There is probably nothing more stereotypical of the South than the watermelon. And, I think I have spent most of my adult life learning to pick out the perfect one. So far I’ve failed.
Everyone likes to “thump” a watermelon, and you will here the old timers tell you to listen for a deep hollow sound. If it sounds “dull” then it is either over ripe or under ripe. This reminded me a lot of learning to listen to heart sounds in medical school: you tend to nod and agree that you’ve heard the murmur to your professor – even if you don’t. So when I go to the produce market – I thump. And, if I combine this with a melon that “seems heavier than it should” and one with a big yellow spot on its bottom – which means they left it in the field a bit longer for it to ripen, and therefore sweeten the melon – I might just get lucky.
But to be honest, very few people are good thumpers, melons in most commodity grocery stores weigh just about all the same, and virtually no commercial farm will risk leaving a watermelon in the field longer than they need to lest a pest, rain, or a teenager takes it away.
The absolute best way to buy a watermelon is out of the back of the truck on the highway. Local farmers know when to pick melons, only pick what they can sell, and will usually let you taste one before you buy it. I don’t recommend buying shrimp and tamales on the side of the road – which is also common along Texas backroads – but it is the perfect place to shop for watermelons.
So why is it so important to pick a perfectly ripe watermelon? Because it is vegetable candy. I like mine sprinkled with a crunchy salt that will hold its crystal shape on the wet cut surface of the slice and then you get to experience the explosion of sweet and salty with every bite. It is pretty amazing. And when it happens I promise you that you will spend the rest of the summer searching for another ripe specimen – often disappointed – until you give up when fall appears.
Chefs around the world though have developed some watermelon cheats, and one of those is pressure. Now to be honest, this works so much better with a ripe watermelon, but if you have one that is close but not perfect you can make it significantly better by compressing it. It sounds hard but its actually pretty simple. Put squares of melon in a plastic bag and suck the air out with meal saver gadget. Let it sit overnight in the refrigerator and then slice it and serve. The watermelon should taste rich, almost meaty, with a sweet and deeper red color.
Although you can just eat compressed watermelon, it works great as the foundation for a summer salad and that is what is presented here. I’m including a tip I stole from the great Thomas Keller by serving it with pickled jalapeños and champagne vinaigrette – albeit my versions. It makes a great plated salad or you can also serve it family style. I’ve included a list of additions but you can mix and match based on what you are in the mood for.
1 block of compressed watermelon, cooled overnight in the refrigerator
Arugula, or other slightly bitter green, washed and dry
pickled red onions
cherry tomatoes, sliced and sprinkled with sea salt
Maytag blue cheese, crumbled
pecans, toasted, optional
Parmesan cheese, shaved, optional
Maldon sea salt for garnish
Cut the watermelon into slices or cubes and place in the bottom of the dish. Toss the greens with the vinaigrette and spoon over the melon. Decorate the salad with additions of pickled red onions, pickled jalapeños, cherry tomatoes, and crumbled blue cheese. Sprinkle some Maldon sea salt on lightly. If you like, add the nuts and Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.
Pickled Jalapeños and Pickled Red Onions
200 grams white wine vinegar
400 grams water
200 grams sugar
2 gloves garlic
300 grams of fresh jalapeños, sliced across as for pickle slices
Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, thyme, and garlic in a sauce pot and bring to a boil. Pour the mixture over the sliced jalapeños in a mason jar. Make sure they are all submerged. Seal the jar, let it cool on the counter, and then place in the refrigerator until you are ready for use. They will last about 1 to 2 weeks refrigerated.
For the red onions, follow the same approach but substitute red wine vinegar. These can be sliced long ways and broken into individual pieces before pickling.
1/4 to 1/3 cup Champagne vinegar, don’t skimp, it should taste sharp, tingly, and vaguely effervescent
3 tsp Dijon-style mustard
2 tbs lemon juice
1 shallot, very finely diced
3/4 tsp honey
1/4 to 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup canola oil, or neutral vegetable oil
Mix the Champagne vinegar, mustard, lemon juice, shallot, honey, and salt and allow it to sit for a few moments on the counter to soften. Then whisk in the oil to form a very loose emulsion – this should not be creamy in texture.
#watermelon #salad #champagne #vinegar