Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Okay, so watermelon

Watermelon are one of the true treats of summer, although they are available all year long from growers in Texas and or Mexico. They remain closest in appearance to their cousins cucumbers, especially the long seeded summer melons. But how do you know a good one?

Well, as with the other melons, there is no good way to be absolutely certain the melon you're looking over is top-notch (aside from slicing it open and tasting it. I have to admit that slicing it open and tasting (combined with careful examination of external clues) was how I came by my methods of estimating the probability that any given melon was good.

So where to begin? Pick up the melon (pick up several melons) and judge whether it (they) are heavy enough. If you've picked up one that is significantly lighter in weight than the others, put it back and try another. This is a measure of the moisture in the melon, and the heavier the better.

Next, roll the melon over and look at the surface. Brilliant colors? Good. Nice contrast between the darker greens and the lighter greens? Also good. Does the melon have a prominent yellow ground spot? You're getting there! Any obvious soft spots or brusing? No? Keep going. Nice and firm in your hands? Looking good so far.

Now, holding the melon in one hand (or lying on a flat surface if it's too heavy to hold with one hand, in which case lightly hold your hand on the surface), thump the side several times with the tips of your fingers. The melon should "ring" audibly and you should detect the vibration with the hand holding (or touching) it. I listen for a tone at roughly a frequency between B-flat and D below middle C. Below those tones (and this is where judgment enters the picture), I believe the melon is probably a bit over-ripe, although an exceptionally large watermelon may be perfectly okay. Much above those tones, and it's likely to be under-ripe.

If the melon doesn't "ring" the greatest likelihood is that the flesh inside is broken -- cracked, maybe multiply cracked. Pass.

There are several types -- flesh colors -- of melons. Red, of course, in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, seeded and seedless. I think the seeded varieties taste better, and of course you get the seeds to spit, one of the joys of summer. They are rarely available in the supermarket, where seedless red melons now rule. Pink melons, usually seedless are a variation on the red theme, and tasty enough. I had a customer once who insisted on pink flesh, claiming that true gourmets all knew pink was superior. No opinion about that on my part.

Yellow flesh watermelon are more rare, and (at least in my experience) often arrive at the store way over-ripe. A discerning observer will notice the skin of yellow melons usually have more narrow dark green stripes and wider light green stripes than red melons, and the shape is more round than oval. If you find a good one (same rules for selection apply), you've got real treat in store. Definitely a watermelon, but much sweeter.

My first job in produce was at a farmer's market with a guy who specialized in watermelon, and we judged perceived sweetness by, first, tasting the melon and, second, rubbing a little juice onto the glass of a portable refractometer and looking through the lens to observe the brix, a measurement of dissolved sugar in the juice. Good red melons fell typically into the range of 8-10 brix, while good yellow melons typically read in the range of 12-14 brix. Doesn't seem like much, but the difference is definitely noticable on the tongue.

Then there are orange melons, the rarest and sweetest of all at any level of marketing, in my experience. Orange melons are usually a bit smaller than either red or yellow, round like a yellow melon but striped more like a red melon. Same rules of selection apply, and listen carefully for a good clear below-middle-C "ring," because too many of the orange melons that do show up the supermarket (if they show up all) are way under-ripe. A good one, however, will be sweet-sweet-sweet. Brix on a good orange melon will usually fall into the range of 14-16 brix, although I remember distinctly one that showed just under 18 brix. Wow!

Hell of a way to get part of your daily requirement of fruits and vegetables, I can tell you!

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