Watermelon is generally thought of as a late-summer fruit, but as our season tends to be a little later on the prairies, we can easily see local melons well into the early fall. They are related to cucumbers and squash, Cucurbitaceae for those who care, which is obvious when you see them growing.
While cucumbers are small enough to stake, melons are large and heavy, with prolific vines spreading out over quite a bit of real estate. These luscious, sweet red giants are the result of thousands of years of selected breeding, starting out small, green and bitter in the wild. Water is the operative word here, and the ease and convenience of carrying necessary water on long trips was possibly an impetus for breeding larger and sweeter melons. Like so many of these colourful culinary chronicles, consensus disappears, and theories abound. Suffice it to say, a journey of more than 5,000 years, beginning in Africa, through the Mediterranean and Europe, and on to the new world, with generations of carefully selected breeding along the way, is a feat worth celebrating in story, whether embellished or not.
Watermelons do not continue to ripen once cut from the vine. One reliable way to check for ripeness is to look at the pale patch of skin on the bottom of the melon, often called the ‘ground spot’. This should be yellow, not white or greenish. Another indicator is the dark green skin; it shouldn’t be too shiny, even looking somewhat waxy. Stripes on a watermelon have nothing to do with ripeness, they only indicate a variety, and as for knocking on a watermelon, feel free. It’s far too subjective a method to be entirely dependable and, frankly, looks a little silly in the supermarket. If all else fails, most markets offer small slices of watermelon during the season so you can simply taste and decide for yourself.
Since a watermelon is about 92% water, lift that baby up. It should be heavy. If you’ve purchased watermelon already chilled, keep it chilled. Otherwise, you can leave an intact melon in a cool place for a few days before cutting into it, then refrigerate or freeze.
Juice or agua fresca is easy to make from fresh or frozen fruit and is an excellent reason to buy that humongous watermelon. Carve away the rind and cut the red flesh in chunks. Mash the fruit thoroughly, and strain the pulp through a sieve, pressing down to extract as much liquid as you can.
For every litre (3½ cups) of juice, add 300 ml (1 cup) water, the juice of one lime and a little sugar to taste. Chill well and serve over ice with a small slice of watermelon, a wedge of lime and a sprig of mint. This is very good with gin, but then what isn’t?
Classic large watermelons like Crimson Sweet and Jubilee are the most fun (and often the sweetest) but can seem unmanageable unless you have plans for that much fruit or are having a picnic. Since the gene for the red colour is connected to the gene for sugar content, red watermelons tend to be sweeter than the newer yellow varieties, but those can be fun to use on platters and in salads and salsas. There are melons of every size, many of which are seedless. The white opaque ‘seeds’ found in these varieties are actually empty seed coats and are easy and safe to eat. And of course, the hollowed-out shells make excellent helmets… ask any 5-year-old or Saskatchewan Roughrider fan.
This Asian-inspired salad from good friend and cook Elspeth Carmichael, is light, colourful, and refreshing. It can be made with just watermelon, but adding cantaloupe, honeydew and/or jicama makes it a party. Melon ballers seem to have fallen out of fashion of late, but if you have one languishing in a drawer somewhere, use it; the effect will be striking. Otherwise, 2-3-cm (1-inch) cubes will do nicely. If you’re using jicama, which isn’t a melon by a long shot but adds a nice sweet crunch, use the smaller end of the melon baller tool or cut it into slightly smaller cubes, 1-2 cm (½-¾ inch). In a bowl, combine 1-2 finely minced or grated garlic cloves, 1 finely diced (cored and seeded) serrano chile, 75 ml (¼ cup) fish sauce, 30 ml (2 Tbsp) brown sugar, 75 ml (¼ cup) fresh lime juice and 7.5 ml (1-½ tsp) lime zest. Up to this point, 1.2 litres (4 cups) of fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, jicama) can be tossed in the dressing and refrigerated for up to 2-3 days. To serve, add 150 ml (½ cup) roughly chopped salted roasted peanuts and 75 ml (¼ cup) chopped fresh cilantro. Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped peanuts, lime wedges and sprigs of cilantro.
If you’re feeling particularly thrifty, pickled watermelon rind will appeal to you. It’s a lengthy process, but not overly complicated and those who grew up with these sweet pumpkin-spiced pickles, love them. I like my pickles sour to the point of wincing, but there are many good recipes out there, so have fun.