Watermelon Salad Heaven Starts With the Ideal Melon

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Sliced watermelon

When summer rolls around, my thoughts inevitably turn to watermelon — where to get them, how to pick them, and how to store them. I come by my obsession with watermelon honestly. My family on both sides has grown watermelons for generations.

My great-grandfather “Pop” Turner used to grow an acre of watermelon for his personal use on his farm in Virginia. That’s a lot of watermelon for one man.  But Pop was a watermelon connoisseur, and I love the thought of him roaming through his watermelon patch down by the river searching for the perfect specimen.

When he thought he’d found a good one, he’d cut a chunk out of the watermelon with his pocket knife and taste it. If the watermelon didn’t suit him, he’d toss the unworthy melon into the river, and try again. This might seem excessive,  perhaps even an inexcusable waste by today’s standards,  but my parents remind me that farm luxuries are different from the luxuries in which we city folk indulge. Growing an acre of watermelons required only a small investment of time and money for a farmer who owned a bit of land. As Pop used to say, “It costs me nothing.”

Finding the perfect melon

For those of us without a spare acre of land at our disposal, we must either eat the few precious watermelons we grow in our limited garden space or buy them from our local farmers market or grocery store. My daughters beg me to buy watermelons as soon as they appear in the grocery store, which is usually in early June.

Knowing that most of these melons aren’t locally grown, I hold out until a few days before Fourth of July, when I start to see melons that are grown in the U.S., if not in my own community. In Southern California where I live, the best locally-grown watermelons start to appear in my farmers market in late July and August, but it’s still possible to discover a delicious watermelon sooner if you enter grocery-store territory.

I have my own criteria for choosing watermelon, but this season I thought I’d consult a watermelon grower to see how my criteria stack up against an expert opinion. After talking to Sarah Nolan, CSA Coordinator of South Central Farmers’ Cooperative, I’ve realized that I’m pretty much on target, with a few notable exceptions.

Choosing a watermelon

1. Don’t buy a watermelon before summer is in full swing. Sarah recommends buying watermelon that was harvested “during summer’s peak,” because watermelons need heat and sun to grow well. “Peak” of course will vary from region to region. July 1 is my personal choice, mostly because I love having watermelon for Fourth of July even if it’s not yet at the summit of perfection.

2. Buy watermelons that are as locally grown as possible. It’s good to buy locally-grown produce for a variety of reasons. I think it’s especially important for watermelon because buying locally increases the chances of getting an adequately vine-ripened melon.

3. Consider what you’re willing to sacrifice for a seedless melon: Like most people, I like seedless watermelon because they’re easier to eat. But given a choice, I’ll buy a locally-grown watermelon with seeds before I buy a seedless variety that traveled a longer distance to get to me.

4. Buy a large watermelon. Sarah suggests that bigger watermelons are not necessarily better and that “a good watermelon depends on variety, location it was grown, and time spent on the vine.” But because watermelon is usually sold by the pound, I prefer a high flesh-to-rind ratio to make sure I get my money’s worth.

5. Buy a melon that’s heavy for its size. I like a melon that’s sweet and juicy, so the heavier it is, the more likely it is to have a high water content.

6. Look for a “field spot.” Watermelon often has a white or yellow patch on the bottom side  called a field spot. It’s a sign that the watermelon has been allowed to ripen on the vine. Sarah says it’s not necessary for a melon to have a field spot to be good, but it’s worth looking for.

7. Thump the watermelon and listen for a deep echoing sound. According to Sarah, you want a watermelon that “sounds like a drum when you pat it with your hand. If it has a dull thud, that means it will likely be mealy and either too ripe or harvested too early.”

8. Never buy a cut watermelon. Before I became a Master Food Preserver, I was somewhat more relaxed on this point. Now I steadfastly refuse to purchase a cut watermelon. If you don’t wash the watermelon before you cut it, any bacteria that existed on the outside of the melon will be transferred to the flesh on the interior. Unless you were present when the melon was cut, you cannot know if proper food safety guidelines were followed. The melon also will  go bad more quickly after it’s cut.

 

     

 

Storing leftover watermelon

Unless you’re having a large party, it’s difficult to eat a watermelon in one sitting. I never refrigerate a watermelon before I cut it, but once it’s cut I’ll chop the amount I think I can eat within the next 24 hours into wedges and store them in a glass container in the refrigerator. I’ll leave the rest of the melon uncut and cover the exposed flesh with aluminum foil before putting it in the fridge. I eat watermelon at every meal until it is gone.

A final note of caution

There’s always risk associated with choosing the perfect watermelon. In spite of careful selection, sometimes you’ll get a lousy watermelon. Remember that an occasional failure is part of the adventure — and the pleasure — of eating watermelon.

Simple Watermelon Salad

Serves 2 to 3 people

Make this salad just before you’re ready to serve it because the liquid from the watermelon will turn the goat cheese into a slimy mess if it sits around too long. You’ll see that the ingredient quantities are small because I don’t like to have leftovers, but the recipe doubles and triples well.

Ingredients

4 cups freshly cut watermelon — chopped into 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons mint chiffonade (finely sliced), plus several extra whole leaves for garnish

⅓ cup fresh salted goat cheese

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Directions

1. Place watermelon cubes into a medium sized bowl.

2. Add apple cider vinegar and mint chiffonade and stir gently to combine.

3. Top with crumbled goat cheese and a few whole mint leaves for garnish.

4. Serve immediately.

Note: Unless it’s a really hot summer day, I like this salad best when the watermelon is at room temperature.

I make my own goat cheese, which is remarkably simple to do, but if you buy goat cheese make sure it is as fresh as possible and does not contain any additional herbs or spices besides salt.

I infuse my apple cider vinegar with blackberries, but plain apple cider vinegar is just fine. You can also substitute freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice for the apple cider vinegar, but I rarely find good citrus when watermelons are at their best so I don’t often make that substitution. I do, however, make my own blackberry-infused vinegar.

 Photo: Sliced watermelon. Credit: Susan Lutz


Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, she lives near Washington, D.C., where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.

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Comments

Jane
on: 8/7/12
I am a watermelon lover too, so Annabel inherits the love from both sides of the family. What is mint chiffonade? Jane
Susan Lutz
on: 8/7/12
Jane- Mint chiffonade is nothing more than cutting the mint into thin slivers. I like the mint to be more of a background flavor so it doesn't overpower the watermelon.
Alice
on: 8/7/12
I have always heard that "Pop" and then my father too, would "plug" the watermelon to see if it was good. Did you ever hear of that term? A long time ago the grocer would plug them for the shoppers! What a great article! Thanks for the memories. Ali
Eileen
on: 8/8/12
Richard really enjoyed the picture of Mom and Pop. He remembers it well, as he remembers the acre of sandy soil prefect for the cultivation of watermelons. He also mentioned how generous the grocers were to plug the melons to be sure the flavor suited the customer's palate. My personal watermelon memories include my Dad bringing home a huge watermelon, usually on a Saturday night, which the family enjoyed sitting on the lawn so that seed spitting would be more convenient. I can still the fireflies and stars-- and pass the salt, please. What superb family memories!
Susan Lutz
on: 8/8/12
Alice- I have indeed heard the term. My father talks about it too!
TheCubanFoodBlog
on: 8/14/12
Great tips on choosing a watermelon. Over here in Havana they tend to cut them in the markets so they can show people the quality inside. I'll be insisting on a whole one from now on. I'll be making the salad too, though goats cheese will be a be more difficult to source. But I like a challenge. Good thing I do or I wouldn't be living in Cuba!! I make watermelon juice and sorbet with my melons. And on the odd occasion make watermelon rum daiquiris!
Patti Sewall
on: 8/14/12
Very nice piece full of great tips and tricks of watermelon hunting, buying and eating. I am in Northern California where we also enjoy a bounty of good melon. I, too, adore watermelon -- and now my teenage niece says it is also her favorite food on the planet! I love passing along not only food memories, but food favs as well. Thanks for the recipe!
Susan Lutz
on: 8/14/12
@THECUBANFOODBLOG- I hope you enjoy the salad. As far as goat cheese goes, you could certainly substitute another cheese. What you want is a somewhat mild, but salty and crumbly cheese. Please send the recipe for watermelon rum daiquiris. They sound delicious!
Danielle
on: 9/3/12
I planted watermelon this year and, tragically, picked the one and only watermelon way too early. It looked perfect, but it was pale pink to white inside. I'm still distraught.
Susan Lutz
on: 9/3/12
@Danielle- That is a major disappointment. I guess there's always next year...
sally larhette
on: 9/3/12
Watermelon sangria is expected at a Soiree that I create, so I went on line about the best watermelon. There are , it seems, fabulous watermelons, Georgia is one state that seems to excel. Any information that you can send me will be appreciated! One upscale restuarant in Newton,Ma has an appetizer, where the baked watermelon reminds you of steak!
Susan Lutz
on: 9/3/12
@Sally- Next time I'm in Newton during the summer, I'm definitely going to have to try to track down that appetizer. Do you happen to remember the name of the restaurant that serves it? Regarding watermelon sangria, are you trying to find the best variety of watermelon for sangria? I would definitely pick a seedless variety if I were you. Best, Susan

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