Friday, June 27, 2014

All Summer in a Melon

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the Riot New Media Group, July 31st, 2013
Professional cooks live on scraps of rib-eye trim, bowls of rice cribbed from the steam table, and the odd sandwich slapped together on the fly, eaten while crouched behind the line before the next slew of tickets hit. On days off, I might order a pizza or some Thai food, or go out for a burger and a beer, perfectly happy to let someone else do the cooking. But still, even with the relatively recent arrival of other people’s children, even with the responsibilities of jobs and Grown-Up Stuff, there are occasional evenings when my friends, family, and I carve out enough time to cook and eat together.

The last time this happened I decided to put together a watermelon salad. A simple affair of watermelon, cucumber, jicama, serrano peppers, a lot of cilantro and mint, a splash of vinegar, and just enough salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Perfect for a hot July evening, the salad is a refreshing accompaniment to grilled foods and a flavorful antidote for dehydration. I went with cubes of various sizes for the melon, cukes, and jicama, and thin rounds for the serranos. Pleasantly Sesame-Streetian shapes, comfortably within my Cheffy OCD parameters. The herbs were a rough-chopped green confetti.  Wee! 

My brother tasted it and made a face — “What is that white stuff?”



I’m laughing now; he thinks food should be taken in capsule form and the inevitable food fanfare of these evenings is almost lost on him. Tasting a spicy-savory version of tried and true watermelon was brave…but his face! Oh, the hilarity.

The two of us stood in the kitchen and talked jicama, among other things, while our friends put the children to bed. But I couldn’t stop eating the salad. I’d ask a question and then stuff my face while he answered. When the four of us sat down to eat, I grudgingly shared the third I’d left in the bowl. But my spoon kept wandering back. I badly wanted to forgo any semblance of manners and simply tip the bowl back, just guzzle the sweet-salty-spicy melon water.

As the summer wears on – and I’m lucky out here in Seattle where temperatures rarely top ninety – my thoughts turn again and again to the blatant, unapologetic refreshment of a watermelon salad. Throw in some feta! Top it with toasted pepitas! Make a black pepper syrup! Such a forgiving, amenable ingredient, as well as a handy way to transport water across deserts. So, I guess Watermelon Salad with Serranos and Friends was my second favorite thing I ate in July, beating Fried Chicken Bits Over Reheated Rice, and Grits with Some Stuff. There was a Cheese and Tomato Sandwich coming in a close third, but the winner turned out to be an exercise in simplicity.

With watermelons on the brain, I recently went ahead and bought a small one from one of the vendors down at Pike Place Market before heading in for another long, busy shift at the restaurant. Coming home from work: late, tired, too thirsty for water, too dehydrated for vodka, I opened my little fridge and there it was! I had forgotten all about it!

Next to a heel of bread, a knuckle of cheddar, and a short stack of mostly empty to-go containers, there was my favorite July treat: A watermelon split and devoured in the light of a propped open refrigerator door, the juice puddling a bit on the checkered floor. Standing there in the dimly lit kitchen, I wiped the juice from my chin with the back of my hand and let my mind wander. Summer and rind, sunshine, sprinklers, kiddy pools, and hot grass. The shopping trip for a new Trapper Keeper still weeks away. Hot dogs, grape soda, road-trip Tropicana orange juice. Dampened dust, tepid lemonade. The mild melancholy of having no seeds to spit. The urge to go jump in a lake. I was slurping up all the Julys, past, present, and future, the watermelon refreshing my spirit. Truly delicious.

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