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Big plans for watermelon
Cold slices at a picnic are always welcome, but the fruit is capable of much more
Childhood family picnics always meant that one huge ice chest was designated for watermelons. The watermelon cooler took a position of honor in the shade of the biggest tree.
We rejoiced as sugary juices ran down our necks and arms. Joyously we jockeyed myriad shiny black seeds in our mouths, trying to swallow only the sweet magenta flesh.
We made a kind of game out of dealing with the seeds, something kids today wouldn't grasp. Over the past few years, seedless varieties have become commonplace. Hard "spit-out" seeds have disappeared in these varieties, replaced with seeds that aren't developed. They are small, soft, empty, white "pips." A pip is the portion that surrounds the seeds in seeded varieties.
The lack of seeds in a watermelon makes the flesh firmer and helps it to stay fresh longer, whether whole or cut and refrigerated.
And as for the 30-pound, humongous melons, mini-melons such as Dulcinea's Pureheart have taken a growing share of the market over the past several years.
Mini-melons (sometimes labeled "baby" by other produce companies) average about 5 pounds, and a hungry watermelon devotee might cut one in half and devour an entire section.
And whether seedless melons are large or small, chefs have taken a fancy to them. More restaurant menus feature them in everything from soup to salad, beverages to desserts.
Some chefs like to use modern cuisine techniques to compress watermelon by vacuum-sealing peeled slices; the device removes air from the thick plastic bag before sealing. The process intensifies the watermelon's flavor, makes the texture denser and the color more jewel-like. Compressed watermelon shimmers like raw ahi tuna.
Another approach that builds luscious flavor and alluring texture is grilling. Cut the watermelon into 1-1⁄2-inch slabs, marinate it in some white balsamic vinegar and place it on a heated grill.
Grilling creates caramelization on the melon's exterior and a subtle smokiness. The warm melon is delicious served with grilled fish, chicken or tofu. Or make it seem like a salad by topping the warm melon with crumbled feta, baby arugula and chopped roasted pistachios.
And included here is "Iron Chef" Cat Cora's delicious Watermelon Gazpacho, a recipe that balances watermelon's sweetness with the gentle stab of heat from fresh chilies. Rather than a tomato base, this gazpacho uses pureed watermelon. The purée is augmented with more traditional gazpacho ingredients such as cucumber, bell pepper and celery.
This cold and colorful soup makes a great warm-weather starter. It can be prepared four hours in advance and refrigerated. I like to serve the tasty concoction in shot glasses.
HAVEN GASTROPUB'S COMPRESSED WATERMELON SALAD
Yield: four servings
1 mini seedless watermelon
8 ounces goat's-milk feta cheese, cut into 1 -inch cubes, see cook's notes
2 heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup Banyuls wine vinegar, see cook's notes
3 cups grape seed oil
2 gelatin sheets, see cook's notes
1 cup micro shiso or julienned shiso leaf, or assorted microgreens, see cook's notes
2 tablespoon extra-virgin Arbequina olive oil, or any high grade olive oil, see cook's notes
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 pinch finely ground black pepper
Cook's notes: I tested my FoodSaver "home vacuum packaging system" to see how its performance compared to the real-deal professional vacuum sealer in Haven Gastropub Executive Chef-Partner Greg Daniel's kitchen. I cut the watermelon into a 4- by 4- by 1-inch piece before vacuum sealing. The results weren't the same as when using a professional-style machine, but they were acceptable. The melon was a deeper color and slightly less watery. I still felt the need to pat it dry, just as you would if you were using untampered-with melon.
Daniels uses Bella Capra, a goat's-milk feta produced by Sierra Nevada Cheese Co. Banyuls wine vinegar is made from sweet French wine. Aged for six years in oak casks, it is made from Grenache grapes that grow in and around Banyuls-Sur-Mer. Gelatin sheets (also called leaf gelatin) are sold at amazon.com. Assorted microgreens are sold at Trader Joe's. Arbequina olives are richly aromatic and make delicious olive oil.
Peel watermelon: The easiest way to do this is to cut off a small slice at top and bottom (blossom and root ends), then cut the melon in half through the equator. Place cut side (equator) down on cutting board and cut off rind in strips from top to bottom, following the contour of the melon. Cut peeled melon into 1-inch wide crosswise slices. Place watermelon slices in vacuum bag (one per bag) and compress using a vacuum sealer. Reserve in bag for at least 30 minutes. Or if you don't have a vacuum sealer, you can omit this step and simply pat the slices dry.
To make the Banyuls vinegar "caviar," immerse gelatin in cold water until fully hydrated (about five to 10 minutes). Meanwhile, heat vinegar in saucepan over medium heat to warm (not hot). Remove gelatin from water and gently wring out water. Add it to warm vinegar and dissolve it; cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, place oil in long narrow container(s), such as a water glass(es). Place container(s) in a bowl of ice with a bit of salt. When oil is cold, place the cooled vinegar mixture in a squeeze bottle. Hold the nozzle of the squeeze bottle over the glass and gently squeeze a droplet of the vinegar mixture into cold oil to form "caviar"; repeat, making sure it's not dropped in the same spot. Create enough to cover the bottom of your glass with caviar and no more.
Drain caviar from oil, pouring it through a fine sieve, and reserve oil. Repeat the process until all vinegar is used. Keep caviar cold, as it will melt if left out in a warm kitchen. Or instead of making caviar, use a simple vinaigrette made by whisking 3 cups of high grade olive oil into the vinegar (using a wire whip or stand mixer). If this is done, you will not need the grape seed oil or the 2 tablespoons of Arbequina olive oil.
Open bags of reserved melon slices and pat dry with cloth. Dice into 1-inch cubes.
To assemble, using a mixing bowl, add melon, cheese, arbequina oil, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Toss gently with hands as to not break up the cheese. If you are using the vinaigrette in place of the caviar, omit the olive oil and gently toss with some of the vinaigrette. Start with a bit and add more to taste, if needed.
Divide salad onto four chilled plates. Top with micro shiso. If you made the caviar, with a spoon, scatter on top of salad and surrounding plate.
Source: Executive Chef Greg Daniels and Sous-Chef Mike Wegrzyn, Haven Gastropub, Orange
WATERMELON AND CUCUMBER GAZPACHO
Yield: four large servings, or eight smaller appetizer servings
5 cups seedless watermelon chunks, divided use
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, finely diced
1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded, finely diced
1 medium yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, finely diced
1 small jalapeño chili, seeded, minced; see cook's notes
3 pale green inner celery stalks, finely diced
1⁄2 small red onion, finely diced
1⁄4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
Garnish: sour cream
Optional garnish: fresh mint sprigs
Cook's notes: Use caution when working with fresh chilies; wash hands and work surface thoroughly upon completion and do not touch eyes or face. If you prefer a milder version, use 1⁄2 of the chili instead of the whole amount called for in the recipe.
Place 4 cups watermelon chunks in blender; process until smooth. Transfer to large glass or ceramic bowl. Finely dice remaining 1 cup watermelon and add to purée. Add remaining ingredients except garnish. Stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least one hour or up to four hours.
Divide between four soup bowls for larger servings, or eight small glasses for smaller servings. Garnish each with dollop of sour cream and, if desired, either a small sprig of mint or a mint leaf.
Source: Bon Appétit magazine and chef/author Cat Cora
GRILLED WATERMELON SLABS WITH BASIL-MINT OIL
Yield: eight servings
1 large ripe watermelon, seedless preferred
1⁄2 cup white balsamic vinegar
1⁄2 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh mint plus thinly sliced mint for garnish
1 small garlic clove, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons sugar
Vegetable oil for brushing on grate
Cook's notes: If desired, after removing watermelon from grill, season with a generous amount of freshly ground coarse black pepper. I like it that way but doubt children would approve.
Cut two 1-1⁄2-inch thick crosswise slices from middle portion of watermelon. Cut each slice into quarters. Marinate quarters in vinegar for two hours, turning after one hour.
For basil-mint oil: Purée basil, 3 tablespoons mint and garlic in a blender. With machine running, add 1⁄2 cup oil. Set a strainer over a small bowl; strain, pressing on solids with the back of a spoon. Discard solids. Season strained oil with salt and pepper. If available, place in squeeze bottle.
Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to high. Sprinkle one side of watermelon quarters with sugar. Brush clean heated grill grates with vegetable oil. Place watermelon sugared side down on grill. Grill about three minutes; melon should have grill marks and become caramelized. Turn and grill opposite sides for 30 seconds.
Place on large platter, turning so the sides with the grill marks are facing up. Drizzle watermelon with half of basil-mint oil. Leftover oil can be refrigerated and used in salads, or atop grilled meat or fish.