Fresh melons packed with flavor

Like many fruits, freshly picked melons are frequently at their best unadorned. But they also have several simple affinities; watermelon and balsamic vinegar; cantaloupe or honeydew and salt and pepper.

Restaurateur-turned-produce-broker Andy Ayers is never hesitant to rhapsodize about his experiences with locally grown food. But his first fresh-from-the-farm cantaloupe was, well, a religious experience.

"I'll never forget the first homegrown cantaloupe I ever ate," Ayers said. "I was struck dumb like Saul on the road to Damascus."

With sweet, fragrant cantaloupes and other melons readily available, Ayers' epiphany is easy to picture. And we'll forgive him for being blind to what actually happened to Saul, although anyone who knows Ayers probably can't imagine him being struck dumb, no matter how heavenly the produce.

Like many fruits, freshly picked melons are frequently at their best unadorned. But they also have several simple affinities:

--Watermelon and balsamic vinegar.

--Cantaloupe or honeydew and salt and pepper.

--Cantaloupe and dates

--All sweet melons and mint.

Or you can layer flavors around melons.

The saltiness of ham and the bite of arugula temper the sweetness of cantaloupe or honeydew in Prosciutto-Wrapped Melon Bites.

Chiles, lime and mint make Melon Salsa an excellent complement for shrimp or chicken.

For a more adventurous approach, a variety of cultural influences -- African hot peppers, briny capers and all-American watermelon -- harmonize in Tomato-Watermelon Salad With Almond Vinaigrette.

If you buy your melons directly from the grower, ask how long they'll last.

Melons picked at the peak of freshness will have the most sweetness, but also the shortest shelf life -- often only a day or two.

Melons sold in the supermarket are meant to have a longer shelf life, but they're picked before they're completely ripe, often at the expense of optimal sweetness.

And even a melon purchased at a farmers market or a roadside stand sometimes will taste a little dull. To remedy this, try Fruit Rescue Glaze, a resuscitation trick from renowned vegetarian-cookbook author Mollie Katzen.

Yield: About 2 1/4 cups

Ingredients

3/4 cup diced honeydew melon

3/4 cup diced cantaloupe

3/4 cup diced watermelon

1 1/2 teaspoons minced serrano chile, with seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh mint

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Directions

Thoroughly combine all ingredients in a medium bowl.

Serve with shrimp or chicken.

Per ( 1/4-cup) serving: 15 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; no protein; 4g carbohydrates; 3.5g sugar; no fiber; 5mg sodium; 4mg calcium.

-- Adapted from "The Great Salsa Book," by Mark Miller (Ten Speed Press, 1994)

Yield: About 3/4 cup (enough for 1 large melon or 2 smaller melons)

Ingredients

1 cup apple, grape or other fruit juice

1 cup vinegar

1/3 cup granulated sugar or honey, or more to taste

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar.

Place the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Make sure that the area is well-ventilated. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until mixture is reduced by about two-thirds.

Taste for sweetness and add more sugar or honey if desired. Cool to room temperature. To use, drizzle over bland melon, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Per tablespoon: 30 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; no protein; 8g carbohydrates; 8g sugar; no fiber; 2mg sodium; no calcium.

-- Adapted from "Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Cafe," by Mollie Katzen (Hyperion, 2002)

Yield: 8 appetizer servings

Ingredients

1/2 small cantaloupe or honeydew, seeded

1 1/2 cups loosely packed arugula

3/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves

4 paper-thin slices prosciutto or country ham

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Directions

Cut melon into 1/4- to 1/2-inch slices (about 16). Place each melon slice on top of 3 arugula leaves and 1 to 2 basil leaves.

Cut each prosciutto slice lengthwise into 4 strips. Wrap the center of each melon bundle with 1 prosciutto strip. Arrange on a serving platter and sprinkle with pepper.

Per serving: 30 calories; 1g fat; no saturated fat; 5mg cholesterol; 2g protein; 3g carbohydrates; 2g sugar; 0.5 fiber; 190mg sodium; 15mg calcium.

-- Adapted from "Southern Living Farmers Market Cookbook" (Oxmoor House, 2010)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons sliced almonds

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons harissa (see cook's note)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Juice of 1 lime

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 cup 1/2-inch-cubes watermelon

1 jalapeno chile, seeds and ribs removed, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons torn flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons torn mint leaves

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 red tomatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds), roughly chopped

3 yellow tomatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds), roughly chopped

1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese

Directions

Cook's note: Harissa is a hot red pepper paste.

Combine almonds, garlic and harissa in a small pan over medium heat and saute for 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Combine olive oil, vinegar, lime juice and shallots in a small bowl. Whisk in almond-harissa mixture.

Toss watermelon, jalapeno, parsley, mint and capers in a large bowl. Season with salt and a few grindings of pepper. Add tomatoes and vinaigrette and toss to combine. Garnish with goat cheese; serve immediately.