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Sweet, cool melon: the perfect refreshment in hot weather

The sweet cool nectar of a vine-ripened melon is the perfect refreshment in hot weather. No wonder: It is mostly water and tastes sweeter than those not quite so ripe.

On the plant, when the sugar in the growing melon has reached its peak - what we call ripeness - a special layer in the stem of most melons separates it from the plant. Thus a ripe melon can be picked easily. An unripe melon that has been torn or cut shows the evidence on its stem end, and once picked it cannot grow sweeter.

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There are other ways, depending on the type of melon, to help determine its ripeness: a heady fragrance, a smooth softness around the stem or blossom end, the rattle of seeds when shaken, and a round resonance when slapped. But only when you cut it open can you tell for sure.

Melons fall into several categories. Muskmelons, sometimes called nutmeg or netted melons from the appearance of their skins, are what we Americans call cantaloupe, a misnomer. They have salmon or occasionally green flesh, and they are easily damaged in handling and shipping.

The true cantaloupe is cultivated widely in Europe, but not in the United States. It has a hard skin, sometimes rough, scaly, or segmented, but never netted. Its flesh is usually orange. The French Charentais and Israeli Ogen are examples.

Winter melons can be harvested later than others, even into frost. They lack the perfumed aroma and separation layer in the stems of muskmelons and cantaloupes. The inside color ranges from white to light green to orange, and the skin varies from smooth to furrowed like a pumpkin.

Hard skins help melons travel well, even as long as a month, on their way to market. Honeydew, casaba, Cranshaw (or Crenshaw), Santa Claus, and canary melons all belong to this group.

The watermelon, which originated in Africa, has a category all its own. Distinctly different from other melons, watermelons vary mainly in size and shape and are close relatives of the cucumber. They are special favorites on picnics and children's summertime parties.

Whatever the temperature, these recipes will be refreshing. Cantaloupe Ice 3 cups cantaloupe puree 1/3 cup water 2/3 cup sugar 2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice

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Cut cantaloupe in half, cut flesh into chunks and puree in blender or food processor to make 3 cups. Make sugar syrup by combining water and sugar in saucepan. Bring to boil, stir, and cook 5 minutes, then cool. Add cooled syrup to melon puree. Stir in lime or lemon juice and chill thoroughly in refrigerator.

Freeze mixture in bowl or ice trays in freezer, stirring from time to time to smooth ice crystals as it freezes; or freeze in ice cream freezer according to manufacturer's directions. Let it mellow in freezer about 1 1/2 hours before serving. To serve, scoop into glass cups or bowls and garnish with berries or mint sprigs. Makes about 1 quart.

Note: This can be made with any type of melon or, for special effect, with a combination of several. Melon Compote 2 cups cantaloupe balls 2 cups honeydew balls 2 cups watermelon balls 1 cup raspberries or blackberries 1/2 cup blueberries

Cut melons in half and remove seeds.

Push melon ball cutter with your thumb all the way into the melon flesh and turn scoop around to make balls as nearly spherical as possible. Do not cut them until very shortly before serving or they will lose their juices and hence their flavor. Combine all ingredients and mix so that colors are varied throughout. Serves 6 to 8. Cantaloupe, Chicken, and Ham Salad About 1/3 cantaloupe, according to size A few leaves of Boston lettuce 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon honey, or to taste 1/4 cup plain yogurt 1 cup poached chicken, cubed 1/4 cup ham, cubed 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted 1 tablespoon fresh chives, minced

Cut off rind from cantaloupe and slice flesh quite thin. Make a bed of lettuce on serving plate and arrange slices in ring on top. Mix together lemon juice and honey, then yogurt. Fold in chicken, ham, and sesame seeds. Put mixture in center of cantaloupe ring. Garnish with minced fresh chives and serve. Makes 2 servings. Honeydew with Ginger Ice Cream 2 cups light cream 3 egg yolks 1/3 cup sugar 1 cup heavy cream 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/3 cup preserved ginger, chopped 1/4 cup ginger syrup Honeydew slices

Scald light cream in double boiler or cook over medium heat until little bubbles appear around edges. Do not let it boil.

In bowl, beat together egg yolks and sugar until sugar is dissolved. In small , steady stream, add scalded cream, stirring egg yolk mixture constantly. Return to double boiler and cook over simmering water, still stirring, until custard coats spoon heavily.

Cool thoroughly and add heavy cream and vanilla. Chop preserved ginger finely and add it to custard along with syrup from ginger jar. Refrigerate to chill ice cream mixture thoroughly.

Freeze ice cream in ice trays or bowl, stirring several times to smooth ice crystals, or in ice cream machine according to manufacturer's directions. Let ice cream ripen 1 1/2 to 2 hours before serving.

To serve, slice honeydew melon into wedges and put a round scoop of ginger ice cream on top. Makes about 1 quart.

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