Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

You can’t beat fresh cantaloupe

On a recent outing to Warren County, a farm market sign promising sweet corn enticed me to veer off the main drag leading home. I didn’t want corn, however. I was hoping to find some locally grown fruit.

The market had plenty of blueberries, but so did my refrigerator. I was hoping for plums, maybe even an early peach. But there was none of that. Had I detoured for nothing?

A bin piled high with melons caught my eye: New Jersey cantaloupes. They were big — twice the size of the ones I usually see at my supermarket — with no sign of green, just a creamy coat of buff. Even at $4 apiece, they were a bargain.

My instincts said, “Buy a few.” But I was held back by my miserable track record of picking melons that tasted more like their cucumber cousins than anything remotely resembling a dessert fruit. I bought only one. Big mistake. Back home, when I cut into the rind a heavenly fragrance tickled my nose. The flesh inside was firm, vibrant orange, juicy; the taste sublime. I should’ve bought more. But who knew those melons tasted so good?

“Jersey is not really known as a cantaloupe state. But the local climate and soil lends itself to growing a pretty good melon,” said Gary Stecher of G&G Stecher in Swedesboro, who grows about 30 acres of melons for the wholesale trade, including area farm markets.

Cantaloupes disappoint when they’re harvested still green so they can stand up to long-distance travel. Locally grown melons “are much sweeter because we pick vine-ripe,” said Sam Maugeri of Maugeri Farms in Woolwich Township, who grows three acres’ worth.

The melons we call cantaloupes actually are muskmelons. True cantaloupes — rough, warty fruit — are rarely grown commercially in this country. Muskmelons bear the characteristic netting on their rind that’s associated with cantaloupes. Some varieties, like Eclipse, have a ridged rind similar to that of a pumpkin, another melon relation. Other popular varieties include Athena and Aphrodite.

Unlike true cantaloupes, which must be cut off their vines when ripe, muskmelons will separate when mature. Many local growers harvest at the half-slip stage, when the vine begins to crack where it meets the melon. At full slip, or when the melon has completely separated, the fruit is fully ripe.

Although the local melon season could stretch into November, many farmers stop growing them come mid-August. “Around Labor Day, the demand really tails off. As soon as school starts, it’s dead,” said Stecher.

“We’ve lost a lot of the market to imported melons. About 50 percent are grown outside the U.S.,” said Michelle Infante-Casella, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County.

For the next few weeks, however, shoppers would do well to seek out locally grown melons. “Any one that I’ve picked is ripe,” said Maugeri.

Shopping Hints: Look for melons that have a fruity aroma at the blossom end. The color of the rind beneath the netting, which should be uniform, should be buff, not grayish or green.

Serving Suggestions: Squirt melon slices with lemon or lime juice; wrap thin slices of prosciutto around melon chunks. For a chilled, spicy-sweet soup, suggests Cathy Thomas, author of “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce” (Wiley, 2006), process cubes of ripe cantaloupe with GewÖrztraminer; add fresh lemon juice to taste and a touch of curry powder; garnish with fresh mint. For a refreshing change-of-pace salad, toss melon chunks with cold cooked rice, toasted almonds, and chopped mint and dress the mixture lightly with mayonnaise or plain yogurt mixed with mango chutney. Season with salt and pepper.

Nutrition Notes: Low in calories, cantaloupe is high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and potassium.

Food Safety Tips: Melons grow on the ground, so it’s wise to wash them thoroughly in cold water when you’re ready to cut them. Peel, cover, and refrigerate cut cantaloupe.

Fun Fact: The name cantaloupe may have come from Cantalupo, a former Papal villa where melons were cultivated, or from the city of Cantaloup in southern France.