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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The gift of the melon (recipe)
In late summer, it's priceless

Credit:Sid Heezen

Melons love just the type of weather that makes me wilt. They do sweeten the deal for me, though, with their cool, candy-like flesh. A likely hothouse bedfellow for melons is cucumbers, more commonly wafting as a fragrance duet in bed-and-bath boutiques - but why stop at eau de toilette? A cucumber-melon salad sounded like a refreshing way for me to beat the heat. I brainstormed a Japanese-inspired lineup of wasabi, mirin and rice wine vinegar, plus traditional but fashionable mint.

A Japanese theme is quite appropriate for a melon dish. Apparently there's a whole industry in Japan devoted to giving luxury fruits as gifts, particularly melons. Prized melons wrapped up and bequeathed like expensive jewelry conjures intrigue. A pair of honeydews from California might fetch $40 in Japan; square melons go for about $80; pampered muskmelons screened for perfection and grown on isolated islands can range in the hundreds; and a black Densuke watermelon is the holy grail. In 2008, a 17-pounder set the record for the highest price paid for a melon when it sold at an auction for over $6,000.

In an American culture that calls diamonds a girl's best friend, it is a beautiful notion to think that in another part of the world, a lavishly coddled melon could be held in high enough esteem to be a vehicle for diplomacy and a symbol of generosity.

Although I was taken aback by the price of a luxury melon, who am I to judge? If I had several hundred dollars to burn, I'd spend it on lavish dining in a heartbeat. The price tag for a meaningful food experience is very personal.

I'm also a firm believer that sublime experiences can happen in humble ways. When I bite into a fragrant, juicy melon, it is luxury incarnate, and, fortunately, it doesn't have to cost a fortune.

Cucumber Melon Salad with Sweet Wasabi Dressing
A note on trimming cucumbers: A former sous chef at L'Etoile told me that he always cuts off the ends; they can be bitter.

Yields about 1/4 cup

  • 1-1/2 tablespoons salad oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon mirin
  • 1/2 tablespoon finely grated Walla Walla or other sweet onion

Combine all dressing ingredients, except oil. Mix until sugar is dissolved. Slowly whisk in oil to emulsify ingredients - it should start to take on a thicker, more homogenized appearance. Salt and pepper to taste.

Yields about 4 cups

  • 2 cups cucumber, diced
  • 2 cups honeydew melon, diced
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced Walla Walla or other sweet onion
  • 1 tablespoon mint, thinly sliced
  • optional garnish: gomashio

Combine melon and cucumber in bowl and lightly salt. Toss and let sit to release the juices. Drain cucumber and melon and toss with onion, mint and enough dressing to lightly coat (there may be some dressing left).

For a little crunch, sprinkle the salad with gomashio, a toasted sesame seed and sea salt condiment sold in most ethnic aisles. Serve chilled. Best enjoyed the same day.

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