As a child, I was never really a fan of watermelon. I don't remember having it in the house that often, and while I had tasted watermelon-flavored candies, I actually felt that the flavor was actually a little off-putting. I steered clear of anything watermelon for a very long time, and that was a poor decision. I did not know what I was missing!
First of all, there is its color. Watermelon is so vibrant with its bright green and red (and sometimes yellow) hues. Then there is its giant shape. It is so big and full of mystery. And there is that curious little kid inside me always saying that it would be so much fun to drop it and watch it explode. But I know not to do that - what a waste that would be! Lastly, there is the taste. Fresh, fruity, juicy, and sweet. Subtle but so fulfilling.
Over the past few years, I had two experiences that changed my opinion of watermelon. The first occurred while I was in school at The CIA. We took a class called 'Cuisines of the Americas' and spent an afternoon exploring some specialty products. It is here that I was introduced to pickled watermelon rind, an often wasted and forgotten aspect of the fruit. I took a piece from the jar, and my mind was blown! It was super sweet with a tiny crunch and a nice, smooth texture, reminding me of a fancy candy. I felt like I was eating a little drop of heaven. The rind actually did not really taste like watermelon at all and had its own unique flavor and appeal; I knew this was a special ingredient I would have to come back to one day.
My second memorable moment was at Dirt Candy. Out of nowhere on a hot summer night, a friend of the restaurant came by with a giant bucket of watermelon juice. It was cold and so refreshing, just what we needed to make it through a hot and sweaty night that was about to begin. I was in love, and I am so thankful I finally realized how amazing this produce is, for it has brought me so much joy ever since.
For my first pop-up last summer, I actually based my dessert entirely around watermelon, and I was super excited to showcase the beauty of both the watermelon rind and the watermelon itself in as many ways as possible. With the rind, in order to access it, I cut away the skin in as thin a layer as possible. Next, I cut off the red flesh - I like to leave a smidgen on though so that the rind has a stronger hint of watermelon flavor. Plus, it looks cool with that pop of color once it turns translucent after cooking. Now, cut it down - I chose small dice, but it can be whatever size pieces you like. I then pickled it in a simple liquid with white wine vinegar, sugar, and water in a 1:1:2 ratio, infusing it with mint and the various herb stems I had left from other dishes. Just bring the liquid to a boil, let it infuse for 30 minutes, and strain it over the rind while still warm. So simple! And you can use it in yogurt, soup, salads, salsa, chutney, on a cheese plate, or as a snack on its own.
Now for the watermelon. I actually used it in three different forms. First, I made a watermelon and fennel jelly. I cooked watermelon juice with fennel stalks and thickened it with pectin - by using a little more than necessary for a jam or jelly, it set slightly firmer, providing great texture and dimension to the dish as I broke it up. I then used the juice to produce a watermelon sorbet. Paired with tagetes (marigolds), which have a lovely floral, anise, and minty edge, it turned into a bite with much more depth.
Lastly, I made a watermelon jerky, which was probably my favorite component of the whole dish. I just took cut up pieces of watermelon and put them in the dehydrator overnight - since watermelon is full of water, the flavor became so much more concentrated, sweeter, and powerful as it evaporated. And the texture was so much fun! There was still just a little water left, so it was a chewy as well as crisp, almost like a watermelon caramel. This technique can be used for so many other items too, whether you take honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple, mango, or kiwi for example. And if you don't have a dehydrator, have no fear. Turn your oven to its lowest temperature, use a warming cabinet, or leave it in the sun the old-school way! Just make certain to check on it often as all of these temperatures vary and may speed up or slow down the process.
To balance out the fruitiness and add in some different textures, I included a simple Japanese cheesecake - a light, slightly tangy, and fluffy vehicle for everything, a Brazil nut crumble - adding some more crunch and roasted nuttiness to build another layer, and candied fennel - bringing that licorice flavor to the forefront to tie everything all together. With a mix of sweet components at their peak in this season further enhanced by acid, herbs, flowers, and cheese, I had a perfect conclusion to my dinner themed 'Sweetness of Summer.'
Now that it is summer again, I wanted to see how else I could use the watermelon, and I am having a blast experimenting with it. My first project was roasted watermelon - for this initial attempt, I roasted it for about 40 minutes in a 300°F oven. I did not want to get any color and was just eager to see what would happen. The result was a lot of liquid and a watermelon with what I would call a bouncy texture. As the water leeched out during the cooking, the watermelon tightened up and lost that expected crunch. There was still a bite to it, but as it was more of a chew, it reminded me of raw meat. It also looked a little like concaséed tomatoes, so I wanted to do a play on these ingredients and create a bit of an illusion. I decided this would be great to use as 'watermelon tartare,' plated with tomatoes though to yield a surprise. With some herbs and lemon zest, it was ready to go.
I used the tartare in a tomato and watermelon soup to help push the fruit flavor forward. The juice went into the broth along with that of tomatoes, and I seasoned it with a little caper liquid to liven it up. With pickled onions for acidity, yogurt for creaminess, pomegranate for some more fruitiness, and fresh radish for crunch, I had a wonderful chilled first course for a casual Saturday night dinner on the deck on a warm summer night.
Utilizing some more of the juice and watermelon flesh, I then made a granita. As I mentioned before, to me, cold watermelon is the taste you want when you are looking for something to perk you up during the summer. With the remainder of the herb-infused pomegranate juice from the previous dish and some elderflower in the form of Saint Germain, I blended everything together and put it straight in the freezer to enjoy in a few hours. Granitas are so much fun because they offer a fantastic burst of flavor if you bite down on an ice crystal, or they soothe your soul if you let it melt in your mouth. Either way you eat it, as long as it tastes amazing, you can't go wrong. And if you wanted to just turn this mix into a cocktail and spike it with some vodka or tequila, you would have a fantastic drink too.
My final project was once again a dessert. I decided to try making a watermelon sabayon accompanied by a watermelon jam. With equal parts egg yolk to sugar to juice, the watermelon flavor did get a little lost, but fortunately I served it with a watermelon and strawberry jam, which helped the taste remain more prominent. I will definitely have to play around with the proportions or concentrate the flavor of the watermelon so that it does really shine - sabayon is such an intriguing and unexpected way to feature and elongate the taste of a fruit instead of just acting as a base for fresh berries.
As a chef who loves to transform ingredients in as many ways as I can conceptualize, I am so impressed by all of the possibilities that exist with watermelon and cannot wait to explore these ideas further. However, none of them can replace that marvelous sensation when you take your first bite of a ripe watermelon at the start of summer, devouring it instantly and letting the juice drip down your face without a care in the world. You just need to take it in and leave everything else behind, and in that moment, all feels right in the world.