What comes after strawberries in the way of widely available, locally grown produce? According to Dale Rodgers, produce manager of the Publix store on Longboat Key, it’s quite a list: “Florida blueberries from growers around Kathleen, outside of Lakeland; Florida peaches from the same area; sweet corn, bi-color is the most popular with everybody; and, this year, the Athena variety of Florida cantaloupes. They started a week early, right around Mother’s Day, because of the warm weather.” Rodgers should know — he has been with Publix for 39 years and at the Longboat Key location since 1983.
At two for $5 and weighing about five pounds each, these cantaloupes are a bargain and all but irresistible. A cantaloupe is a musk melon, so named for its alluring fragrance. All cantaloupes are musk melons, but not all musk melons are cantaloupes; the family (botanically, cucumis melo) also includes honeydew, casaba and others. The cantaloupe has a netted rind; others are smooth. The whole lot originated in Persia (today, Iran). Athena is an early maturing variety “in a class of its own,” according to Gurney’s seed catalog. Transplanted northerners will recall setting out cantaloupe seedlings with tomato plants in late May, just about when we start enjoying them here.
Selecting a ripe cantaloupe in the store is, according to Rodgers, a matter of both sight and smell.
“Less green equals more ripe,” he says. “You want that nice banana color.”
A ripe cantaloupe will let you know by its fragrance.
A slice of cantaloupe makes a great breakfast. Add some blueberries, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a couple of tablespoons of any orange-flavored liqueur for a simple, splendid dessert. This easy-to-make salad is great as a stand-alone light lunch or as a side dish with almost anything for dinner.
Cantaloupe and prosciutto salad with rustic croutons
Yield: Eight to 10 side-dish servings
1 cantaloupe, approximately five pounds, cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup prosciutto di Parma torn into small shreds (approximately four ounces)
3 tablespoons fresh chives, snipped (almost all of a one-ounce cello package) plus additional for garnish
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste
Combine the melon pieces, olive oil, vineggar, prosciutto, sugar and chives in a medium bowl and toss gently to blend. Add pepper to taste. Salad can be made ahead several hours and held refrigerated. Let come to room temperature before serving for best flavor. Garnish with longer strips of chives.
To make the rustic croutons
1 loaf crusty country bread (Publix’s Tuscan boule is photographed), approximately one pound
Olive oil for broiling
8 ounces fresh goat cheese
Preheat broiler. Cut the bread into 1-inch thick slices. Coat generously with olive oil, using a pastry brush, or pour some oil onto a flat plate or shallow dish and briefly dip both sides of each slice. Toast under a broiler on an ungreased baking sheet until golden, approximately two-and-a-half minutes per side. Watch closely. Let cool, then spread generously with goat cheese or serve the cheese separately.