It’s October and the leaves should be turning, with cool breezes reminding us to get sweaters out from storage. Instead it’s 80 degrees and a bit muggy here. Some are anxious for fall, but I’m enjoying this reminder of summer. I had already planned to do a watermelon post this week, so the weather is a nice coincidence.
We ate more watermelon than usual when a high school student from the Mississippi Delta stayed with us this summer. In an effort to make her feel at home, I asked what foods she liked. Shyly, she responded that watermelon is one of her favorite desserts - when I brought one home, she smiled broadly. As we munched on slices, she talked about planting seeds leftover from watermelons her family ate and tending the vines as the melons grew.
I’ve never been sure how to choose a good watermelon and asked her advice. With cantaloupe I look for a sweet smell and press the end gently, but neither of those techniques work for watermelon. She laughed and explained that I should thump watermelons gently, listening for a hollow sound. Then, I should check the stem (to make sure it isn’t shriveled) and look for a buttery yellow spot on the outside where the melon sat on the ground. (If there is no spot or it is greenish rather than yellow, she said the watermelon hadn’t been allowed to ripen on the vine.) I’ve adopted her "system" and notice that when I use it, other shoppers watch and follow suit. It has been fun to “go thumping around” and has resulted in some mighty good melon purchases.
The recent concerns about cantaloupes and food-borne illness got me thinking about washing melons. I had been washing all fruit with edible skins, but had not thought about the need to prevent anything on a rind from moving into the fruit when a knife moves from the outside to the inside of a melon or even an orange. Now, I routinely wash fruit with rinds or skins that we peel. Having just written about Ask Karen, a helpful USDA online chat resource, I checked with “her” and found out that the recommendation is to wash whole watermelons with running water and a brush, but no soap.
I store whole watermelon on a counter in our cool basement. After cutting it, I wrap the open side(s) in plastic and refrigerate. When I’m being neat and want to capture the juices as I cut a watermelon, I place my cutting board into a rimmed cookie sheet.
Watermelon isn’t just for dessert in my house. Unlikely pairings with watermelon make for intriguing salads and salsas that I love to make. A few examples:
- My own watermelon salsa – Watermelon, English (long, “seedless”) cucumber or regular cucumber with center removed, red and/or yellow pepper, jalapeno pepper, cilantro, parsley, lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.
- Nigella Lawson's watermelon and feta salad – Watermelon, red onion soaked in lime juice (which makes the onion less sharp), feta cheese, flat-leaf parsley, mint, olive oil, black olives (I prefer Kalamata), and ground black pepper.
- Mark Bittman’s watermelon and tomato salad – Watermelon, cherry or grape tomatoes, Stilton, Gorgonzola Roquefort or blue cheese, scallions, salt and cayenne, olive oil, sherry vinegar and cilantro or parsley.
Try playing around with watermelon and any combination of those ingredients. Whether you’re seeking an entirely new concept or a variation on a theme, these tips can help:
- The proportions of various ingredients that provide the sweet-and-spicy or sweet-and-tangy “kick” is key.
- Watermelon is mostly water (about 92% according to the USDA), so it creates a sweet juice that works well combined with tart flavors like lemon or lime, or added to an oil and vinegar mixture. Don’t be surprised if a dish containing watermelon becomes juicier over time and accommodate for that in proportions and serving.
- For salsa, the pieces of fruit and vegetables should generally be small and roughly uniform. Cut watermelon the same way you do vegetables – first into strips, then pulling strips together an cutting them into whatever size chunks or dice you prefer.
- Watermelon is (obviously) more delicate than cucumber, pepper, cherry or grape tomatoes - or carrots and celery for that matter, so being gentle as you combine or toss it with other ingredients will preserve its shape.
What’s the craziest use I’ve found for watermelon?
Definitely the stir-fried pepper beef and watermelon I made this week.
I came across a beef-and-watermelon stir-fry recipe from Virginia Willis. She credited Grace Young’s hot pepper beef, as her inspiration. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of Grace’s. So I went back to Grace's original recipe, substituted sugar snap peas for the green pepper, used a bit less garlic, and added watermelon sticks just before serving, after the stir-frying was done. It was superb! The beef was quite spicy and the watermelon provided a subtle but definite sweet counterpoint.
Even if I leave watermelon salads behind as the weather cools, salsa is definitely year round in this house and I stir-fry frequently, with a new version of pepper beef now in my rotation.
The produce manager at my local grocery store told me that the medium size, seedless melons will probably be around here for most of October and the store will continue to stock the smaller, “personal size” through the colder months to come. So I’ll be able to use watermelon as the leaves turn – maybe even when it snows.
Disclosure – This post is part of a series being sponsored by the National Watermelon Promotion Board. All opinions expressed and editorial decisions are completely my own.