Picture Frida Kahlo’s still-life oil painting, “Viva la Vida,” (which translates from Spanish into “live the life”), a table bursting with an array of succulent pink watermelons with glossy black seeds and glistening emerald rinds. One wants to reach in, grab a chunk and gorge on the mouth-watering flesh. This time of year, watermelons are piled sky-high on roadside stands, at farmers markets and in supermarket produce aisles, so here’s a primer on how to get the best out of this quintessential summer treat.
Watermelons have been cooling palates since prehistoric times, although they were first harvested in Egypt roughly 5,000 years ago. Pharaohs’ tombs were filled with the melons, so the deceased would be kept hydrated in the afterlife, while early explorers carted them around as canteens for their water supply.
It’s hard to believe that such a succulent food is actually a vegetable, not a fruit. Watermelon is a vine-growing gourd, a close sibling to the cucumber and pumpkin, and belongs to the botanical family Curcurbitaceae. Even though these melons contain 92 percent water, they are packed with a mother load of nutrients including immune-boosting Vitamins C and A, stress-busting B1 and B6, potassium, magnesium, copper and fiber, and the richest source of lycopene, (red-fleshed) even surpassing the mighty tomato as prostate’s best buddy.
This low cal, cholesterol-free food is also anti-inflammatory, easing creaky arthritic joints. Also, its high water content makes it a good food for weight loss and maintaining healthy weight.
Every morsel of the luscious vegetable is useable and edible — even the rind, which can be pickled with lemon, honey and ginger for a scrumptious confection — and the seeds, which, like pumpkin seeds, can be roasted and seasoned for munching.
How to Pick a Winner
Whether you choose pink, orange, white or yellow-fleshed watermelons, seedless or seedy, large oblong picnic variety (15- to 50-pounders), or more manageable personal or icebox melons (3- to 15- pounders), here are some tips for picking a juicy, ripe one bursting with flavor:
• Look for firm, bright skin, free of cuts and soft spots, along with symmetry without distorted ends. A yellow belly spot indicates it ripened in the sun and wasn’t picked prematurely.
• Lift the melon for good heft.
• Tap on the melon with the heel of your hand. If it resonates like a drum, it’s ripe and ready.
• The largest watermelon on record, a behemoth weighing in at 279 pounds, was grown in North Carolina.
• There are some 1,200 varieties of watermelons.
• A seedless watermelon was created in 1939 when horticulturalists treated the unpollinated flowers with a particular acid.
• Japanese farmers have created a cube-shaped watermelon by placing in a square-tempered glass box while it is still growing on the vine. The shape and dimensions fit ideally in Japanese refrigerators, where space is a premium.
Serve it up
This summer go a little wacky with watermelons, whipping up refreshing summer sips (minty watermelon margaritas, sangrias, frozen lemonades or agua frescas (Mexico’s thirst-quenching watermelon, limejuice, sugar and H2O concoction).
Or you can try a few zippy appetizers like grilled watermelon rounds with herb goat cheese, watermelon prosciutto wraps.
In the salad department, there’s an intoxicating salad (drunken watermelon with vodka and blackberry liqueur marinade), a southwest riff with pickled watermelon rind, cilantro, lime zest, jalapenos and crumbled Cotija cheese or Italian blending watermelon with fresh mozzarella balls and basil.
To be served alongside grilled firm fish or deep-sea scallops are assorted relishes and salsas with combinations of nectarines, plums, grapes, chilies and citrus juices.
Ever consider chilled soups with watermelon and heirloom tomato gazpacho, Greek yoghurt and watermelon?
For the main event, there’s beef, organic chicken breasts or wild caught shrimp stirfries with crispy watermelon sticks. And for dessert, sorbets, watermelon cubes drizzled with melted dark chocolate or frozen watermelon pops coated with coarse salt blends, clover honey and Meyer lemon juice or a splash of your favorite liqueur).
The multi-tasking watermelon can also be carved into a basket with the shell used as a tureen for fruit salad, chilled soup or punch.
1 seedy baguette (sliced 1-inch thick)
1 tablespoon melted organic butter (optional for cholesterol-conscious)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste
2 cups watermelon wedges
1/2 cup chopped, ripe tomatoes (Roma or cherry)
1/2 cup nectarines, diced, unpeeled
Juice from one lemon
1/2 red onion, diced
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
1 fistful fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Method: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush watermelon with olive oil, and season with salt and cayenne. Grill for 2 minutes or until grill marks form. Cut into small cubes. In a bowl, gently toss watermelon with remaining topping ingredients. Cover and chill for one hour.
In a small bowl, combine butter, oil, salt and cayenne. Line bread rounds on cookie sheet and brush liberally on both sides with the mixture. Bake until golden.
Arrange the toasted bread on a serving platter, and top with the chilled watermelon mixture.
For additional watermelon recipes, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.