Sweet mystery

Simple and sensual, a good melon is one of late summer’s greatest pleasures. You just have to know how to choose the right one. (Ken Hively / LAT)

Some people say you should thump them. Some say you should give them a sniff. Some claim the secret is all in the skin. Some tell you to play with their bellybuttons.

They're all right and they're all wrong when it comes to choosing melons. It seems almost cruel that something so purely pleasurable can be so complicated to choose.

A good melon ranks among late summer's most luxurious treats — melting yet still slightly crisp in texture, sweetly redolent of flowers or musk or honey, or all of them combined, depending on the variety. Can there be anything sweeter on a hot evening than feasting on cool wedges of melon, draped with silken sheets of prosciutto?

On the other hand, a bad one tastes like an undistinguished cucumber.

Telling the difference between the two is the key. And how you do that depends on a number of factors, depending on what kind of melon you're talking about (and, come to think about it, just exactly what it is you mean by "melon").

The good news is that once you've got a great melon, you're 90% of the way to a great dish.

When Alain Giraud was cooking at Bastide, one of his signature appetizers was an almost paper-thin sheet of spiced cantaloupe wrapped around a crab salad. It was magnificent.

But even if you're not a star chef who can execute something so technically demanding, you can still make great melon dishes. Some of the best are simple almost to the point of seeming Zen. Try serving a slice of melon with nothing more than a simple grinding of black pepper. The sharp, floral elements of the pepper are a perfect contrast to the lusciousness of the fruit.

For the same reason, herbs like arugula, basil and mint seem to be natural accompaniments as well. You might never have thought of using such a sweet fruit in a savory salad, but given a restrained hand and the right mix of ingredients, it can be exactly right for a summer supper.

Really salty ingredients are also perfect foils for melon's sweetness. Cut a melon in chunks and drape it with prosciutto. Or spear a piece of melon on a toothpick along with a bite of salty dried sausage.

For dessert, lightly sauce sliced melon with a simple syrup flavored with mint and lime zest, or maybe slivered fresh ginger (this is particularly nice if you use a mix of melon varieties with varying colors and textures). Or cut a melon in half and fill it with either a Muscat-based wine or Port. White Port is even better. (This can also be served as an appetizer.)

Some people purée melon and serve it as a cool, sweet summer soup for a first course. Personally, I'd rather have it as a dessert, maybe garnished with a little sweetened yogurt and some berries. It's but a short step from dessert soup to sorbet. Just don't sweeten the liquid too much — melons are high enough in sugar on their own.

But before you get creative, you have to have a good melon. And that's where things get complicated.

While once our choice of melons was limited (they came in green honeydew or orange cantaloupe), today you can find an amazing assortment: Ambrosia, Galia, Persian, Sharlyn, Ha' Ogen, Crenshaw, Casaba, and yes, there is a Santa Claus.

Those are just a few. Particularly now, as the melon season enters its victory lap, talk to a farmers market grower such as Alex Weiser and you can add Sugar Queen, Charentais, Sugar Nut, Butterscotch, Valencia, and even something called Piel de Sapo ("skin of the toad").

Call me a contrarian, but the other day I came home with an orange-fleshed honeydew and a green-fleshed cantaloupe. I was just choosing the melons that seemed best. I wasn't wrong. The honeydew seemed to have all of that variety's floweriness, but with a more luscious texture. The cantaloupe seemed even sweeter than normal, with its musk lightened by a little honey.

Because family matters so much with melons, picking the right one must begin with a little lesson in botany. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid them more than a glance that melons are members of the gourd clan, along with squashes. Collectively, these are known as cucurbits. The specific family that includes melons (well, most melons) is Cucumis. As you can probably tell by the name, it also includes cucumbers.

Within the Cucumis family, melons are subdivided into several groups — how many depends on whom you're talking to. The first group is called Inodorous. They are smooth-skinned melons like the Casaba and the honeydew. They usually have green flesh, but not always). Inodorous melons tend to be very sweet, have a fairly crisp, slightly grainy flesh and a honeyed quality to the flavor.

The second important group is Cantalupensis. These are melons with rough skins and usually with orange flesh. As you could probably guess, these include cantaloupes. But wait. What you probably think of as a cantaloupe isn't a cantaloupe at all. It's a muskmelon. Some botanists recognize a third class of melons, which have netted skins. They call these Reticulatus, and the melon we usually call a cantaloupe is one of them.