Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Watermelon

Monday, August 16, 2010

For me, right up next to tomatoes and corn for summer staples is watermelon. I remember as a kid, my dad carefully selecting them at the store by tapping on them and listening to the hollow sound they made. I had no idea what he was doing, but I still do the same thing today if nothing more than for the ceremony of it.

Watermelons are perfect. When ripe (and in season!), they're sweet and juicy and can quench any hot summer day's thirst. They pair perfectly with food, from casually cut up into chunks in salads or thinly sliced "sashimi" style with rare ahi tuna. My favorite is just cutting them into wedges and having at them outside in a bathing suit.

But did you know more about your favorite summer fruit?

It's actually of the same family that squash and pumpkins come from. Along with cantaloupes, this family of plants grow on vines on the ground. Watermelons are often oblong in shape and green with stripes, but can also be dark green and have red or yellow flesh inside.

Watermelons are also insanely healthy. An extremely low-calories treat, they are also highly rich in Vitamins A & C, and rich in beta-carotene and lycopene. Despite their sweet taste, they're only 6% sugar and rest water (!) so they're great to hydrate with in summer!

Watermelons originate out of southern Africa where it can be found growing wild even to this day. There is also historical evidence the Egyptians consumed watermelon regularly, as seeds were found in Tutankhamen's grave. Historians believe the Moors brought watermelon into Europe, and the European settlers together with African slaves eventually bringing it to North America where it thrives today in California and the south.

Watermelons come in many different shapes and sizes today. Although the traditional form is the small sphere or oblong green with stripe we all know, Japanese farmers have managed to cultivate square and pyramid shaped watermelons by placing them in glass forms of that shape, and letting the fruit grow inside. Flesh can also range from deep red to bright yellow, and sweetness ranging from extremely sweet to bitter.

The entire watermelon is edible, although for obvious reasons the sweet flesh is our favorite to eat. The hard rind is also edible, although pickling it helps to break down the tough rind and make it easier to eat. To this day the Chinese and American South serve dishes with pickled watermelon rind. The Chinese also serve a dish whereby they stir-fry the rind with garlic, chilies, and rum. And the juice can even be fermented into wine!

There are many things you can do with a watermelon. But here are two recipes to get your started, one using watermelon as a savory and one for a cocktail. The first, a take on my favorite summer drink The Mojito, uses it as a sweetener and color agent to give the mojito a pretty pink hue. The second recipe is a classic summer salad my grandma would make us often growing up. The classic pairing between watermelon and feta cheese is very Mediterranean, and I promise you'll love it!

Have fun!

Watermelon Mojitos
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cold water
fresh mint
1 cup peeled and seeded, roughly chopped watermelon
3 limes, juiced
good quality rum
soda water or sparkling water

Heat the sugar and water in a small bowl on the stovetop and bring to just under a boil. You want to dissolve the sugar but not cook it. Set aside.

In a cocktail shaker, gently bruise a good amount of mint leaves. Add the simple syrup while still hot -- by adding it hot, it will help extract the essential oils in the mint, infusing the syrup with the minty flavor. Add rum to taste (1 shaker can do 2 drinks, so 1-2 shots per person is good for a milder to stiffer drink), lime juice, and some ice cubes. Cover and shake until well combined and cold.

To serve, place some watermelon in the bottom of the glass and gently crush it with a fork. Add some mint to taste and add ice cubes. Pour the rum mixture on top and top with soda water. Garnish with more mint. Serve cold.

Watermelon and Arugula Salad with Feta Cheese
about 2 cups watermelon, peeled and seeded and cut into cubes
1 bag arugula (or spinach is ok)
1/3 cup cubed feta cheese (recommended: Valbresco)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
toasted pine nuts

Combine the watermelon and arugula in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with feta cheese and pine nuts, and drizzle with olive oil. Toss very gently and serve immediately.

My Notes:
This goes awesome with grilled chicken or a grilled white fish like halibut, or can be a substantial main dish for a light summer supper on its own. You can certainly substitute spinach for the arugula if you can't find it, but do try to stick with one or the other; mixed lettuces will overpower the delicate flavor of watermelon and the excellent balance of flavor between it and the feta cheese.

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