Watermelon Confidential: Dessert And So Much More

Half of a ripe, juicy watermelon sits on a colorful striped cloth i i

The average American eats more than 16 pounds of watermelon a year — but it isn't just for dessert anymore. It's delicious paired with salty cheeses, bitter salad greens, acidic vinegars and spicy seasonings. Susan Russo for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Susan Russo for NPR
Half of a ripe, juicy watermelon sits on a colorful striped cloth

The average American eats more than 16 pounds of watermelon a year — but it isn't just for dessert anymore. It's delicious paired with salty cheeses, bitter salad greens, acidic vinegars and spicy seasonings.

Susan Russo for NPR

About The Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

I've already heard it this year. Have you? Thump. Thump. Thump. It's the thumping of watermelons.

You'd better get used to hearing it, since July and August are the peak months of a long watermelon season that runs from May to October.

Watermelon is big in the U.S. In 2006, $434 million worth of it was sold here. Though 44 states grow them, nearly all watermelons — 4.29 billion pounds' worth in 2007 — are grown in Florida, California, Texas, Georgia and Arizona. It's all about supply and demand — the average American eats more than 16 pounds of the fruit every year.

Considered primarily a dessert fruit, most people eat watermelon plain, which is a shame since it has great potential to enliven savory dishes. The key is to balance the fruit's sweetness with something salty, bitter, acidic or spicy. That's why watermelon is delicious when paired with salty cheeses, bitter salad greens, acidic vinegars and spicy seasonings such as hot curry powder. It's also a refreshing complement to smoky-flavored grilled meats and seafood.

First you need to know how to select a watermelon, which is where the thumping comes in. What is the point of thumping a watermelon? I didn't know the answer, so I decided to do some investigative reporting. Here's what I discovered: People sure do have a lot of opinions on why we thump watermelons.

I approached a well-dressed elderly couple looking at some watermelons at the farmers market and asked, "Why do you slap a watermelon before choosing one?"

Husband: "Because you have to hear the thud. Whack it hard with the palm of your hand, and listen for a good thud."

Wife: "It's more of a fump."

Husband: "A fump? What's a fump?"

Wife: "Oh, what difference does it make? As long as it makes some kind of sound."

Husband: "Well, of course it has to make some sound; you're whacking it."

I decided to move on.

I spotted a middle-aged, burly man slapping his way through a whole bin of watermelons. When I asked what he was listening for, he said, "Well, it has to be solid when you hit it. That's what you want — a solid feeling."

Then a young woman with oversized dark sunglasses walked up and said, "Um, sorry to interrupt, but you actually need to listen for a hollow sound."

I could feel my Pulitzer slipping away.

I decided to go to the farmers directly. Some said to listen for a thud. Others said a hollow, resonant sound. Some shrugged their shoulders and admitted they just didn't know.

Ugh.

I did learn how to select a watermelon, though. Look for a firm, symmetrical melon that is free from bruises, cuts or dents. It should have a healthy sheen and scratch marks on the rind, which are from bees that have pollinated the fruit. Pick up the melon to make sure it's heavy for its size (watermelons are 92 percent water), then turn it over to look for a creamy yellow spot where it ripened in the sun. I found no definitive guidelines on thumping.

I wonder if ancient people thumped their watermelons. Wall paintings in Egypt depicting large green fruits suggest that Egyptians were the first people to cultivate and eat watermelon 5,000 years ago.

Watermelon is the fruit of the African vine citrullus lanatus and is in the same plant family as cantaloupe, pumpkin and squash. The earliest wild watermelons were actually smaller and bitter tasting, unlike the sweet melons we enjoy today.

Merchant ships enabled the transport of watermelon along the Mediterranean Sea and to regions as far east as China by the 10th century. By the 13th century, the Moors, who invaded Spain, had introduced watermelon to Europe.

Watermelon was brought to the United States by African slaves and European colonists in the early 17th century. Thereafter, both colonists and Native Americans grew watermelons, which eventually led to bigger, sweeter melons as well as different varieties.

Today, numerous types of watermelons are grown, varying in size, shape, rind pattern, flesh color (including deep red, pink, yellow and orange) and even seeds.

Though seedless watermelons were developed in the 1950s, they did not become popular until about 1990, which coincided with their arrival in most major supermarkets. Today, seedless watermelons are valued for both their flavor and their convenience. Keep in mind that although seedless watermelons do not contain the typical hard, black seeds, they do contain some soft, edible white seeds.

If you're choosing a watermelon and you have an irresistible urge to thump one, listen for "a solid resonance." That, according to gastronome extraordinaire Harold McGee, indicates ripeness. Now, if I could only figure out what he means by a solid resonance.

Grilled Watermelon Slices With Honey-Lime Sauce

Grilled Watermelon Slices With Honey-Lime Sauce i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Grilled Watermelon Slices With Honey-Lime Sauce
Susan Russo for NPR

Grilling watermelon imparts a slightly smoky flavor that contrasts surprisingly well with the melon's inherent sweetness. Though it's delicious grilled plain, it's irresistible when drizzled with this sugary, tangy honey-lime sauce.

Yields a scant 1/2 cup (enough sauce for 1 small- to medium-sized watermelon, but make more or less depending on how much you need. Leftover sauce can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)

1 small-medium sized watermelon (8-10 pounds)

Honey for brushing watermelon slices

Sauce

Juice of 2 limes (about 4 tablespoons)

Zest of 1/2 lime (about 1/2 teaspoon)

3 tablespoons honey

2 teaspoons water

1 teaspoon light brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon salt

To make the sauce, whisk all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. Taste and adjust as necessary.

Prepare a hot grill.

Halve a watermelon, then quarter it and cut into 1-inch-thick slices. Brush both sides of each slice with a thin coat of honey and place on the hot grill. Grill until just browned, about 1 1/2 minutes per side.

Place watermelon slices on a plate, and drizzle with the honey-lime sauce. Serve immediately.

Arugula And Watermelon Salad With Prosciutto And Blue Cheese

Arugula And Watermelon Salad With Prosciutto And Blue Cheese i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Arugula And Watermelon Salad With Prosciutto And Blue Cheese
Susan Russo for NPR

The watermelon's sweetness is balanced by a sharp trio of peppery arugula, pungent blue cheese and salty prosciutto in this simple yet sophisticated salad. For a variation, goat cheese also works well.

Makes 4 servings

Dressing

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar**

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped (with extra for garnish, if desired)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Salad

8 cups arugula

1/2 cup diced seedless watermelon

1/4 cup seedless red grapes, halved

2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto

2 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese

To make the dressing, whisk all of the ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

To prepare the salad, place arugula, watermelon and grapes in a large bowl. Add dressing and toss gently to coat. Divide the salad among 4 plates, topping each with prosciutto slices and crumbled blue cheese. Garnish with additional parsley, if desired.

**White balsamic vinegar is made from white wine vinegar and grapes. Because it is milder than traditional brown balsamic vinegar and doesn't stain food, it's preferable for this watermelon salad. It can be found at specialty markets and most major supermarkets. Rice vinegar can be substituted.

Thai Shrimp And Watermelon On Jasmine Rice

Thai Shrimp And Watermelon On Jasmine Rice i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Thai Shrimp And Watermelon On Jasmine Rice
Susan Russo for NPR

Shrimp pairs beautifully with many types of fresh fruit. In this Thai-inspired dish, marinated shrimp is cooked until crisp, then topped with sweet and tangy warm watermelon. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.

Makes 4 servings

Marinade

4 teaspoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

2 teaspoons lime juice

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

24 extra-large or jumbo shrimp

Shrimp

5 teaspoons toasted sesame oil, separated

4 teaspoons rice vinegar

8 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce

2 teaspoons light brown sugar

4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

2 Thai chilies, finely chopped (or to taste; the more seeds, the hotter the dish)

3 green onions, thinly sliced

2 cups diced watermelon

2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil, preferably Thai basil**

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped unsalted peanuts

2 cups cooked jasmine or basmati rice

To make the marinade, whisk all ingredients in a bowl. Pour into a large zip-top bag or a plastic container. Add the shrimp, shaking well. Refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes.

Remove shrimp from marinade and drain. Heat 4 teaspoons of sesame oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and saute 5 to 6 minutes, turning to ensure that they brown evenly on both sides. When nearly cooked, add rice vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger and chilies. Cook until the shrimp meat is opaque and the sauce is slightly thickened.

Meanwhile, in a separate large skillet over medium-high heat, warm remaining 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Saute green onions until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add diced watermelon for 30 to 60 seconds, just until it sizzles. Turn off heat. Add to the pan with the shrimp. Add basil and cilantro and toss gently.

Divide rice among four plates, top with 1/4 of the shrimp and watermelon, and sprinkle with chopped peanuts.

**Thai basil is a spicy, pointy-leafed basil that can be found in Asian markets or specialty markets.

Steak Tacos With Watermelon-Mango-Jicama Salsa

Steak Tacos With Watermelon-Mango-Jicama Salsa i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Steak Tacos With Watermelon-Mango-Jicama Salsa
Susan Russo for NPR

Rich, savory steak tacos are topped with a refreshingly light watermelon-mango-jicama salsa. The salsa provides just the right balance of sweetness, spiciness and sourness. It is also delicious on top of grilled chicken, white fish, shrimp or scallops.

Makes 4 servings

Steak

4 (4-6 ounces) top sirloin steaks (1 to 1 1/2 inches thick)

Salt and pepper

8 white corn tortillas

1/2 cup cotija anejo cheese**

Salsa

2 cups diced watermelon

1 cup diced mango

3/4 cup diced cucumber, peeled and de-seeded

3/4 cup diced jicama, peeled

3 green onions, finely chopped

1 serrano chili, with half the seeds (or to taste)

1 small avocado, diced

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

2 tablespoons each finely chopped fresh mint and cilantro

Salt, to taste

Prepare a hot grill.

Season both sides of the steaks with salt and pepper, and set aside at room temperature while making the salsa.

In a medium bowl, add all salsa ingredients, and gently stir until well combined.

Place steaks on the grill, close cover and cook until charred, about 5 minutes. (Closing the cover will help create a charred exterior and a softer, juicer interior.) Turn steaks over, lower the heat to medium-high, and cook another 3 to 4 minutes for a medium-rare steak or 5 to 6 minutes for a medium steak. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

Heat tortillas on top rack of grill for about 1 minute per side, or until warmed through and slightly charred.

Divide the sliced steak among the 8 tortillas. Top each with a spoonful of salsa and a sprinkle of cheese. Serve immediately.

** Cotija anejo, a mild-flavored Mexican cheese with a crumbly texture, can be found in Mexican markets or in the refrigerator section of most major supermarkets. Queso fresco, another mild Mexican cheese, is a good substitute and also can be found in most major supermarkets.

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