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No need to settle for mediocre melons in Placer County

By: Carol Arnold, Locally Yours
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A French poet once said “there are three things which cannot support mediocrity — poetry, wine and melons.” A bad melon is truly terrible. There is no disguising the absence of gentle flavors, voluptuous fragrance, or the sweet juiciness which are so prized in melons. In Placer County we don’t have to settle for mediocre melons. Our farmers grow the sweetest, most flavorful melons anywhere. From Charantais cantaloupes to Sugar Baby watermelons our farmers’ markets have them all. A little history on this fruit: First of all, melons are technically vegetables, as they are related to other trailing vine-borne crops such as gourds, cucumbers and squash. In 17th century France watermelons were called sucrins, which means sweet. No wonder — the crops were hydrated with honey water which was thought to make them even sweeter. Sweet melons fall into two groups: the genus which includes cantaloupe, muskmelon, and honeydew and the genus which includes watermelon. The first group is thought to have originated in Persia (now Iran), Afghanistan or Armenia. The second group is thought to be native to the Kalahari Desert of Africa. Where ever they came from, they have been perfected in Placer County. Melons are good for us. They are low in calories. Nutritional values vary according to type but they generally provide generous quantities of vitamin C and beta carotene, with orange-fleshed varieties providing more than others. Recent research has discovered that watermelon contains more lycopene than any other fruit or vegetable. Watermelon also is a very good source of vitamin B6 and a good source of vitamin B1, potassium and magnesium. I don’t know how to pick out melons so I ask the growers. Farmers will help you determine whether a melon is ripe and they will also give you storage information. The best way to eat watermelon is up for interpretation. Some people like to cut it up and eat it plain. Some people like to wrap slices of salty prosciutto around a piece of sweet cantaloupe. There are recipes for cantaloupe soup, melon cocktails, and for watermelon salad. The French eat cantaloupe or honeydew cut into balls and doused with Port. I think the French may be on to something. In my third column featuring summer fruits and vegetables, I am featuring a recipe for a melon gazpacho courtesy of Courtney McDonald, chef at Carpe Vino in Old Town Auburn. This recipe is incredible in that it brings together three of the best flavors of summer; cucumber, tomato, and melon. Lime juice and jalapeno enhance and amplify the flavors of the vegetables and fruit in this recipe. You will note that avocado and crab are used. I love avocados, and even though they are not currently raised locally for commercial use, I still eat them. I do the best I can to keep the carbon footprint light by buying California grown avocados from Newcastle Produce. Canned crab from the West Coast is all I could find this time of year. When crab season is open on the West Coast, melons aren’t in season. I would rather use canned crab from San Francisco Bay than eat melons from Chile. Those are the kinds of decisions that have to be made when you are committed to eating food that is both in season and raised locally. Due to popular demand, I am also printing recipes for the salads Courtney made recently at the Auburn Old Town Farmers market. We are sampling fresh fruits and vegetables every other week at the Old Town market and will be barbecuing once a month. We invite you to come down and taste the best food our region has to offer. Carol Arnold is the manager of the Foothills Farmers Markets. Sweet Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad Serves 8; prep time - 15 minutes 1 small package pea shoots, rinsed and dried 1 small package sunflower greens 4 ears yellow corn, shucked 1 basket cherry tomatoes, rinsed and halved 1/4 cup julienned fresh basil leaves 2 teaspoons dark balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil salt and pepper, to taste Cut the corn kernels from the cob and place in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the pea shoots, sunflower greens, halved cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. Toss together. Slowly add the balsamic vinegar and olive oil and continue tossing. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately. Enjoy! Cucumber and Spicy Greens Salad with Cherry Tomatoes, Fresh Mint and Basil Serves 8; prep time – 10 minutes 4 small cucumbers, about 4-5 inches long 1 basket cherry tomatoes, rinsed and halved 1 bag spicy greens mix 2 tablespoons julienned fresh mint leaves 2 tablespoons julienned fresh basil leaves 2 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil salt and pepper, to taste Rinse the cucumbers and thinly slice them crosswise to form small rounds. Place them in a medium-sized mixing bowl and add the cherry tomatoes, spicy greens, fresh mint and basil. Toss to combine. Slowly add the vinegar and olive oil, tossing gently, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Enjoy! Asian-Inspired Mizuna and Arugula Salad with Fresh Plums Serves 8; prep time – 15 minutes 1 bunch mizuna, triple washed and dried 1 bunch arugula, triple washed and dried 4 El Dorado plums or other firm-fleshed plums, rinsed 1 1/2 teaspoons “Oriental Stir Fry” spice mix 1 teaspoon dark balsamic vinegar 1 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil salt and pepper, to taste Place the mizuna and arugula in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Cut the plums into 1/4-inch slices around the pit, and add to the greens. Discard the pits. Toss in the spice mix. Continue to toss and slowly add the vinegars and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately. Enjoy! Chilled Blossom Hill Farm Melon Gazpacho with Dungeness Crab and Avocado Recipe courtesy Courtney McDonald, chef at Carpe Vino, Old Town Auburn; Makes 4 servings For the Gazpacho: 4 cups assorted melon*, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped 1/2 English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped 2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped 1/2 small jalapeno, seeded and chopped 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice 1 sprig each of cilantro and mint, tied together with kitchen string Salt In a large bowl combine the melon, cucumber, tomato, jalapeno and ginger. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator overnight. In a blender, puree mixture on high speed for 30 seconds and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean container. Add lime juice and salt to taste. Add herb bundle and let infuse in refrigerator for at least one hour. Remove herb bundle before serving. *at Carpe Vino, we use melons from Blossom Hill farm in Auburn. You can find their melons at the Foothill Farmers’ Markets. For Crab and Avocado: 4 ounces Dungeness crab meat, picked through for shells 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives 1 tablespoon crème fraiche 1/2 avocado, diced 1/2 lime, juiced Salt and pepper to taste 4 sprigs cilantro for garnish In a small bowl, combine crab meat, chives and crème fraiche. Season to taste with salt and pepper. In a separate small bowl, toss the avocado with lime juice and season with salt and pepper. To Serve: Place a spoonful of the avocado mixture into each of four chilled serving bowls. Place a spoonful of the crab mixture on top of the avocado, and ladle the chilled gazpacho around. Garnish with a sprig of cilantro and serve immediately. Wine Pairing suggestion: A semi-dry Riesling or richer-style Sauvignon Blanc.