In praise of the true southern watermelon

LOCAVORE’S DELIGHT: The Series # 35. Follow us as we explore the bounty of our region’s farms.

School may be back in session but summer ain’t over ’til the watermelon’s gone. Many of us remember being a kid, eating watermelon standing in the backyard, with a little salt, juice running down our chin and our hands all sticky, spitting the seeds out in the grass. It’s a nostalgic food memory and it’s still a wonderul way to eat watermelon; simply, as it’s meant to be eaten.  Farmers would haul watermelons from their patches in the country to the city, selling them out of the back of their trucks, under overpasses. Though we see less of that nowadays, that experience often was our first brush with the local food movement, before it was a movement, per se.

Mark Twain once said, “The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.” Watermelon really is one of the iconic fruits of the south. Pickled watermelon rind  is a piece of southern culture that many people aren’t quite sure how to eat at first. We tried making relishes and chutney out of it, but it seemed monotonous and bland. Then we drew on our experience of creating balanced dishes to pair with wine, and thought, “ what does this need?” We definitely thought that fat would help, so we put some on pimento cheese and it was a revelation. Now we’re convinced that watermelon pickles were made for pimento cheese. Saltine crackers with pimento cheese and watermelon pickles is the ultimate Southern hors d’oeuvres. As an extension of this, we created the Backroads Bibb Salad, with bibb lettuce, pimento cheese, pickled watermelon rind, candied pecans and a warm bacon vinaigrette. Quite a few folks looked sideways at the dish when  it debuted on the menu, but since then more people have come around to it, and it has become a favorite. You can find it at both Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen restaurants right now!

Pickled Watermelon Rinds

  • 8 pounds watermelon
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup lemon juice
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tbsp pureéd fresh ginger
  • yellow peel from one lemon
  • 2 tbsp allspice
  • 2 tbsp whole cloves

Remove rind from watermelon and reserve red part to enjoy at your leisure (or for the Backroads Bibb Salad). Using a vegetable peeler, remove the green skin from the rind and discard the skin. Cut rind into ½ inch pieces. This should yield about 8 cups. In a large bowl, combine 2 tablespoons salt and 4 cups of water and allow rind to soak in the brine for one hour, then drain. In a large pot, combine lemon juice, 1 cup of water, sugar, ginger puree, lemon peel and spices. Add rind, cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered over medium-low, for 40 minutes or until rind is translucent. With a slotted spoon, transfer rind to a plastic container. Strain liquid and pour over rind. Makes 4 cups.

Backroads Bibb Salad with Pickled Watermelon Rinds

  • ½ head Bibb lettuce
  • 1/3 cup Pimento Cheese
  • 2 ounces Bacon Vinaigrette
  • 1/3 cup Pickled Watermelon Rinds
  • ¼ cup Spiced Pecans

Bacon Vinaigrette

  • ¾ pound sliced bacon
  • ½ cup diced yellow onions
  • 5 ounces light brown sugar
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp Texas Pete sauce
  • 3 cups canola oil

Render bacon. Remove from pan and drain. Sauté onions in bacon fat, over medium heat. When onions are golden, add sugar and cook until sugar is dissolved. Turn off heat and stir in Dijon, vinegar, salt, Worcestershire, and Texas Pete. Combine well, scraping bottom of pan. Transfer mixture to a plastic container (if using an immersion blender), or a food processor, and slowly add oil while immersion blender or food processor is running. When all oil is incorporated, stir in crumbled bacon. Makes 1 quart.

Recipe: Pimento Cheese

  • 1 pound extra sharp white cheddar cheese
  • ½ pound diced roasted red peppers
  • 2/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tsp lemon juice

Grate cheese and add to a large mixing bowl. Drain excess liquid from diced roasted red peppers and add to cheese. Toss to combine. In a separate mixing bowl combine mayonnaise and lemon juice and whisk until smooth. Pour mayonnaise mixture over cheese and using a kitchen spoon, mix until well blended. Makes about 3 cups.

Recipe: Spiced Pecans

  • 1 pound pecan pieces
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp allspice
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp salt

Line a sheet pan with parchment and spray with cooking spray. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and simmer on medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Drain well. Fry pecans in deep fat (we use canola oil) for 60 seconds. Remove and allow to drain and cool. Turn pecans out on the prepared sheet pan, spreading into a single layer. Allow to cool. Makes 1 pound.

To assemble the salad: Arrange half head of Bibb lettuce in the center of a large plate. Drizzle with bacon vinaigrette. Crumble Pimento Cheese on top, and sprinkle with pickles and pecans. Makes 1 serving.

Watermelon Galore

By endeavoring to create a recipe like watermelon pickles, you’re left with a lot of watermelon, so we experimented with a few things like watermelon syrup and watermelon margaritas but they just didn’t pack any punch. Inspired by the tradition of the classic Italian pairing of melon and prosciutto, we devised a southern interpretation of the dish with our Whimsical Watermelon appetizer—a “salad” with diced watermelon, a chiffonade of Benton’s country ham, sherry vinaigrette, homemade ricotta and mint.

 

 

Recipe: Whimsical Watermelon 

  • 2 cups diced seedless watermelon
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp fresh mint chiffonade
  • 1 oz country ham chiffonade
  • 1 oz ricotta, drained (or goat cheese)

Cut watermelon pulp into 1-inch cubes. To a bowl, add watermelon, vinegar, oil, and 1 teaspoon of mint. Mix well. Transfer to a chilled soup bowl. Top with ham, cheese, and remaining mint. Makes 1 serving.

How to buy a watermelon

Generally people will tell you that you compromise flavor when you get into these hybrids that are developed to be seedless; that the old timey watermelons with the big black seeds in them are going to have more flavor. While that’s often the case, people don’t want to go out to eat and have to spit out seeds at the dinner table, so at the restaurant, we have found the juiciest, tastiest seedless melons.

We’ve been buying watermelons for about 20 years and we’re still not always certain of how to pick a good one, but here are a few useful tips that we  go by:

  • Color: Ripe watermelons are dark green and you should want to look for a creamy, yellow belly as opposed to a white belly (this is the part of the watermelon that was sitting on the ground). The more yellow that spot is, the more mature the melon is and the sweeter it is likely to be.

  • Shape: Make sure it’s evenly shaped—bruises, bumps and abnormalities tend to indicate the watermelon hasn’t gotten enough sunlight or water.

  • Pick it up. The heaviest one for its size—they should feel heavier than they look.

  • Check the end. The end where the vine came off should be smooth, which means the vine detached naturally. If the end is jagged, it was probably picked prematurely.

Watermelon Varieties

There are around two to three hundred varieties of watermelon that exist in the U.S. and Mexico. Several have playful names, like “Cream of Saskatchewan” and “Little Baby Flower.” Here are some of our favorites:

  • Moon and Stars: An heirloom variety. Dark green on the outside, with distinctive golden constellation-like dots.

  • Jubilee: This extremely sweet watermelon has a dark and light green striped rind and is usually oblong in shape.

  • Sugar Baby: Also referred to as an “icebox watermelon,” this variety is dark green on the outside, typically with little or  barely noticeable stripes or markings. True to its name, this melon is remarkably sweet.

  • Crimson Sweet: Sugary, with a vivid red hue and a dark and light green striped rind.

Other interesting ways to use watermelon

For more recipes, visit https://www.lucky32.com/recipes.htm

What’s your favorite way to enjoy watermelon?

For more about our seasonal recipes, see our current menu at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen and our Blog Recipe Index:http://lucky32southernkitchen.com/recipes/

Posted August 2013

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