By DANIEL NEMAN
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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.
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.
AND FETA SALAD
Yield: 4 servings
4 cups watermelon, cubed
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup red onion, sliced thin, optional
10 leaves fresh basil, sliced thin
Vinaigrette or ranch dressing
In a large bowl, combine watermelon, feta cheese and optional red onion. Scatter basil over the top, and lightly dress with vinaigrette or ranch dressing.
Per serving (no dressing): 140 calories; 8 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 35 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 14 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 425 mg sodium; 195 mg calcium.
PICANTE THREE-MELON SALAD
Yield: 8 servings
3 cups red cubed, seeded watermelon
3 cups yellow cubed, seeded watermelon, see note
3 cups cubed honeydew melon
1/2 cup chopped white onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 finely chopped, seeded serrano or jalapeno pepper
1 teaspoon grated lime rind
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon minced chipotle chile (from a can in adobo sauce)
Note: If you can't find yellow watermelon, use cantaloupe.
1. Combine watermelons (and cantaloupe, if using), honeydew, onion, cilantro and serrano in a large bowl.
2. In a small bowl, combine rind, juice, salt, chili powder and minced chipotle. Pour juice mixture over melon mixture, and toss well. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.
Per serving: 65 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 1 g protein; 17 g carbohydrate; 14 g sugar; 1.5 g fiber; 185 mg sodium; 15 mg calcium.
CREAMY CANTALOUPE PANNA COTTA WITH MIXED BERRIES
Yield: 6 servings
1 cantaloupe, peeled, seeded, flesh cut into large pieces
1 tablespoon unflavored powdered gelatin (1 packet plus 1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 cup low-fat plain Greek yogurt, see note
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons honey, divided
1 cup blackberries, see note
1 cup blueberries, see note
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
Note: If you want it sweeter, use 1/2 cup heavy cream, half-and-half or whole milk instead of the yogurt. Use the ripest berries you can find; raspberries or strawberries would also work.
1. In a blender, puree cantaloupe until smooth. Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing lightly on solids (you should have about 2 cups of puree); discard solids. Pour 1/3 cup juice into a small bowl and sprinkle gelatin over the top; let sit 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk yogurt into remaining juice.
2. In a small saucepan, bring cream, 2 tablespoons of the honey, and a pinch of salt to a simmer over medium heat. Whisk in gelatin mixture and cook until gelatin dissolves, about 1 minute. Whisk cream mixture into yogurt mixture and divide among 6 (6-ounce) bowls or ramekins. Refrigerate until set, 2 1/2 hours or overnight.
3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine remaining 1 tablespoon honey, blackberries, blueberries and orange juice. With the back of a fork, lightly mash berries to release their juices. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
4. To unmold panna cottas, run a small knife around the outside edge of each bowl and invert onto a serving plate, gently shaking from side to side to release. Serve with berries and juices.
Per serving: 210 calories; 12g fat; 7g saturated fat; 40mg cholesterol; 5g protein; 24g carbohydrate; 20g sugar; 3g fiber; 35mg sodium; 60mg calcium.
AND ARUGULA SALAD
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 honeydew melon
1/3 cup mixed fresh herbs
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lime juice
10 ounces baby arugula
Salt and pepper
Cut honeydew into small, thin pieces. Puree 1/2 cup of the melon pieces with the herbs, mayonnaise, lime juice and salt and pepper. Toss this mixture with the baby arugula and add the rest of the melon pieces. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 155 calories; 9 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 18 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 2.5 g fiber; 105 mg sodium; 130 mg calcium.