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PRETTILY PINK Watermelons lend luscious taste to light and cool summer dishes @

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When I was growing up in Baltimore we had a "melon man," who drove a horse-drawn wagon piled high with enormous ripe watermelons. Occasionally, my father would stop to purchase one.

Although at that time I was more interested in sneaking a lump of sugar to the horse, I still fondly recall their flavor. I swear they were the sweetest melons I ever tasted, especially when seasoned with 25 years of nostalgia.

Melons belong to the cucumber family and they've been cultivated since the time of the Pharaohs. Certain stones on Mount Carmel are called "Elijah's melons" -- legend has it that the owner of the land refused to supply food for the prophet, so as punishment, his melons were turned into stone.

Melons were enormously popular during the Renaissance. Ronsard praised them in his odes; Montaigne was "excessively fond" of them; and in 1583, no less a personage than the dean of the College of Doctors of Lyons published a "Succinct Treatise on Melons," outlining 50 different ways of eating the fruit, including in fritters, soups and compotes.

Melons lack the starch reserves of other fruits, consequently, they don't ripen or become sweeter once picked. (They will, however, become softer.) Consequently, the melon should be left on the vine till the last possible moment. When the sugar level reaches its highest, the melon will break cleanly away from the stem.

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Chilled melon soup

Makes 4 servings.

1 medium-sized, ripe canteloupe (approximately 2 cups cubed melon)

1 medium-sized, ripe honeydew (approximately 3 cups cubed melon)

2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice

juice of 1 lemon

juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons honey, or to taste

1 spice bundle of 2 cloves, 2 allspice berries, and 1 stick of cinnamon

1 cup light cream

FOR THE GARNISH:

1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt

sprigs of fresh mint

Peel and seed the melons and coarsely dice the flesh. Combine the melon, fruit juices, honey and spices in a large, saucepan and simmer over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, or until the melon is very soft. Allow the soup to cool to room temperature, discard the spice bundle and puree the soup in a blender or food processor. Chill the soup over ice or in the refrigerator. The recipe can be prepared up to 2 days ahead to this stage.

Just before serving, whisk the cream into the soup. Serve the melon soup in chilled glass bowls. Garnish with a spoonful of sour cream and a sprig of mint.

This unusual salsa makes an interesting accompaniment to fish. It doesn't keep particularly well, so prepare it in small batches.

Melon salsa Makes 3 cups.

1 ripe cantaloupe

1 ripe honeydew melon

1 cucumber

1 small purple onion

1 jalapeno chili (or to taste)

4 tablespoons chopped coriander leaf or flat leaf parsley

the juice of 1 to 2 limes, or to taste

1 tablespoon brown sugar (optional)

Cut the melons in half and scrape out the seeds. Using a small melon baller, cut the melon into balls. Peel and seed the cucumber and cut into 1/4 -inch dice. Finely chop the onion. Seed and mince the chili.

Not more than 2 hours before serving, combine the ingredients. The salsa should be a little sweet and a little sour: add brown sugar or lime juice to taste.

OA

This unusual salad can be served as an appetizer or dessert.

Melon balls with yogurt mint sauce

Makes 4 servings.

1 cantaloupe

1/2 honeydew melon

1 bunch fresh mint

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

3 to 4 tablespoons brown sugar

juice of 2 limes (or to taste)

Cut the melon into balls, using a melon baller. Stem the mint and cut into thin slivers, reserving 4 whole sprigs for garnish.

Prepare the sauce. Combine the yogurt, cardamom, brown sugar, and mint in a large serving bowl. Whisk to mix. Correct the seasoning, adding sugar or lime juice as necessary. The sauce should be both a little sweet and a little sour.

Gently stir in the melon balls and slivered mint leaves. Garnish with mint sprigs and serve at once.

Drunken tequila is great for summertime parties. The idea comes from an old high school buddy, Nick Hall.

Drunken watermelon

Makes 16 servings.

1 large watermelon

1/2 bottle of gold tequila

Cut two or three 1-inch holes in the top of the watermelon. Pour in as much tequila as melon will absorb and replace the plugs. Let the flavors ripen for 2-3 hours. Cut the watermelon into slices and serve.

Note: warn your guests that they are not eating innocent watermelon. This is one of the few desserts I know that can lead to intoxication!

"Americans eat about 13 pounds of watermelon per person per year," observes Charlotte Balcomb Lane in her "Florida Cookbook."

Here's her recipe for an unusual watermelon chiffon pie. Many people don't like to use uncooked eggs because of increasing reports salmonella contamination in raw eggs. For those who want to omit the eggs, increase the heavy cream to 1 1/4 cups. This will produce a tasty but somewhat heavier and richer pie.

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Watermelon chiffon pie

Makes 8 servings.

3 1/2 pounds ripe watermelon

about 1/4 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

XTC 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 egg whites

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup whipping cream

1 9-inch graham cracker crust

watermelon balls for garnish

Cut the rind off the melon and dice the flesh. Puree in a food processor or blender and strain through a fine meshed strainer. You should have about 3 cups watermelon juice.

Place the juice in a saucepan with the 1/4 cup sugar and salt. (Depending on the ripeness of the melon, you may need to add more or less sugar.) Sprinkle in the gelatin and let stand for 5 minutes to soften. Warm the mixture over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, or until the gelatin and sugar are completely dissolved. (Do not let the mixture boil.) Stir in the lemon juice.

Place the watermelon mixture in a bowl and refrigerate, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour, or until the mixture begins to thicken.

Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar to stiff peaks, adding the 2 tablespoons sugar as the whites stiffen. Fold the whites into the melon mixture.

Beat the cream to stiff peaks and fold it into the melon mixture. Spoon this mixture into the crust. Refrigerate the pie for at least six hours or until firm. Garnish with melon balls before serving.

Preserved watermelon rind is popular in Central Europe, where it is eaten for dessert. The preserves below are great for spooning over ice cream.

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Watermelon rind preserves

Makes 4 cups.

2 pounds watermelon rind

1 lemon

2 pounds sugar

1 cup water

1 cinnamon stick

1 vanilla bean, split

Cut the dark skin and any pink flesh off the rind. Cut the pale green part of the rind into 1/2 -inch cubes. Thinly slice and coarsely chop the lemon, discarding any seeds.

Place the watermelon rind and lemon in a saucepan with cold water to cover. Bring it to a boil. Drain, cover with cold water, and bring the rind to a boil again. Repeat the process, but this time simmer the rind for 15 minutes. Drain.

Return the watermelon rind and lemon to the pan and stir in the sugar, 1 cup water, cinnamon stick, and vanilla bean. Cook over low heat, stirring from time to time, for 30-40 minutes, or until the sugar reaches the soft ball stage (239 degrees on a candy thermometer). Spoon the preserves into sterile canning jars. The preserves will keep for six to eight months.

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