In 1493 Christopher Columbus embarked on his second voyage to the New World with 17 ships and 1200 men. His goals were to search for new territories and establish colonies. His route took him through the Lesser Antilles where he discovered and named a number of islands such as Antigua, St. Kitts, Montserrat and others. He then sailed on to Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. Probably of minor significance at the time, but noteworthy for our current discussion, Columbus introduced the cantaloupe to the Americas. Cantaloupe seeds were planted and shared with the native population who received the new fruit with enthusiasm.
The cantaloupe that America is familiar with, (there’s also a European variety), is a type of muskmelon. The muskmelon family includes honeydew, casaba, Crenshaw and others. They originated somewhere in Persia and were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, then the Europeans, and finally, thanks to Columbus, by the inhabitants of the western hemisphere. In the first century AD an opposite course delivered them to China.
The Italians were quite fond of cantaloupes and are credited as the source of the fruit’s name. They were cultivated in the Pope’s country villa in the town of Cantalupo just outside Rome. The French then called them cantaloup which was eventually Anglicized into cantaloupe.
Cantaloupes are now grown all over the world. The top US producers include California, Arizona and Texas. Annual sales of cantaloupe in America exceed 300 million dollars. They are available year round, (thanks to imports from Mexico and Central America), but are at their peak in the summer months.
Cantaloupes must be picked when mature but mature doesn’t mean ripe. Unripe fruit has a longer transportation and shelf life. Choosing a ripe melon is always a murky endeavor but the guidelines are as follows: Select specimens that are heavy for their size, free of any significant blemishes or bruises, sport a rind that is neither too shiny nor too dull, and have an unmistakable fragrance. Obviously they should be barren of soft spots with one exception: The blossom end of a ripe melon will slightly yield to pressure. Unripe melons can be left at room temperature a few days to ripen.
Once ripe, refrigerate them to retard their decline. Cantaloupes are known to absorb odors from other foods so wrapping them in plastic before refrigerating them is not a bad idea. Cut melons should always be refrigerated immediately and used promptly.
Most people wouldn’t equate salmonella with cantaloupe but they are a possible culprit. Wash their skin thoroughly before cutting them open. After harvesting cantaloupes are treated with sodium hypochlorite to inhibit mold and salmonella growth but they should be washed nonetheless.
Cantaloupes are a powerhouse of nutrients. They are an excellent source of vitamins A and C. However, they also contain beta carotenes, potassium, B-complex vitamins and manganese. Moreover, they are very low in calories and practically devoid of fat.
Cantaloupes are best enjoyed as is. But there are many other culinary possibilities. They are ideal for fruit salads. Cantaloupe can also be incorporated into jams and sorbets or served with ice cream. And of course, there is the iconic Italian appetizer of fresh melon and prosciutto.
Below is my recipe for chilled cantaloupe soup in a coconut and cream broth. Perfect for summer, use this recipe as a first course or a dessert. Adjust the sugar level to suit your taste. Additional garnishes include shaved coconut, sliced almonds, or supplemental fruit such as pineapple.
CHILLED CANTALOUPE SOUP IN COCONUT BROTH
· Half a cantaloupe, seeded, and peeled · 2 (13.5-oz) cans coconut milk, (not coconut water or cream of coconut) · 1 cup heavy cream · 2/3 cup of sugar · Fresh mint for garnish
Cut the cantaloupe into small cubes. For the broth, combine the coconut milk, cream and sugar. Gently whisk until the sugar has dissolved. Add the cantaloupe to the broth. Place in the fridge to allow the soup to fully chill and for the flavors to meld. Sprinkle with fresh mint before serving.