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Seasonal pantry: Melons in our glasses, on the dinner plate

Although we tend to think of melons as a quintessential summer fruit, locally it is a fall indulgence, with melons from Sonoma County farmers finally coming on strong.

Our farmers markets are filled with more than a dozen varieties of muskmelons and several varieties of watermelons, some as small as a baseball, others bigger than a newborn baby and with every size in between. The grape harvest may have everyone's attention, but it is melon season, too, and this year, it's a good one.

One local melon, Min-Hee Hill Garden & Nursery's Yellow Doll watermelon, will have a short season of about a week, so if you love yellow watermelons, don't wait. They can be the best melons you have ever tasted.

There is always a risk when you buy a melon because there is no 100 percent way to predict that it will be good. A melon should be heavy for its size, and its rind should be firm, with no soft spots, but these two qualities are no guarantee. Ask the farmer to choose it for you if you don't feel confident picking it on your own.

You won't find many seedless watermelons at farmers markets, which isn't a bad thing. Seedless watermelons are grown for that one quality and not for taste or texture. Sometimes they are tasteless, with a texture like cardboard. The best thing to do with seedless watermelons is to juice them and add a bit of simple syrup and lime juice to boost the flavor.

When you buy melons, store them at room temperature until you are ready to enjoy them. A whole watermelon, for example, will turn mushy if left in the refrigerator for more than a day or so.

During this brief window of abundance, enjoy your fill of sliced melons, which are delight on their own, then give these simple recipes a try. For more melon recipes, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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Make this salad if you happen to keep a bottle of absinthe on hand, as there is no substitute. You can make it with Pernod or Pastis, but it won't have the same complexity or mystery.

Honeydew, Cucumber & Grape Salad with Absinthe

Serves 6 to 8

1 honeydew or Casaba melon, about 3 pounds, quartered and seeded

3-4 lemon cucumbers, washed and very thinly sliced

1/2 cup absinthe

1 cup, approximately, white table grapes, halved

12 fresh spearmint leaves, very thinly sliced

Use a thin knife to cut the melon away from its rind; cut the melon into 1/8-inch thick slices and arrange the slices on a large platter, overlapping them slightly. Tuck the cucumber slices here and there between the melon slices.

Slowly pour the absinthe over the cucumbers and melon, cover lightly and let rest for about 15 minutes.

Scatter the grapes and mint leaves on top, and enjoy right away.

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This salad makes a lovely lunch and is an ideal first course on a warm fall night.

Cantaloupe and Prosciutto Salad with Black Pepper & Cheese

Serves 6 to 8

1 medium cantaloupe or other orange-fleshed melon, quartered and seeded

6 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto

1 (8 ounces) Redwood Hill Farm Cameo (goat Camembert) or Marin French Camembert, at room temperature

- Black pepper in a mill

Remove the melon's flesh from its rind, cut it into thin slices, and divide among individual plates.

Cut the prosciutto in half crosswise and tuck slices between the slices of melon.

Cut the cheese into thin slices and divide among the servings, tucking the slices here and there.

Grind black pepper over everything, and enjoy right away.

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When it comes to nonalcoholic beverages, it's hard to beat agua fresca, especially when it is made with ripe fruit.

Watermelon Aqua Fresca

Serves 4 to 6

4 cups diced watermelon, seeds removed

3 cups spring water

1/2 cup simple syrup (recipe follows), plus more to taste

- Ice cubes

Put the watermelon and 1 cup of spring water in a tall, narrow glass pitcher and use an immersion blender to puree the fruit briefly. Move the immersion blender up and down through the fruit so that it remains slightly chunky and does not become foamy. Stir in the remaining water, add the simple syrup, taste, and add a bit more if needed.

Chill thoroughly, stir, pour over ice and enjoy. This agua fresca is best the day it is made.

Variation: You can use cantaloupe, Casaba, Crenshaw or any ripe, sweet melon. Taste before adding simple syrup.

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Some white-fleshed melon, such as Casaba, are sometimes so ripe and juicy that they practically purée themselves; that's the best time to make this delicious cocktail. Be sure to taste carefully before adding simple syrup because very ripe melons may not need the additional sweetness.

Melon Bellini

Serves 6 to 8

1 large white or green fleshed melon

- Juice of 1 lemon or 1 lime

- Simple syrup, as needed (see recipe below)

8-10 mint sprigs, cilantro sprigs or lemon verbena sprigs

1 bottle dry sparkling wine of choice

Cut the melon into quarters and scoop out and discard the seeds. Use a sharp, thin knife to separate the flesh from the rind, discard the rind and cut the flesh into chunks. Set a food mill fitted with its small blade over a deep bowl and pass the melon through it. Stir in the lemon or lime juice, add 2 herb sprigs, cover and chill thoroughly.

To finish, taste the melon purée, and if it seems a bit flat, add simple syrup, 2 tablespoons at a time, until the flavors blossom. Pour the purée into a large pitcher and add the sparkling wine. Stir.

Put an herb sprig in individual champagne flutes or other tall glasses, fill, and enjoy right away.

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Simple syrup is sometimes called bar sugar or bar sweetener, but they are all just sugar and water simmered until the sugar is completely dissolved. Stored in the refrigerator, it will keep indefinitely.

Simple Syrup

Makes about 21/2 cups

2 cups sugar

1 cup water

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy saucepan over high heat. Do not stir. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the syrup is transparent. Remove from the heat, cover and let cool. Store, covered, in the refrigerator and use as needed.

Michele Anna Jordan is author of the new “Good Cook's” series. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com, and visit her blog at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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