Watermelon is 92 percent water, making it almost as thirst-quenching as an actual glass of water. (Ancient Egyptians, who knew something about desert heat, began harvesting watermelons nearly 5,000 years ago.) With Aug. 3, National Watermelon Day, on the horizon, it’s time to consider the many ways you might enjoy the unofficial fruit of hot, hot summer.
Seedless varieties, which are not the result of genetic engineering but are in fact the product of the age-old practice of cross-breeding, now make up about 85 percent of the watermelon market. That’s bad news if you want to have a seed-spitting contest, but great if you’d rather not pick seeds out of your salad or if you plan on pureeing your watermelon for a smoothie.
Choose a melon that has a creamy yellow spot on its underside, where it rested on the ground while ripening. It should feel heavy for its size and make a hollow sound when tapped, both indications that it is juicy. A whole watermelon will keep on your countertop for a week or so, longer if you store it in the refrigerator. Cut up and stored in an airtight container, watermelon pieces will stay fresh for 3 to 5 days.
Watermelon Caprese Salad: This is a great alternative to the popular tomato and mozzarella salad when tomatoes aren’t yet available, or when you want an even juicier version of the classic. Simply substitute thin slices of watermelon for the tomato (you can even cut them into circles with a biscuit cutter so they are round) and alternate them with slices of fresh mozzarella on a platter. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and just a few drops of balsamic vinegar, a shower of basil leaves, and a sprinkling of sea salt. A fun variation: Use tiny balls of mozzarella (called ciliege) and cut the watermelon into tiny balls with a melon baller.
Chocolate-Dipped Watermelon Slices: The trick to dipping watermelon in chocolate is to freeze the fruit beforehand, so water droplets can’t ruin the chocolate, and then to keep it frozen until serving. Pat dry some small watermelon slices and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Freeze for at least 2 hours. Dip into melted and cooled chocolate, return to the baking sheet, sprinkle with some pink Hawaiian sea salt if you’d like, and freeze again until serving, up to 2 hours.
Watermelon, Avocado, and Corn Salsa: Combine little cubes of watermelon, avocado, and cooked and cooled corn kernels (here’s a way to use that leftover corn from last night’s barbecue) with some lime juice, a chopped shallot, some minced jalapeno, and a little cilantro for a juicy salsa that’s great with chips and also works as a complement to grilled fish, chicken, or steak.
Ice Cream and Watermelon “Cake”: Trim away both ends of a seedless watermelon. Stand it on one of its flat ends on a cutting board and use a sharp serrated knife to cut away the rind of the melon. Using the bottom of a springform pan as a guide, cut a round by 1½-inch thick circle (reserve the remaining watermelon for other uses). Smooth an inch-thick layer of softened mint chip ice cream across the bottom of the pan and place in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm up. Then, smooth an inch-thick layer of softened vanilla ice cream over the mint chip ice cream. Place the watermelon round on top. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and freeze until the ice cream is very firm, at least 3 hours and up to one day. Remove from the freezer, remove the sides from the pan, poke some chocolate chips into the top and sides of the cake, let stand for 10 minutes, slice and serve.
Watermelon-Strawberry Yogurt Smoothies: A summery version of a breakfast classic. Combine chunks of seedless watermelon, stemmed strawberries, plain Greek yogurt, and honey to taste in a blender and blend until smooth. Give your smoothie a nutritional boost by adding a little protein powder and/or some chia seeds to the blender.
Watermelon Granita: This is a light and palate-cleansing alternative to heavier summer desserts, and couldn’t be easier to make. Puree chunks of seedless watermelon with some lime juice and sugar to taste. Spread the mixture across the bottom of a shallow pan and, every 30 minutes or so, rake a fork across it to break up the larger frozen pieces. It is ready when it has a slushy, semi-solid texture, 2 to 3 hours in the freezer. For a sophisticated variation, add some vodka, tequila, or gin to the mixture along with some chopped basil or mint. But use a light hand with the booze: Too much alcohol will prevent the granita from freezing adequately. A tablespoon per cup of watermelon will flavor the dessert without affecting its quality.
Chile-Dusted Grilled Watermelon Slices: Counterintuitive though it may be, salt, chilies, and lime juice bring out the sweetness of grilled watermelon. Cut your melon into wedges, sprinkle with a mixture of sugar, salt, and cayenne pepper, and cook on a gas grill for a minute or two on each side, just until grill marks form, and then sprinkle with some lime juice before serving.
Watermelon, Shrimp and Mango Skewers: Thread 1-inch chunks of watermelon, peeled uncooked shrimp, and mango chunks onto skewers, grill just until browned, and serve warm or at room temperature as an appetizer or a main dish. Serve with hot sauce on the side, or marinate the shrimp for 2 hours in the refrigerator in a flavorful mixture of coconut milk, curry powder and chopped cilantro and serve with lime wedges on the side.
Watermelon-Coconut Paletas: If you’ve got some ice pop molds around (or if you don’t—you can always improvise with little paper cups and popsicle sticks), fill them with seedless watermelon chunks pureed with some cream of coconut (not coconut milk) and a little bit of lime juice in a blender. For grown-up ice pops, add a little bit (but not too much, or you will have a freezing problem) white rum.
Watermelon, Cucumber, and Shrimp Canapes: Stack a slice of cucumber, a cube of watermelon, and a small shrimp and pierce with a toothpick to create a pretty canapé. Serve with cocktail sauce on the side for a summery twist on shrimp cocktail.
Carving a watermelon can be a messy business. So, here comes the Watermelon Slicester.The tool yields neat slices and cubes and enables you to remove them without juice everywhere. It also works for cantaloupe and honeydew. Dishwasher safe, too. $9.99. Available on chefn.com -Peter M. Gianotti