A Slice of Summer

Red, ripe watermelon rolls onto the local scene

July 21, 1999|By Tracy Sahler | Tracy Sahler,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Who can resist the seductive sweetness and crunchy coolness of watermelon at this time of year?

As a thirst-quenching snack or ingredient in dishes like Watermelon-Strawberry-Mint Salsa or Watermelon-Granita-Filled Lime Cups, the versatile, red-ripe fruit is now at its peak. It's just as likely to turn up as part of an elegant fruit tray at a wedding reception as to be the star of an outdoor, no-holds-barred, seed-spitting contest.

But there's even more reason to celebrate the summer treat. Truckloads of plump locally grown watermelon have arrived on the scene.

"That's the advantage of having watermelon farmers right here," says Lisa Williams of the Mar-Del Watermelon Association. "[The fruit] goes right from the field to the supermarket, with no travel time."

Most Maryland watermelon is grown in Wicomico, Dorchester and Caroline counties, with a substantial crop coming from neighboring western Sussex County, Del. Those areas have the sandy, well-drained soil and mild climate the watermelons need to thrive.

According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Maryland produces 59.6 million pounds of watermelon a year -- enough to keep watermelon lovers here and in other East Coast cities satisfied.

Farmers like Charles Wright IV of Mardela Springs, whose family has stocked the red-and-white-striped Wrights Produce stand on U.S. 50 with fruits and vegetables for 20 years, started planting seeds in May for the current harvest.

Seeded watermelons are typically grown on plastic, with the vines and fruit sprawling over the sturdy black covering that holds in the sun's warmth and moisture from irrigation. Seedless varieties, delicate enough that farmers start with transplants for best results, are always grown on plastic, which offers the best control of growing conditions, Wright says.

Harvesting usually is done by laborers who start the watermelon season in Florida and work their way up the East Coast. Delmarva on the Eastern Shore is the last stop.

Cutters walk through a field, checking each melon and cutting loose ripe ones. Other crew members gather the melons and pass them, hand to hand, into a truck. From there, the melons are shipped to markets or to a roadside produce stand just a few miles away to await purchase.

Wright is always amazed at his customers' methods for choosing a watermelon.

"They knock on 'em. They beat on 'em. It doesn't tell 'em a whole lot," he says.

"It's comical because people don't know. The watermelons really are all ripe. You tell them that, and they look at you like you're the biggest liar that ever was."

"The technology is so advanced today," Williams says. "It's almost unlikely that by the time it gets to the supermarket it wouldn't be ripe."

Skeptics can check for ripeness by looking for a flat, buttery yellow bottom to show the melon has ripened in the field, a green curlicue stem and a little bit of shine on the surface.

Watermelons come in a range of shapes and sizes -- from hefty oblong ovals weighing in at 30 pounds to petite round models sized for two. Choose a watermelon without dents, bruises and cuts.

A watermelon stays fresh for two to three days. After it has been cut, the exposed surfaces should be covered with plastic, and the melon stored in the refrigerator for no more than a week.

If you find yourself with extra watermelon, try these recipes from the National Watermelon Promotion Board.

Watermelon-Granita-filled Lime Cups

Serves 12

12 limes (reserve 2 tablespoons juice)

1 cup sugar

2 cups water

4 cups watermelon cubes

1/2 cup currants or raisins

crushed ice, optional

To make lime cups: Cut limes in half lengthwise; cut around pulp of each half with sharp knife, leaving peel intact. Scoop out pulp, using spoon to loosen pulp from peel, and reserve 2 tablespoons lime juice for granita. Set lime cups aside. Stir together sugar and water in small saucepan; heat to boiling. Cool slightly. Place watermelon in container of food processor; pulse to puree watermelon. Place colander over bowl; pour pureed watermelon into colander to strain out seeds, forcing watermelon through with back of spoon, if needed. Stir reserved lime juice and cooled sugar mixture into pureed watermelon. Pour into 13-inch-by-9-inch-by-2-inch pan; freeze until firm, about 4 hours. To serve, scrape frozen watermelon mixture with spoon to make granita. Stir in currants for "seeds." Mound granita in lime cups. Serve on bed of crushed ice, if desired.

Watermelon-Strawberry-Mint Salsa

Serves 4

1 cup diced watermelon (seeds removed)

3/4 cup diced strawberries

1/4 cup diced red onion

2 tablespoons diced, seeded jalapeno chili

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 teaspoon sugar

Gently stir together all ingredients in bowl. Let stand to blend flavors, about 1 hour. Delicious on grilled jerk chicken.

Watermelon Lemonade

Serves 4

6 cups watermelon cubes (seeds removed)

1/4 cup raspberries

1 cup water

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup lemon juice

Place watermelon, raspberries and water in container of electric blender; cover and blend until smooth. Strain through fine-mesh strainer into a pitcher. Stir in sugar and lemon juice until sugar dissolves. Refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour.

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