Whole Food 

Using up an entire 35-pound watermelon takes time, patience, and a little ingenuity.

click to enlarge Grilled watermelon and tomato salad with chili salt and cilantro - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Grilled watermelon and tomato salad with chili salt and cilantro

As I zeroed in on the gigantic watermelon on display in front of a farmer's truck at the Collierville Historic Town Square, everything else around me fell away. Brightly striped deep-green and lime, this picture-perfect specimen looked intimidating. How in the world could I even lift this behemoth, much less use all of it? My husband and I thumped it a couple of times, parted with $8, and decided that this melon wasn't for sharing — it was time for a crash course in preparing all the parts of the watermelon as many different ways as we could.

My husband hoisted the watermelon up on one shoulder, and soon we paused under the town square's gazebo to steady his hold. An endless single file of summer-camp toddlers began laughing and pointing at our awkward readjustment. The watermelon was ridiculously unwieldy; I pictured it being dropped and breaking my foot, then splitting into pieces with its juice and pulp lying wasted on the ground. However, the melon arrived home in one piece, and since it took up half of the kitchen's butcher block, it begged to be dealt with immediately. A santoku knife helped us slice through the thick rind. We peered inside the melon halves, dotted with seeds and shining a bright magenta at its heart. There was much to do.

We decided to cut slabs of watermelon into traditional triangles, caramelize them on the grill for a minute, and use the results in an heirloom tomato and honeyed goat cheese salad. Warm watermelon with pronounced grill marks looked striking on the plate, and it had grown meatier and sweeter due to the heat and smoke.

click to enlarge Watermelon aguq fresca - JUSTIN FOX BURKS

Nothing beats cold watermelon, though. For a simple agua fresca, we cut up chunks of melon and pulsed them in the food processor; we didn't even bother picking out the seeds beforehand since they would be easy to remove with a strainer. We chilled the thin juice that resulted and drank it on ice with salt, lime juice, and mint. Popsicles naturally followed since we froze the same plain juice and salted the pops before eating them.

At this point, only a pale and pathetic scooped-out watermelon half remained. Opposed to throwing it away, I considered making watermelon rind pickles. I cut away the green outside layer and then squared off each crescent of rind. My husband looked upon this painstaking exercise with great doubt. "You don't even really like pickles!" he pointed out. "Who is going to eat all of this?" Still, I was determined. Pickling rind seemed like something a Southern girl should try at least once.

I cobbled together a plan after reading recipes to make sense of the process. First, I heavily salted eight cups of pink-tinged rind and let it sit for 24 hours. The following day, I strained and rinsed the rind. Next, I combined a cup of apple cider vinegar, 10 peppercorns, 10 cloves, two cinnamon sticks, and a whopping two cups of sugar. I whisked this on medium heat until a light syrup formed and then poured it over the bowl of rind. Pressing a small plate over the mixture so that all the rind was covered with the liquid, I stored the bowl in the fridge. The crazy thing is that I needed to repeat this process — strain, boil the liquid, pour it over the rind, and finally, chill it all — two additional times before my sweet and spicy pickles were ready for canning.

But one dish stood out overall: watermelon-tomato gazpacho. The flavors — one sweet, one acidic — balanced each other nicely. As a twist on traditional gazpacho, this chilled soup tasted even lighter and brighter than the tomato version.

click to enlarge Salted watermelon popsicles
  • Salted watermelon popsicles

As our supply of watermelon dwindled, making a granita was last on the list since a stainless-steel bowl of what we called "watermelon ice" was always in the freezer during the summers of my childhood. It's simple: Put watermelon juice plus cane sugar and squeezed Meyer lemon in an ice cream machine and churn away. If I remember correctly, watermelon ice is best scraped out with a fork while you're standing in front of the open freezer until someone demands that you stop.

Determined to use the whole watermelon, we fried the seeds, which isn't advisable; they tasted just like unpopped popcorn! In the end, we were left with an abundance of slippery black seeds drying on a paper towel in the sun. I felt thrifty and self-reliant as I pushed them into our garden's soil and patted them securely into place. Maybe in a couple of months, I'll have even more recipes for using up my own burgeoning patch of wondrous watermelons.

Go to the Flyer's food blog, Hungry Memphis, for the watermelon gazpacho recipe

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