I have two boys that are as melon crazy as Gallagher with a Sledge-o-Matic. Somewhere deep within my vault of videos I’ll never find again there is a clip of Lucas, now 10, when he was a toddler pitching a fit for a lengthwise-cut quarter of a watermelon. He still cannot resist it. Now his brother Graham, 5, fans the flames by arguing in the aisles of grocery stores and open-air tables of fruit stands that I should purchase the largest watermelon in stock.
Watermelons are actually from the gourd family. The seeds are spread throughout the fruity part just like squash and cucumbers, but for me, that’s where the similarity ends. I’ve had yellow watermelons that I wasn’t as fond of. Red ones tend to “blow my skirt up,” so to speak. And like grapes, I will take them with or without seeds. To me, seedless melons do not mean a sacrifice in flavor, but you may have a more discriminating palate than I. I’ve found flavorless and succulent versions of each, so I’ll roll the dice with either.
To test these beauties for ripeness, you must have a fairly strong thump. The next time you’re surrounded by watermelons, take a minute to thump each one as hard as you can. Strike toward the middle or fattest part of the fruit and listen to the resonance. Find the one with the lowest pitch. That’s the one you’re taking home.
I consider watermelon season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but it’s so hot around here you can find pretty good ones earlier and later. Right now is the height of the harvest. I grabbed one of the best ever on the way home from Dauphin Island a week before last. It was as good as any Smith County, Mississippi, watermelon from my youth, and those folks are as serious about watermelon as Chilton County is about peaches.
The Bull surprised attendees at its Moet Hennessy wine dinner last week with “mock tuna” for the fish course. It was roasted watermelon with a wasabi soy glaze, and it tasted otherworldly. Had I not been told what it was, I would have guessed fish. The texture was a bit like tuna, and the flavor was impressive; most impressive. This adds to the list of the amazing things you can do with watermelon or melons in general.
Fans of Michael Ivey may remember the way he served the summer treat. Wedges of watermelon were sprinkled with mint and feta cheese crumbles rendering diners powerless to their call. The saltiness of the feta reminded me that when I was a kid we would sprinkle a little salt on the less sweet melons and the flavor would release instantly.
Watermelon-rind preserves used to freak me out because I believed the rind came from the discarded refuse of some slobbering, barefoot child who gnawed his way down to the white part. But if you trust the rind has been harvested responsibly, the preserves are as good as any. The rind is usually pickled, drained and cooked in a sugar solution with lemon, ginger and vanilla. You’ll find recipes in almost any church cookbook and plenty online. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
College was an important time for watermelon discovery: It was the first time I ever spiked one. Part novelty, part gourmet treat, but 100 percent delicious, this party-pleaser is a cheap thrill for those looking to catch a buzz. Allow the melon to find its natural resting spot and stab an open bottle of booze into a smartly cut blowhole. Don’t let some sailor talk you into rum or gin. Vodka is the way to go. Once the liquor has drained from the bottle the edible vessel is saturated and ready for slicing. No kidding, please eat responsibly and keep the kids away.
There are so many things you can do with watermelon that I can barely scratch the surface in these pages. But if your tomatoes are not doing well this year, have a go at replacing them with watermelon for your next soiree’s salsa. It really is just as simple as that, and you’ll have more tomatoes left for sandwiches. Monkey with the recipe to dial in your heat.
1 quart seeded watermelon, coarsely chopped
1 cup chopped white onion
¼ cup chopped fresh jalapeno
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon chili powder
Salt to taste
Juice of two limes
In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients in this order. Take care to not mutilate the watermelon as you stir. Cover the dish with foil or cling wrap and find a spot in the refrigerator. The peppers and onions need a little time to work their magic, so give it at least an hour or two. Serve with your favorite tortilla chips.
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