Watermelon's moment is now

During the last heat wave, I fell in love with watermelon. Especially after discovering the personal-sized ones, the mini watermelons.

I've never exactly disliked watermelon; I just didn't much care. Cantaloupe had more going for it, if you found a ripe one. To me, the most exciting part of watermelon was the spit-able seeds. Too often, it had an unpleasant, gritty texture because the fruit was sliced in advance and had been exposed to air.

Then mini watermelons came along, with their finer texture and fewer (or nearly no seeds) and, to me, a better, sweeter flavor. I was refreshed. It was love.

Watermelons are 92 percent water. That is why, when it's really cold, watermelon is the bite that cools and refreshes. It also provides a big dose of lycopene -- around 12 to 16 grams, and only 80 calories, for 2 cups.

According to food and nutrition consultant Mindy Herrmann, R.D.: "Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that is found in only a few other foods, including tomato, pink or red grapefruit, and guava. Watermelon is a good source, and a better source than raw tomatoes, which are the classic source. Lycopene helps to neutralize rogue oxygen molecules to prevent them from damaging cells in the body. Lycopene is thought to lower the risk of certain cancers."

That's nothing to spit seeds at. And for the rest of the watermelon? Why pickle it, of course.

Robert Schueller, produce expert at Melissa's, is my go-to person when I have a fruit or vegetable question. We chatted about mini watermelon. His company helped to pioneer them when they entered the market about 10 years ago.

He explained that while mini watermelons are available year-round, most stores carry them between May and the end of September. Roughly the same time period in which the bigger melons are sold. The minis have a longer shelf life, and a texture he described as "firmer."

"It's like watermelons have a timer inside," he explained. "Once cut, the cells start to break down." That's the grittiness I've disliked in the larger melons. I've not noticed it in mini watermelons.

And big watermelon sometimes get rougher handling in the stores, he said. The minis fit better with our smaller-family demographics. Big watermelons are a commitment, and not just to refrigerator space. You need a crowd to finish one.

Most watermelons, big or small, are now seedless. Up to 92 percent of them, said Mr. Schueller. But there are regional differences. Residents of the Southeast -- Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama -- and those who hail from around there seem to prefer seeded melons. "They think they taste better," said Mr. Schueller. If you notice, though, the "seedless" ones still have seeds in them. Just smaller seeds, most not really worth spitting.

Watermelon is an ancient fruit. They are said to have originated in the Kalahari desert of Africa. The first recorded watermelon harvest was in Egypt. It's believed that they were placed in the tombs of kings, for something to nibble on in the afterlife.

Watermelons are grown in many parts of the U.S. but the South lays claim to much of the culture and the folklore. Watermelons do grow bigger down there, because of the long, hot growing season.

According to "The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 7: Foodways," "Africans introduced watermelon to Europe and later North America, and Indians in Florida were cultivating it by the mid-17th century." Thomas Jefferson grew watermelon in his gardens at Monticello.

The South's self-appointed Watermelon Capital of the World is Cordele, Georgia. The town holds a Watermelon Days Festival, involving much watermelon consumption. It also boasts the Watermelon Capitol Speedway, which I swear seems shaped like a watermelon.

Hope, Arkansas, the birthplace of Bill Clinton, is hosting its 36th annual Watermelon Festival Aug. 9 to 11. There will be a chicken dinner (the festival's sponsor is Tyson) and a Little Miss and Little Mr. Watermelon pageant.

With less fanfare, but no less enthusiasm, watermelon is getting a big seasonal embrace from chefs at many of Pittsburgh's eateries. Not sure if they're using big watermelon or minis but they're preparing dishes with style.

Nola on The Square, Downtown, is serving a salad made with cubed watermelon and local heirloom tomatoes, bathed in a chilled, jalapeno-spiked watermelon broth, mixed with soft goat cheese and topped with English pea tendrils and Piave cheese shavings.

Downtown's Bluebird Kitchen recently offered a watermelon salad with feta, arugula and Spanish onion with a light lemon juice-olive oil dressing.

At Salt of the Earth in East Liberty, three watermelon dishes were on the menu. Sous Chef Chad Townsend took time from a busy kitchen to explain them. For starters: poached shrimp with watermelon pieces and a spicy watermelon sauce, zipped up with Aji Amarillo chiles. "It's a pleasant heat," he said, "from nice and fruity chiles." Topped with huitlacoche and sea beans.

You could also begin your meal with a pureed watermelon soup, with jalapenos and fresh and pickled (sushi-style) ginger. Watermelon also stars in a dessert. But first it's compressed -- "put in a cryovac pack and sealed on the highest setting," Chef Townsend explained. "That flattens it a little and presses it just enough, intensifying the flavor, making it a deep red." It's served in an egg-free yogurt meringue with cantaloupe sorbet.

Sonja Finn, chef/owner of East Liberty's Dinette, emailed a description of her favorite watermelon salad: Using herbs and salad greens from the restaurant's roof garden, she combines thinly sliced watermelon, shaved manouri cheese and arugula with a lacy chiffonade of mint and basil. Spooned over the salad is a Nicoise olive-and-sherry vinegar dressing. I've adapted the recipe below and it makes a cool, elegant starter for a summer dinner.

Sam DiBattista of Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley is now serving a seared striped bass with watermelon salsa. To intensify the flavor of the watermelon, the rind is removed and the fruit is cut into "giant slabs," put on a wire rack in a roasting pan and roasted. "It makes them very red, with a meaty texture," he said. The pieces are cooled and diced and mixed with chile peppers, cilantro and red onion.

Intrigued? Hungry? Need refreshing? Try one of the recipes below. Or go to the store and buy a mini (or big) watermelon and just dig in. Watermelon gives us much to celebrate. Aug. 3 is National Watermelon Day.

Sonja Finn's Shaved Watermelon Salad with Manouri Cheese

PG tested

I prepared this from notes sent from Sonja Finn, chef/owner of Dinette in East Liberty. She said they do a couple versions of watermelon salad, but this is her favorite. Manouri cheese is a bit like feta, but creamier and softer and less salty. I used feta, which was the only thing at my local store. You'll have better luck in the Strip District. At the restaurant, each salad would be arranged individually, but at home, just use a platter.

  • 1 1/2 cups arugula
  • 1/2 baby watermelon
  • Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • About 1/2 pound piece manouri cheese (you just shave pieces off with a cheese planer, and you'll have some left)
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced, loosely packed basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced, loosely packed mint leaves
For the Nicoise Vinaigrette
  • 1/4 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 to 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped pitted Nicoise olives

Arrange arugula on a medium platter. Put watermelon cut side down on board and cut off rind. Cut in half through the top (making quarters). Place a piece flat side down and slice the watermelon as thinly as possible, arranging it in an attractive way over the arugula as you work, slicing as much as you need, making a nice but not thick, fluffy layer. (You may not need all the melon.) Season lightly with sea salt and pepper to taste. Shave pieces of cheese and place on watermelon. Strew herbs evenly on top.

For vinaigrette: Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Spoon over salad. Serve.

Makes 6 servings.

-- Adapted from Sonia Finn

Watermelon Agua Fresca

PG tested

This could not be easier or more refreshing. Add more citrus or sugar, as you like, to your taste, and/or a big splash of rum or vodka to each glass.

  • 8 cups seedless watermelon chunks
  • 1 cup ice water (with ice cubes)
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • Ice cubes and mint sprigs or lemon verbena leaves for serving

In batches, puree watermelon chunks with the ice water in a blender until smooth. Pour into a pitcher. Stir in lemon or lime juice and sugar. Taste, adding more of what you think it needs. Cover and chill or pour into ice-filled glasses, garnishing each with a mint sprig or lemon verbena leaf.

Makes about 4 servings (6 cups).

-- Miriam Rubin

Watermelon Salad with Lime-Cured Red Onions and Olives

PG tested

The red onion is quickly cured (in just under an hour) by first mixing it with salt and then with fresh lime juice, making the onions both pungent and sweet, but not hot. I used mini watermelon, but use a large watermelon if you prefer.

For the onions
  • 1 cup halved and thinly sliced red onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
For the salad
  • 2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 3/4 mini watermelon, rind removed, cut into bite-size pieces (6 cups), or use 6 cups seedless large watermelon chunks
  • 1/2 cup pitted calamata olive slices
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For onions: Mix onions and salt in a small glass bowl and let stand 10 minutes, until they begin to look a little moist. Stir in lime juice and oregano and let stand about 30 minutes, until softer and deeper in color.

For salad: In large serving bowl, with a fork, mix olive oil, lime juice and brown sugar. Add watermelon, olives and red onions and any juices from the bowl. Season with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Toss gently and serve.

Makes 4 large servings.

-- Miriam Rubin


PG tested

  • 8 cups water
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup citrus vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
  • 1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 3 ribs celery with leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • Handful of fresh mint, chopped
  • 2 to 3 pounds of seedless watermelon, cut into rounds and then cut into small triangles

In a 1-gallon plastic bucket or other non-reactive container, mix water, salt, sugar and vinegar and stir to dissolve

Add pickling spices, red pepper, celery and herbs.

Put watermelon slices into liquid and submerge with a small plate. Cover the container.

-- Larry Roberts

Freelancer Miriam Rubin mmmrubin@gmail.com.


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