Watermelon, the taste of summer

A familiar fruit given some fresh twists.

Watermelon (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
One of the most well-known symbols of summer in Israel is watermelon. You’ll see them in every market and neighborhood grocery store, no matter how small.
I remember when I was a kid, a man used to pass by my house ringing his bell and yelling at the top of his lungs, ‘Aaaaaa-vatiah! Aaaaaa-vatiah!’ He would have a huge pile of watermelons piled up on his horsedrawn cart, which he slowly led all around the neighborhood.
Within seconds, doors would swing open and women and men would run toward the watermelon man and his old, tired horse. Everyone would pick up the first watermelon they could grab and begin knocking it with their knuckles, to see if it sounded good.
I loved watching this ceremony. The seller would begin the same speech he made every time, about how he guaranteed that each and every one of his watermelons was top quality and there was no need to check. ‘Believe me, each one is sweeter than the next,’ he would repeat.
And then, in order to prove this to everyone, with one hand he would lift up the biggest, roundest watermelon of all and, with the other, pull out his long knife and cut out a perfectly symmetrical triangle wedge with a deep red hue, which should have been proof enough that his watermelons were indeed sweet.
But not for the people in my neighborhood – no, no. Everyone insisted on tasting the red fruit, too. Someone would take a bite, and we would all wait to hear the final verdict of whether the watermelon was indeed as sweet as it looked. As soon as the taster voiced his approval, everyone would hurry to grab a watermelon and pay the seller.
In those days, watermelons were chock-full of big black seeds that you had to spit out. Nowadays, the watermelons grown in Israel are seedless. But back then, we would collect all the seeds in a big bowl from the watermelons we ate every week. My mother would then rinse them well and spread them out on a tray to dry on our back porch in the hot summer sun. And then, just before we’d go back to school, my mother would take all the dried seeds we’d collected all summer and roast them in the oven with a little salt. That evening, we’d sit around together eating the seeds.
There are two types of watermelons: round and elliptical.
Their rinds range from light green to dark green, or sometimes a mix of light and dark stripes. There’s also a large range in size – some are large and others are small. Some of them don’t even look like watermelons at all.
Today, people buy watermelons without even checking them beforehand. At most, they ask the greengrocers to cut them open so they can see their color. If you’re a regular customer, they might even let you taste a sample before buying. No longer are there any black seeds that need to be spit out, and it might just be me, but watermelons don’t seem to be as sweet as they once were.
And so, I am dedicating this week’s column to the delicious red fruit, which also happens to be a source of high nutritional value. It contains large amounts of the powerful antioxidant lycopene. Our bodies do not produce lycopene, so we must eat fruits and vegetables that contain this important antioxidant.
In addition, watermelon contains vitamins A, B and C, as well as large amounts of potassium, magnesium and calcium. As is well known, watermelon contains large amounts of water, and 100 grams of the fruit contains 45 calories. And you’re in luck if you’re eating watermelon with seeds, since they are rich in magnesium, iron and folic acid.
Below, you will find three recipes involving watermelon. The first one is a light salad with cucumbers, radishes, herbs and Tzfatit cheese with nigella seeds. The second is watermelon sorbet with a hint of basil. And the third is watermelon slices with white and dark chocolate, dried rose petals, and orange peels.
Watermelon salad with cucumbers and radishes
Salad should always be prepared as close to serving as possible. You can cut up the watermelon into pieces ahead of time and store in an airtight container in the fridge. The other vegetable pieces can be cut up and stored in a separate container. This way, the watermelon juice won’t make the rest of the vegetables soggy.
Makes 4 servings ¼ large watermelon 2 cups radishes, sliced thinly 3 medium cucumbers, sliced thinly 1 red onion, sliced thinly ¼ cup basil leaves 250 gr. Tzfatit cheese with nigella seeds (or without seeds, or mozzarella or Bulgarian cheese), cut into small cubes 2 Tbsp. olive oil 3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice Salt and pepper, to taste Leaves of 3 sprigs of thyme Cut off watermelon rind and remove seeds. Cut into medium or small cubes. Pour into a large bowl and then add vegetables and cheese on top. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and thyme leaves. Mix. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Watermelon sorbet and basil
Makes 4-6 slices ½ large watermelon ½ cup powdered sugar or agave syrup Juice of medium lemon 7 basil leaves For decoration: Mint or basil leaves Remove the watermelon rind and seeds (even the smallest ones). It’s important to make sure that you use only 100% pure fruit when making sorbet. Cut the watermelon into cubes and put them in a blender. Add the powdered sugar and lemon juice and blend for a few pulses. Add the basil and blend until smooth.
Pour the watermelon slush onto a tray (should be no more than 1 cm. high). Cover with plastic film and put into freezer for 2 hours. Remove from freezer, even if it’s not completely frozen. Using a fork or spoon, scrape the top and mix around to get rid of bumps. Put back into the freezer for a while and then repeat until desired texture of sorbet is attained.
Just before serving, scrape and mix sorbet one more time.
Then fill individual bowls with sorbet. Adorn with mint or basil leaves and serve.
Watermelon popsicles with chocolate, orange peel and rose petals
Makes 6 servings 3 large watermelon slices (1 cm. thick) 50 gr. bittersweet chocolate 50 gr. white chocolate 1 tsp. oil 6 Popsicle sticks For decoration: ¼ cup dried rose petals 1 Tbsp. grated orange peel Kosher salt Take a slice of watermelon and cut it into equal halves slices. Use these to cut four more slices of the same size and shape. Place paper towels on the watermelon slices to absorb excess juice.
In the middle of the rind on each slice, cut a slit and insert a Popsicle stick inside it. Lay baking paper on a tray and place on it all the slices with their inserted Popsicle sticks.
Place the bittersweet chocolate in one bowl and the white chocolate in a second bowl. Pour half the oil into the first bowl, and the other half into the second bowl. Heat each bowl in the microwave for a few seconds until chocolate is melted. Mix well. Using a spoon, drizzle the bittersweet chocolate over the watermelon slices. Then do the same with the white chocolate. Sprinkle the rose petals, orange peel, and a little salt on top. Serve.
TIPascale Instead of using a spoon to drizzle the chocolate, you could fill a small plastic bag, cut the corner off and use the bag to drizzle the chocolate on the watermelon slices.
TIPascale You can use a melon baller instead of cutting watermelon into cubes. Another option is using a cookie cutter to cut out various shapes.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.