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FOOD \ cooking with ron

Watermelon Summer’s Best Fruit

BY RON MIKULAK | PHOTOS BY DAN DRY

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any of the seasonal foods we anticipate appearing at local markets in the summer are native to North or South America. Tomatoes,

corn and hot peppers are all indigenous American crops, developed into dietary staples by Amerindian cultures and then spread around the world, but one summer arrival that seems American by its ubiquity in the hot months is an import to the Americas from Africa—watermelon. Is there anyone who is not happy to dig into a cold watermelon and let the juices drip down their chins? Watermelons are perhaps the quintessential American summer fruit. It’s hardly a picnic or barbecue without watermelon to bring it to a sloppy, sticky end.

Watermelons are an ancient fruit in Africa. Depictions of large green oblongs on Egyptian tomb walls seem to suggest watermelons were cultivated along the Nile 4,000 years ago. Watermelons spread widely over Africa and east to India but never made a strong impression in Europe, where a different genus of melon was cultivated (think cantaloupes and honeydew). Once established in American agriculture, watermelons spread widely, though it is fair to say that watermelons are now closely associated with the states below the Mason-Dixon line. Mark Twain certainly identified the water18 Summer 2017Â www.foodanddine.com

melon with the South. In “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar,â€? a compendium of maxims, adages and aperçus that begin each chapter in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain indulges in a paean to the watermelon:

“

4HE TRUE 3OUTHERN WATERMELON IS A BOON APART AND NOT TO BE MENTIONED WITH COMMONER THINGS )T IS CHIEF OF THIS WORLDSLUXURIES KINGBYTHEGRACEOF'ODOVER ALL THE FRUITS OF THE EARTH 7HEN ONE HAS TASTEDIT HEKNOWSWHATTHEANGELSEAT)TWAS NOT A 3OUTHERN WATERMELON THAT %VE TOOKWEKNOWITBECAUSESHEREPENTED

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Choosing a perfectly ripe watermelon at the height of its sweetness is not a sure thing. When I was a youngling back in New Jersey a long time ago, I remember vendors at farmers’ markets willing to “plugâ€? a watermelon — cut out an inch-square plug from the center to give the shopper evidence of the interior quality. Such unsanitary largesse is seldom offered any more. Trust the judgment of purveyors at farmers’ markets, who will likely replace a melon that fails to satisfy. Watermelons are, of course, over 90 percent water by weight. This fact alone makes them a valuable source of hydration in areas of the world with questionable drinking water. Watermelon juice was offered regularly at breakfast in tourist restaurants when I vacationed in India, for instance. Simply purĂŠe watermelon flesh in a blender and then strain. Watermelon lemonade is a way to make both drinks even more refreshing. Watermelons are also good sources of vitamins A and C, and eating a thick, sloppy slice or two also provides a good amount of soluble fiber, a dietary necessity few of us want to think much about. In recent years chefs have explored uses for watermelons beyond the obviousness of their value as a dessert fruit. Mark Bittman even suggests a way to grill a watermelon slice, although he does not make a strong argument for really needing to do so. Aside from its straightforward value as a summer fruit delight, it is most useful as an adjunct to drinks, side dishes and salads. Watermelon is a most pleasant addition to summer salads, and seems to have a special affinity with feta or goat cheese. It is fun to add watermelon in unexpected places, like in side dishes to an easy main course. And it does not take much work to make excellent use of the otherwise useless watermelon rind: watermelon pickle is a Southern staple that took me a while to accommodate myself to, but now canning a few pints to use later as an unusual condiment is a summer ritual. If you don’t want to go through the minor trouble of processing in a water bath, you can make refrigerator watermelon rind pickles even more easily — just remember to eat them in a few weeks. A really good watermelon, as Mark Twain can affirm, is so good to eat all by itself, why trouble yourself doing anything at all to it? But if you have a lot of very good watermelon, it will behoove you to see what else you can do to enjoy it in new ways. Here are a few.

Profile for Food & Dining Magazine

Summer 2017 (vol 56)  

MAY - JUNE - JULY 2017

Summer 2017 (vol 56)  

MAY - JUNE - JULY 2017