When I think of late summer, the dwindling heat of end-of-August, I think of lazy days by the pool, happliy exhausting days on the beach, and backyard barbeques in the 'burbs. All are heavenly. And what food best represents these languid last days of the hottest season of the year? For me, the answer is simple: watermelon
The watermelon is the edible fruit (botanically speaking it's a kind of berry called a pepo) from a vine-like flowering plant that hails from southern Africa. Its cultivation harks all the way back to the second millennium B.C., in the Nile Valley. Watermelon seeds were found at the tomb of King Tutankhamun, and the fruit is mentioned as a food eaten by the ancient Israelites while in bondage in Egypt. The fruit was cultivated on the Indian continent by the seventh century, and had spread to China by the tenth.
China continues to be the world's largest watermelon producer, by a lot, today -- they account for about 50% of the world's production. It was the Moors who introduced watermelon (and a whole slew of other great things!) to Europe; evidence suggests that it was cultivated in southern Spain, in Cordoba and Sevilla, in 961 and 1158, respectively. From here its cultivation spread throughout Southern Europe, and by the 17th century, watermelon had become a fairly widespread garden crop on the European continent. We have the European colonists, and their slaves, to thank for the introduction of watermelon into the U.S. and the New World in general -- Spanish settlers in Florida in the late 16th century, on up to Massachusetts, and later Peru, Brazil, and Panama. Today, the fruit is grown in 44 U.S. states, with Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona leading the charge. The largest melon on record, however, was grown in Tennessee in 2013, weighing in at a heaving 350.5 pounds!
Nutritionally speaking, watermelon isn't vitamin or nutrient-dense in the classic definition of the terms. But the beauty is this: it's 91% water, contains 6% sugars, and is low in fat and calories, so for the caloric intake, it's a decent source of fiber and vitamin C. But new evidence suggests that watermelon has several additional nutritional and health benefits. Watermelon flesh is quite high in carotenoid phytonutrients, specifically lycopene, and has been moved up to the front of the line, alongside tomatoes, in recent studies on high-lycopene foods. What does lycopene do? It's especially important for cardiovascular health. Bone health, too.
It's an antioxidant and contains anti-inflammatory properties, so it potentially fights off all kinds of disease and inflammation that is the breeding ground for disease and chronic illness. Recently, scientists have become interested in the high citrulline content of the fruit as well. Citrulline is an amino acid generally converted by our kidneys into arginine, another amino acid -- which helps improve blood flow and general cardiovascular health. There's also hopeful evidence that this amino acid conversion process might help to prevent fat buildup in fat cells by blocking a particular enzyme activity. Things are looking up for watermelon fanatics!
As for watermelon preparation and ways in which to enjoy the fruit, other than slices out of hand? It's actually incredibly versatile in both savory and sweet preparations. Watermelon "steaks" work well on the grill, even as served with grilled meats. One of my favorite summer dishes I've prepared in recent memory is a sort of riff on a Vietnamese pork chop dish.
I marinate thinly-sliced pork chops in a fish sauce, soy, and rice wine-based marinade, then toss them on the grill and reduce the marinade for a sauce. I serve them on a bed of greens (watercress is my favorite) with fizzled shallots, cilantro, watermelon cubes, and pickled watermelon rind. The combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures is heaven!
Of course, simple preparations like my watermelon-feta-mint skewers and "cocktail sandwiches" is an easy snack. And there's this snack in salad form -- a dish that's become somewhat ubiquitous on menus in urban centers and beach locales all over. But it's still delicious and refreshing, particularly on a hot August day.
I like my watermelon salad with arugula and/or microgreens, salty feta (but not too much), and a kicky rice or sherry wine vinaigrette. Add some jalapenos and I'm even happier.
Mint is a must, cilantro is a bonus. Sorrel is a nice variation. Watermelon pairs nicely with cucumber (technically another member of the melon family), and both take well to heat -- as in the spicy kind, from hot peppers. This is true even in cocktails. We all know the trick of a hollowed-out watermelon with vodka-soaked melon balls, or "tapping" the green rind and turning the watermelon shell into a keg for cocktails. These are fun ideas, no doubt. But fresh-pressed watermelon juice with your liquor of choice and additional goodies makes for a sophisticated cocktail, without being hokey.
Ditto the pulverized flesh of the melon. And for dessert, or a drink, or a cocktail-dessert hybrid? Freeze the pureed watermelon pulp to make granita, the Sicilian shaved ice and the world's original slushie frozen treat. Just add a bit of simple syrup to the pureed melon -- equal parts sugar and water, heated and cooled -- if it needs a little added sweetness (though ripe melon should be plenty sweet on its own). Pour into a tray or pan and pop it in the freezer, periodically mashing it up with a fork when it starts to freeze. Scrape, and serve. Here, liquor is optional, but ooooh, is it a good choice! It's the quintessential summer food, in any of its forms. Enjoy the season!