By Celia Barbour
Many years ago, while writing an article about melons, I brought home several exotic varieties from work. They were heavy. In my third-floor walk-up, I washed them, sliced them open, and scooped out the seeds. Then I cut the flesh — green, orange, pink — into cubes and tossed them in a bowl with lime zest, lime juice, and the merest pinch of salt, after which I stashed the medley in the refrigerator.
I could not stop eating this melon salad, it was so good. The word “addictive” is worn out by now, but in that case it fit. I would write a couple of sentences, push my chair back from my desk, and head to the kitchen to gobble up a few more bites. Eventually, my stomach began to look rather melon-like itself.
I still love melons, not just for their beguiling flavor or luscious, luminous flesh, but also for the way they hide these treasures beneath cool, tough, rough shells — like geodes, or certain hipsters I have known.
But much as I adore melons, they are one of a few fruits that give the lie to the whole “eat locally” obsession with produce grown close to home. Melons are native to a semi-arid climate, and that’s where they remain happiest — places like California, Provence, and the Middle East. Grown in ideal conditions, they not only turn lovely, sweet, and melon-y, but also develop an intense perfume, as if some fruit-obsessed Willy Wonka had tinkered with the instructions wired into their DNA, cranking up the good stuff to an outrageous volume, and removing any residual pumpkin-aroma.
That said, now that cantaloupe season has arrived here in the Hudson valley, I’m not about to turn my nose up at a local melon. This morning, I came across some behemoths in the semi-arid parking lot of the Hudson Valley Hospital (which, by the way, is looking quite spruce, post-renovation). Earlier, I had driven a painkiller-addled friend to the hospital for some pre-op tests. As we left the building, we noticed that a farmer’s market had sprouted up in one of the lots. She was in pain and I was in a hurry, but we couldn’t help ourselves. We perused the stands, admiring peppers and peaches, sampling dips and salads.
We bought a few things — which, when you’re referring to melons, is immediately too many things, at least as far as the plastic-bag-gripping pads of your fingers are concerned. We hobbled back to the car, feeling nonetheless gladdened to know that a hospital supports the circulation of good, wholesome food — such a vital aspect of health and healing.
Back home, I decided to make an agua fresca, which means “fresh water” in Spanish, and refers, in Latin America, to any fresh, non-carbonated fruit, nut, or seed juice. I made mine with cantaloupe juice mixed with lime juice and lime zest for old time’s sake, and added a couple of aniseed stars, which I steeped in boiling water along with a tablespoon of honey. At the last minute, I added the very tiniest pinch of salt — maybe 8 or 9 grains in all, just enough to help the melon flavor pop without drawing any attention to themselves.
And then I sat down to write.
Cantaloupe agua fresca
I hear this is great with white rum, but I cannot say for certain. It is very fine all by itself.
1 cantaloupe, seeded, its flesh cut into rough chunks (about 8 cups)
2-3 limes, to taste
1 tablespoon honey
1-2 star anise OR 2-3 slices of fresh ginger
the merest pinch of salt, optional
1. Place the cantaloupe in a blender. Add ½ cup cold water and puree. Set a fine-meshed strainer over a bowl (or line a regular strainer with cheesecloth) and pour the pureed fruit into it. Allow to drain for about 30 minutes, stirring the pulp from time to time to push it through the mesh. Discard pulp.
2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-high, heat 1 cup of water to a simmer. Add the honey and the anise stars or ginger slices, and allow to simmer for a couple of minutes. Turn the heat off, cover the pot, and allow the mixture to steep.
3. When strained, transfer the cantaloupe water to a jar or pitcher. Stir in the lime zest, lime juice, and the honey-spice mixture. Add water or ice to desired intensity. Drink right away or store in the refrigerator.