peppery. The primary feature of melon is that it is sweet. Put the two together and you have an irresistible combination, especially when topped with a cool dressing made from pureed honeydew, mayonnaise, lime juice and plenty of fresh herbs. Changing the mixture of herbs will give you a different dressing every time.
For dessert it is more melon, of course, a cantaloupe panna cotta. A popular dessert in Italy, panna cotta combines the best aspects of ice cream and Jell-O, but it tastes much better than that sounds. It is a semi-solid but somewhat quivering chilled dessert made with cream - or milk, if you must, and in this case some Greek yogurt is added to make it a bit tangy.
If you don't like it tangy, stick with the cream. Or the milk.
Most of the flavor, in this case, comes from pureed cantaloupe (or other melon), sweetened with honey. Powdered gelatin will help it set, so it is important to find a good bowl to make a mold; keep it pretty if you can. Serve with mixed berries.
Elegance is assured.