Watermelon salads have become very popular on restaurant menus and, increasingly, in online recipes and cookbooks. Some are excellent, some are misguided, and all benefit from choosing the best ingredients. This means avoiding seedless watermelons, which are grown not for flavor but for their lack of seeds.
Watermelon salads — along with salsas and soups — are best when the melon is given center stage. When you add ingredients that eclipse the crisp delicacy of watermelon, you often end up with something muddled and without much true flavor.
For watermelon salsa, gazpacho and salads, don’t use tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, cream or mayonnaise, all of which eclipse the flavor and texture of the melon. If you’re going to the trouble of using watermelon, let it shine.
It’s early for local melons, which in most years don’t appear until late August. They’ll probably show up earlier this year, but there aren’t any yet. For more watermelon recipes from the Seasonal Pantry archives, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
If you have tasted commercial watermelon vinaigrettes, you are likely underwhelmed. Most are too sweet and have little taste of watermelon itself.
This dressing, from “Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings” (Harvard Common Press, 2013), focuses on the lean, bright flavor of watermelon itself, with other ingredients playing supporting roles. Enjoy it on beet carpaccio; roasted beet salad; halibut carpaccio with microgreens; halibut gravlax; arugula and feta salad; a salad of julienned jicama, carrots, and radish; and fruit salad with whipped ricotta or whipped feta.
Makes about 1¼ cups
1 cup fresh watermelon juice (see Notes below)
1 tablespoon minced red onion
1 teaspoon minced and seeded serrano or jalapeño chile
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice or white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons simple syrup (see Notes below)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
— Black pepper in a mill
Put the juice in a small bowl or jar, add the onion, chile, lime juice, simple syrup and salt and stir. Taste, and correct for salt and acid. Stir in the olive oil, add the cilantro and season with several turns of black pepper. Chill for 30 minutes before serving. This vinaigrette is best the day it is made.
Notes: For 1 cup watermelon juice, you’ll need about 21/2 cups diced watermelon. Simply cut open a melon, scoop out the flesh and cut it into small dice. Put the diced watermelon into a strainer set over a deep bowl, and stir the watermelon now and again as it drains, 20 to 30 minutes. Occasionally crush the watermelon gently with the side of a spoon, but do not press it through the strainer. Strain the juice before using.
Simple syrup, sold in many stores as bar syrup, is easy to prepare at home. To make it, combine equal quantities of granulated sugar and water in a saucepan set over high heat. Do not stir. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is entirely clear, not cloudy, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat, let cool, pour into a bottle or jar and refrigerate. Stored properly, simply syrup keeps almost indefinitely.
This chilled soup is as refreshing as the coastal fog that sometimes cools us on a hot afternoon and is especially welcome when that fog doesn’t show up. For best results, use the heart of the watermelon, which has the most concentrated flavors. When creating watermelon purée, do not use a blender or food processor, as both incorporate air and create unpleasant foam.
2 tablespoons red onion, cut into very even 1/8-inch dice
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, preferably Vinaigre de Banyuls
4 pounds watermelon, from the heart of the melon, in chunks
3/4 cup dry rosé
1-2 serranos, minced
2 ounces (½ cup) feta cheese, drained
2 tablespoons mint leaves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
Put the onion in a small bowl, season with salt and pepper and pour the vinegar over it. Set aside for 20 minutes.
Remove any seeds from the watermelon. Set aside about a third of the melon.
Set a food mill over a deep bowl and pass the remaining watermelon through it to achieve a smooth even purée. If you do not have a food mill, you can chop the watermelon, put it in a strainer and press it through, using a sturdy spoon or a wooden pestle. Stir in the wine, serranos and red onion mixture, cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and as long as 2 hours.
Cut the reserved melon into uniform cubes just under 1/4-inch. The more uniform the cubes are, the more pleasing the gazpacho will be. Set aside 1/2 cup of the cubed melon, and stir the remainder into the pureed melon mixture.
To serve, put the reserved melon cubes in a small bowl. Cut the feta cheese into small dice the same size as the melon and toss together with the melon. Season with several generous turns of black pepper.
Stir the mint and cilantro into the gazpacho and ladle into chilled soup plates. Top each portion with some of the watermelon-feta mixture and serve right away.
Here, watermelon and cucumber are joined together in a dressing traditionally used on cucumbers. It’s a good match, and both ingredients contribute their unique cooling qualities.
Watermelon, Cucumber and Red Onion Salad with Mozzarella Fresca
Serves 4 to 6
6 cups watermelon, from the heart, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 English or Armenian cucumber, scrubbed or peeled, and cut into 1/8-inch thick half moons
1 small red onion, quartered and very thinly sliced
1/4 cup rice vinegar
— Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
8 ounces mozzarella fresca, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, torn into small pieces
Put the cubed watermelon into a wide shallow bowl, add the cucumbers and red onion and toss very gently. Set aside.
Put the rice vinegar, lime juice, sugar and salt into a small bowl, and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Stir in the red pepper flakes and pour over the watermelon mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
To serve, arrange the mozzarella fresca on one large serving platter or individual salad plates. Toss the salad gently and spoon it over the mozzarella, along with all juices that have collected in the bowl.
Season with several turns of black pepper, scatter the herbs on top and enjoy right away.