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Monday, August 8

Gapers Block

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Even though it looks like it's going to rain while I'm writing this, it's still pretty hot and humid. And days like this make me want to relax in front of the fan with a cool, iced beverage. But if you're like me, you're possibly close to exhausting all your standard summer-time refreshing drinks and begging for something new.

Or maybe you're just attending or hosting a party and want something cool, refreshing and mixable with alcohol but tasty on its own. I was pondering this earlier in the week while I was taking a walk. And then I remembered the wonderful "melon liquid" that a taqueria near an old apartment would sell. It tasted as if cantaloupes had been run through a press and the resulting liquid poured in my large styrofoam cup. It was the perfect warm-weather compliment to a couple of tacos and some chips.

But I moved to a different neighborhood where the taquerias only sold horchata and tamarindo drinks and I forgot about this great summertime beverage. So I turned to Google (of course) and began looking for recipes for this great refreshing beverage. And boy did I find them. And they were all pretty similar: cantaloupe, sugar, water. Perfect! Then I just had to look for ideas for other melons, like watermelon and honeydew. I wasn't as successful in that search, so I had to do some experimenting.

Before you can make these drinks you have to buy ripe melons. What should you look for?

Cantaloupe: Look for a melon that doesn't have green tinges under the white mesh on its exterior. The white mesh should be raised, not flat. The stem end should be smooth, indicating it was pulled from the plant. If it's jagged or if a bit of stem remains, this means it was cut and likely not ripe. Smell the other end of the fruit, the blossom end — this is where ripening starts. If it smells like anything other than melon, keep looking for a fragrant one. Unfortunately, once a melon has been picked it isn't going to "ripen" any further on your kitchen counter. However, if you want it to be juicier and have better texture, you can stick it in a loosely closed paper bag with an apple or banana for a day or two.

Honeydew: While these don't become truly ripe until late summer or early fall, it's possible to find ripe ones that have been shipped from South America at this time of year. Look for a melon that is more golden than white. If you find one that has slight stickiness or even small brown freckles you'll know you've got a melon that is starting to ooze its sugar. You can also smell the blossom end of the melon to get a sweet or heady aroma. To make an unripe melon juicier, follow the directions above.

Watermelon: This is possibly the hardest melon to determine the ripeness of. Researchers at a variety of schools are creating devices which can thump watermelons, measure the sound resonance, and determine sugar presence, among a variety of other techniques. But if the farmers who have been growing watermelons for years can't pick the perfectly ripe melon from a pile, you probably won't be able to either. There are a couple of clues, though. The area where the melon rests on the ground is often white to a light yellow. The more yellow it is, the more likely it is to be ripe. Make sure the melon is firm. If it's wrinkled, it's old and likely to be dry. And lastly, if you press against the skin of the watermelon with a fingernail, it should give instead of breaking. This technique is frowned on by grocers so use it sparingly.

Now that you've got a ripe melon and you're ready to begin making your drinks, how do you get the fruit ready? Each of these melons have a rind that is bitter and needs to be removed. So begin by cutting the melon in half. The cantaloupe and honeydew have seeds in the middle that can be scooped out fairly easily with a large spoon.

Several of the recipes I found suggested that you put the seeds and strings into the blender and begin by blending them. This means you'll have to strain your drink and I'm not sure that the added flavor is enjoyable enough to merit the extra work. So if you want to be traditional get some cheesecloth and a strainer and blend your seeds first. If you want to be a lazy gringa (like me) scoop the seeds into the trash. Watermelon doesn't come with easy to remove seed packets. However, it does come in seedless varieties. If you can't get a seedless variety, you'll have to strain it at the end to remove the seeds.

Now that you've removed the seeds, if you can, you're ready to start separating the fruit from the rind. Using a large knife, cut the melon into wedge-shaped pieces that are about 2-3 inches wide at the rind. Place the slice, rind-side down, onto the board. Place the knife just at the border between ripe fruit and rind and use firm pressure to move the knife through the fruit. This shouldn't require sawing, but be careful to move the knife away from any body parts until you feel comfortable doing this. Discard the rind and chop the fruit into chunks to make it easier for your blender. Now that you've got a pile of fruit, you're ready to begin blending and then, finally, drinking.

You'll notice that the amounts listed in my recipes are vague. I apologize for this but I'll explain why. Some melons are juicier and sweeter than others. A very ripe melon is likely to be sweeter and juicier, so it will require less sugar and water. (Traditionally melon, water and sugar are the only ingredients. Anything else should be considered my gringa, or guera, interpretation.)

Cantaloupe Liquado
1/2 cantaloupe, seeded and chopped into pieces
juice from 1 lime (or 1/2 a lemon)
water (about 4-5 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
sugar (about 1/4 cup)

Place the melon pieces into your blender. It should only be about half full to give room for movement. Squeeze the lime juice into the blender. Using a pulse setting (or turning the blender off and on quickly) begin blending. If you just turn it to on (or chop, liquify, or whatever your settings are called) it will blend the fruit around the blade but not the rest. If you really can't get it to begin mixing after 2 minutes of pulsing, add water in 1/4 cup increments until it starts to move. Once the fruit has turned to pulp, add more fruit if you have it. Leave the blender on for 2-3 minutes. Use a spoon to determine how smooth it is. If you wish it to be smoother, keep blending for up to 4 more minutes. Taste it to determine if it is sweet enough. If you're not sure, add the salt, blend it for 30 seconds and taste again. The salt activates your salivary glands and can make things taste sweeter. If it still isn't sweet enough, add sugar and blend again for a minute. Once it tastes the way you want, you're ready to get it to have the texture that you want.

Pour the pulp mixture into a serving pitcher. Add cold water a cup at a time and stir vigorously. Once it has the thickness you desire you can begin pouring it into glasses, mixing with rum, vodka or tequila, and serving. If even after adding the water the grainy texture turns you off, put a colander over a large bowl or pan. Line it with two layers of cheesecloth and slowly pour your drink through it. This should catch the fibers and present you with a lighter, smoother drink.

For the next two recipes, follow the directions above. Add all flavoring ingredients to the blender with the first batch of melon.

Honeydew Liquado
1/2 honeydew, seeded and chopped into pieces
juice from 1 lime (or 1/2 lemon)
a 1-inch chunk of ginger that has been peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon of salt
water (3-5 cups)
sugar (2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup, depends on the ripeness of your melon)

Since the flavor of ginger will grow stronger as the drink sits, I suggest leaving this drink in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving. If you're going to strain, do so after it has sat for a while to get the strongest ginger flavor possible.

Watermelon Liquado
1/2 of a seedless watermelon chopped into pieces
juice from 1 lime (or 1/2 lemon)
1/4 cup of mint leaves that have been chopped roughly
1 teaspoon of salt
water (2-4 cups)
2-4 tablespoons of honey (sugar will also work, begin with 3 tablespoons and increase as needed)

Here are a couple tips:
If you want your drink to be clear and not foamy, add very little water to the blender. The water being blended with the fruit creates the white and frothy look. The taste will be the same, but the look and texture will be different.

If you want to go the extra mile to make it possible for your guests to keep their drinks chilled, purchase a small melon baller and create melon balls from the unused half of the melon. Put them in a flat dish and freeze them. You now have "ice cubes" which won't water down the flavor of your beverage. You'll also get a snack at the bottom of each glass.

Add alcohol and serve immediately. Letting it sit in a pitcher will cause the alcohol to sink to the bottom and if people don't stir, the person left with the last glass will get quite a surprise. Or you can leave a spoon in the pitcher so people will be more likely to stir before pouring.

You can of course add any other fruits to these drinks. Strawberries and blueberries are in season right now. Don't be afraid to experiment.

Have a wonderful, safe, and tasty celebration.

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Cinnamon / July 4, 2006 10:56 PM

I took a quart of the canteloupe liquado to a friend's barbecue on Monday. I forgot the partly full container at her house and she sent me this:

I used a few leftover watermelon ice cubes (watermelon juice that was frozen), two slices of lemon, about 1/2 cup melon juice and 1/2 cup of riesling. I'm normally not a big riesling drinker, so I wanted to find a use for the wine and the melon goes incredibly well with it. It's a really refreshing fruity light drink.

Thanks, Emily for letting me know a successful use for leftovers. I knew it went great with a little extra lime and some rum, but its great to hear this, too.


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