When I was growing up, watermelon meant summer, and it wasn't just the taste -- cool, sweet, pink -- but the whole ritual of eating. We kids would sit on the stoop and messily eat watermelon slices right down to the white rind.
There was an old wives' tale that eating the white part of the watermelon would give you a stomach ache, which in my neighbourhood somehow morphed into a bizarre suburban myth -- passed on from older siblings to gullible younger ones -- that eating the rind meant instant death. In fact, as I learned when I grew up, all of the fruit is perfectly safe to eat, and the nutrient-packed rind can be pickled or made into relish or salsa.
The watermelon is thought to have originated in southern Africa but is now grown all over the world. In hot spots, its high moisture content -- most watermelons are about 92 per cent water -- is a boon. Early travellers sometimes used watermelons as canteens.
The watermelon's subtle taste also makes it versatile, so think beyond the fruit plate. Watermelon can be used for drinks, desserts, condiments and salads.
When buying watermelon, look for fruit that is firm and symmetrical, with a shiny, smooth rind free of blemishes, scrapes or dents. The melon should feel heavy for its size and make a hollow thunk when tapped. It should also have a "soil spot," a mellow yellow area where the watermelon was lying in the earth and ripening in the sun. Seeing a cut watermelon at the store will give you an idea of the redness and crispness of the flesh, but it's best to buy whole watermelon for yourself. Once a watermelon is cut open, it starts to lose freshness.
The watermelons of my childhood were gigantic and oblong, and eating them was definitely an outdoor activity. The fruit was cut into huge semi-circles and consumed in a messy rush, with juices getting all over everything. The big black seeds were spat into the garden.
Nowadays, watermelons are often pint-sized and round. (The Japanese have even developed a cube-shaped melon for easier shipping and stacking.) These well-behaved supermarket watermelons have only a few very small white seeds. Bred for ease and convenience and polite nibbling, this new type of watermelon is often found cut into small pieces on artfully arranged platters.
Many foodies lament the passing of the big seeded watermelon, saying that the new ones simply can't measure up in terms of taste. Maybe we're mourning the lost flavour of watermelon, but we're probably also mourning the lost endless summers of our childhood.
1. My dad always salted his watermelon, which I thought was crazy. It turns out he was just ahead of the trend for salty-sweet combos. Mixing watermelon with salty cheese has long been a Mediterranean favourite. There are regional variations of this salad: some recipes add black olives or red onions; some throw in mint or oregano or flat-leaf parsley. Some add just a drizzle of olive oil or just a splash of lemon juice. The main thing is to start with the pairing of sweet melon and salty cheese.
Watermelon, feta and mint salad
1.2 l (about 5 cups) seedless watermelon, cut into 2.5 cm (1 in) chunks, chilled
200 g (about 1 cup) feta cheese packed in brine, drained and crumbled
125 ml (1/2 cup) pitted kalamata olives, chopped (optional)
45 ml (3 tbsp) red onion, minced (optional)
45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil
22 ml (1 1/2 tbsp) lemon juice
2 ml (1/2 tsp) Tabasco sauce
5 ml (1 tsp) kosher salt, or 2 ml (1/2 tsp) table salt
1 ml (1/4 tsp) fresh ground pepper
125 ml (1/2 cup) mint leaves, coarsely chopped
In a large bowl or platter, gently toss together watermelon, cheese, olives and onion. In a small bowl, whisk together oil, lemon juice, Tabasco, salt and pepper, and drizzle over salad. Garnish with mint leaves and serve immediately. Serves 6.
Tester's notes: The fusion of distinct flavours -- sweet, salty, spicy -- and textures makes for a great hot-weather salad.
2. Watermelon sorbet is a refreshing, pale-pink palate-cleanser.
1.4 l (about 6 cups) watermelon, cut into chunks
60 ml (1/4 cup) white sugar
45 ml (3 tbsp) lemon juice
125 ml (1/2 cup) light corn syrup
In a blender or food processor, blend watermelon chunks until smooth. (You might need to do this in batches.) Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pushing on pulp to get all the liquid out, into a bowl. You should end up with about 1 litre (4 cups) watermelon liquid. In a large pot, heat about 250 ml (1 cup) of the watermelon liquid with sugar and lemon juice, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, add salt and remaining watermelon. Stir in corn syrup until well blended. Cool slightly, then refrigerate mixture for 2 hours until chilled. Process in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Freeze for 1-2 hours and then serve.
Tester's notes: A light ending for a summer supper, this is a refreshing fruit ice. Because the sugar content in fruit can vary, the texture of frozen fruit sorbets can vary, from slushy to hard. If the mixture has frozen too hard, let it sit for a few minutes before serving. Adding a little alcohol to the initial mix -- about 30 ml (2 tbsp) vodka or liqueur -- will also keep it from freezing too hard.
3. Agua fresca, Spanish for "fresh water," is a drink sold at roadside stands in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Fruit, often watermelon, is blended with lime juice, honey or agave syrup.
Watermelon agua fresca
1.2 l (about 5 cups) seedless watermelon, cut into chunks, divided
250 ml (1 cup) cold water, divided
15 ml (1 tbsp) fresh lime juice (or to taste)
15 ml (1 tbsp) honey (or to taste)
Lime wedges, watermelon to garnish
Blend half the watermelon with 125 ml (1/2 cup) water in a blender or food processor until smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pushing on the pulp to get all the liquid out, into a serving pitcher. Repeat with remaining watermelon and remaining water. Add lime juice and honey and stir to combine. Pour into ice-filled glasses and garnish with lime and watermelon. Makes 4 glasses.
Tester's notes: A really light, fresh summer drink with a gorgeous colour. And if the sun is over the yardarm, you can add vodka for a cool summer cocktail.