Watermelon in its purest, most simple form is already the perfect, quintessential summer treat.
With its bright green shell, brilliant red fruit, and crisp, light texture, is there any food that more clearly symbolizes the season?
Cutting it into a classic wedge is enough to invoke squeals of delight.
“It’s my favorite summertime food,” said Jenni Burns Riser, owner of Ms. Groovy’s Kitchen: Gourmet Catering. “It quenches your thirst and satisfies your stomach.”
If you’re looking for a slightly more sophisticated take on this timeless, seasonal tradition, there are some things you can do to take it up a notch — perhaps just in time for your Fourth of July spread.
As always, start with the best quality you can get. Don’t take a watermelon that’s been sitting on the grocery store shelf for too long.
“When you go to the market, I would talk to the grower about how fresh they are, because they can get a little fibrous and mushy, since there’s so much water and fiber in it. Ask them how long ago they were picked,” Burns said.
Ideally, the fruit would be picked no more than two weeks before it’s eaten.
“If you can find a local watermelon that’s best — ripeness is always a big thing, and sometimes it’s hit or miss” said Christopher Kirksey, executive chef at the Charleston Town Center Marriot’s Brick Salt Bar+Kitchen, and winner of the People’s Choice Award for Best Beverage with his Watermelon Aqua Fresca at this year’s Taste-of-All.
“I always try to look for what’s called a ‘full flip’ on the watermelon, where the stem has actually fallen off when it was fully ripe versus somebody’s just cut it off, cause generally that will indicate ripeness,” he said.
Kirksey also said he wants a watermelon that’s “heavy for its size,” an indicator that the fruit inside doesn’t have a lot of cavities or is too loosely constructed.
“If the watermelon has a large yellow or white shade spot or “belly” from sitting in the dirt, chances are that it’s a riper fruit that was left to mature on the vine longer,” which would make it sweeter and more developed, he added.
A summer watermelon salsa is a versatile option — but Burns said be sure to add ingredients your guests can bite into.
“I add chunks of tomato, pineapple and cilantro and onion. The watermelon’s watery, so once you puree it in a food processor it’s going to get really watery. So by adding chunks of things you’re giving someone something to kind of grab onto.”
They pair well with regular corn chips. But for a sweeter dish, cut some flour tortilla triangles and fry or bake them with cinnamon and sugar for dipping into the salsa.
“This would also pair really well with fish, and maybe a chicken recipe,” like a tequila lime chicken dish, said catering assistant Tammy Bush.
“Your fattier fish, like salmon, I wouldn’t recommend that, but maybe like a tilapia or some type of nice cut filet like that, maybe even a nice cut of tuna” would be good, she added.
A summer salad with feta and your festive fruit is an easy spin on tradition.
“You can also do a take on a caprese salad with tomato, watermelon, mozzarella cheese and basil, add in a little mint, too,” Kirksey said.
His award-winning Watermelon Aqua Fresca is easy enough to make, he said, but best done in individual servings because the Sprite or soda water could go flat if mixed into a large batch too early.
And finally, a quick and easy way to “fest up” your watermelon servings involves a quick hit on the grill.
“It has to be a hot, hot, hot, hot grill,” said Chef Paul Smith, executive chef with Buzz Food Service.
“You want a carmelization from the sugar in the fruit, that’s where the flavor comes from.”
First, he said, season your grill: Use your tongs to wipe it down with a rolled up hand towel doused with the least expensive cooking oil you have on hand. Once the grill is piping hot, grab your watermelon wedge.
“Put it at a 45-degree angle on your grill grates and then move it to a 45-degree angle the opposite way to get those nice diamonds, and do it very quickly. You just want to get the mark and take it off,” he said.
Check out the watermelon recipes here — like the season itself, they’re designed to be cool and easy, crisp and sweet.