Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Combine in a small saucepan:
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, seeds reserved
Fresh fruit is an immaculate gift. The gentle resistance of a cherry's skin beneath the teeth; the dense crispness of an apple; the coy seduction of the fig. Fruit is the original fast food--ready and nutrient-dense, thoroughly pluckable, and easy to love.
To see an apple tree so laden with fruit that its branches buckle is to witness one of nature's finest works of reproduction. The tiny tree that bears big fruit. Ripe fruit marks the changing seasons, perhaps more reliably even than the weather. It is the thread that we dangle upon as we listen hesitantly to news of late frost, drought, or hail. It has the rare ability to make us forget decorum as we slurp at the errant juices of a peach or spit watermelon seeds over our shoulders.
It evokes some of our strongest emotions. The sadness of an apple orchard in fall, with its hanging branches and burnished color, the apples thudding as they fall, keeping time. A lovely sadness. We have been taught to call it nostalgia, but it is a sort of sadness all the same. The riotous red berries of spring that taint our fingers, clothing, and smiles. Is it possible to be sad while eating a ripe red strawberry--ripe all the way through?
And yet we settle for fruit that has no business bearing the name. I have, as I imagine most in my generation have, eaten my fair share of cottony strawberries and tasteless apples. I have purchased peaches that, if thrown properly, could stun an elephant. I have bitten into inky purple plums and come away with a mouthful of bitterness. Such fruit is made edible by sugar and butter, but it is not fruit as fruit should be in its finest hour. Suffice it to say that this genre of fruit is in my past.
Trying to eat only local fruit presents its problems, depending on where you live. When we visited the Pacific Northwest this summer, fruit was abundant, and for a pittance. When we returned home, I managed to find half-pints of local raspberries for sale at seven dollars apiece. What is real fruit worth anyway? A question for a food philosopher, no doubt.
And so I have tried to make peace with the fruit I can find here. I squirreled away rhubarb during the two weeks it was in season. I bought strawberries, made jam, and froze what I didn't have time to can. I've tucked away blueberries (the only fruit for my morning oatmeal) and what blackberries I was able to find on the hillsides and edges of fallow fields. There have been bushels of peaches to come through my kitchen, and they lie, sliced and cubed, in the freezer.
However, we've come to what is perhaps my least favorite fruit season. That of the melon. The trouble isn't that I don't like melon. I like it okay. But just okay. Watermelon in particular holds little appeal. I've been known to peel a watermelon, scoop out the flesh, and use the rind for pickles, throwing the flesh to the chickens. Cantaloupe is of slightly more interest to me, mostly for its creamy texture and honeyed sweetness, but all too often, even those cantaloupes with the most alluring fragrance are bland. I don't have enough experience with the many melon heirlooms to know whether they would seduce, but as of yet, I am indifferent.
This does not change the fact that this is local, seasonal fruit, and I feel I would be remiss to ignore it entirely. What's more, we've been getting a good-sized melon of some kind in our csa box every week for the past month. The chickens have had enough for one season.
JOY contains a few good ideas for melon. Of course, most people actually like plain old raw melon, so there's not much need for a plethora of melon recipes. Melon and Prosciutto is fabulously simple and makes for a wonderful appetizer. Ginger Melon Soup is a lovely summer thing, like a girl in a pinafore. However, none of these things were quite what I had in mind for my melon surplus.
I tested the waters with a lovely cantaloupe-vanilla jam from a new canning and preserving book I bought this summer. It was a pretty inspirational experience to see a fruit I have no strong feelings about turn into a fragrant, mellow jam that pairs nicely with scores of things from charcuterie to pound cake.
For my next melon adventure, I decided to take advantage of cantaloupe's fabulous texture by puréeing it, adding a suspicion of honey and lime, and serving it over ice for a cantaloupe agua fresca. The process is simple enough, and you can apply the it to a number of fruits. I made peach agua fresca as well, to salvage some peaches that had begun to shrivel in a dark and long-forgotten corner of the kitchen. This version was especially lovely.
The process is largely intuitive. I'll give you some rough measurements, but it's all about taste. Add as much honey, sugar, agave nectar, or sweetener of your choice as you like. My peach agua fresca didn't need any additional sweetener, but should you find yourself in possession of subpar peaches, you may wish to add some. I do recommend you add the lime juice, as a little acidity is needed to counter the sweetness of the fruit. Top off the glasses with spring water for a non-alcoholic cocktail, or you could turn this into something a bit more grown-up, using vodka, tequila, or perhaps even sparkling wine to put the finishing touch on your libations.
I can imagine the pleasures of a salted rim with these drinks, and perhaps a garnish of the fruit you used or a sprig of mint or a lemongrass stalk. Ultimately, a perfectly frivolous drink for these last days (and melons) of summer.
One 3 to 4 pound cantaloupe
Cut it in half, remove the seeds, and cut the halves into wedges. Cut off the rind and cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes. You should have about 4 cups of melon.
Purée the melon with 1/2 cup water in a food processor until smooth. Strain the purée through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing the solids with a spatula to sieve out all the juice. Add:
2 to 3 tablespoons honey, warmed slightly to make it easier to incorporate
Juice of 1/2 lime
Chill the melon juice thoroughly.
To serve, slide a lime wedge around the rim of the glass. Dip the rim in coarse salt (the salt is purely optional). Add a few ice cubes to the glass, then pour over them:
1/4 cup melon juice
Add water, vodka, rum, or tequila to taste.