Watermelon makes anxious gardener sweat it out, thumping

September 23, 2001|By Rob Kasper

After years of failed watermelon crops, some dating all the way back to those I planted in childhood from seeds spit from summer desserts, I have finally enjoyed my first successful harvest. Last week I moved from the juicy ranks of watermelon eaters to the fecund class of watermelon growers. I am the proud producer of a 10-pound Crimson Sweet watermelon.

Doubts swirled around me even as I harvested that melon. Was it ready? Was it ripe? Was it rotten? Compounding my concerns was the fact that this was actually the second melon to emerge from the garden. The first had met an unhappy fate a few weeks earlier. The first melon had also had been a Crimson Sweet. It too had grown from a seedling. It too had survived the vicissitudes of the striped cucumber beetle, the squash vine borer and an uncertain climate.

Yet when I brought that first garden watermelon home, so full of sweet promise, and sliced it open, there was nothing sweet about it. I had harvested this watermelon before its time.

As the second melon lingered on the vine, I waited for a sign -- some indication that the fullness of time, in watermelon terms, had come. I examined its skin, looking for signs of maturity, that veteran growers like 84-year-old John Selby use as indicators of ripeness. Farmer John, as he is known in Stevensville and neighboring Eastern Shore communities, had told me that as watermelons get older, their skin gets grayer. He said the skin of a ripe melon has lost the shiny, "slick look" of its early days and has replaced it with the subdued glow of maturity. He also told me to examine the melon's cream-colored belly and to give the melon the "thump test" by rapping it with my knuckles.

So for the last few weeks, on every visit to my weedy plot in the community garden in Druid Hill Park, I gave that melon a thorough going-over. I inspected its complexion. Its pale belly got more looks than Britney Spears. I tried the "deep thump" technique, but not being an experienced watermelon rapper, I did not know what I was hearing.

Then I learned about the tendril technique. Robert W. Knopp Jr., who grows produce in Anne Arundel County and sells it at the Sunday Farmers' Market, told me about it. He said that the tendril or "curlicue" is a growth that appears on the vine a few inches from where it attaches to the watermelon stem. When the tendril is dry, Knopp told me, the melon is ripe.

I checked the tendril, and its brown, withered state told me harvest time had come. So last Sunday, as a strong September sun warmed the afternoon, I cut the cord, freeing the watermelon from its vine.

That evening, with some trepidation, I sliced it open. The aroma was pleasing; the dark red color of the flesh was appealing. Most important, the flesh was sweet and had the crisp texture that melon lovers crave.

My crop yield, one watermelon in one year, is nothing to brag about. Yet the year feels like a success to me. One sweet watermelon this year, one large step to a many-meloned future.

Most of the melon disappeared at dessert. I used the remainder to make a watermelon salsa. Of course, I saved a few seeds for next year's crop.

Watermelon Salsa

Serves 4

4 cups seeded and diced watermelon

1/3 cup minced red onion

1/3 cup minced fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon minced jalapeno pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

In a medium-size, nonreactive bowl, toss all ingredients together. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes (no shortcuts). Serve immediately.

-- From Butter Beans to Blackberries by Ronni Lundy (North Point Press, 1999)

To prepare onion marmalade, heat butter in medium heavy saucepan. Add onions and cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the sugar and continue cooking until onions are very soft and browned, 8 to 10 minutes more. Add vinegar, wine and raisins and simmer until almost all liquids have evaporated and onion mixture is glistening and syrupy, about 5 minutes or more.

Stir in salt and pepper. Taste and if you would like marmalade slightly sweeter, stir in 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons additional sugar. (Marmalade can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using.) Makes about 2 / 3 cup or enough to garnish 4 burgers.

To prepare burgers, in bowl, combine turkey, curry powder, salt and pepper and mix well. Shape mixture into 4 patties.

Using nonstick cooking spray, oil grill rack and place 4 to 5 inches from heat source. Preheat grill. Cook burgers until completely cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. (Cooking time will vary, depending on type of grill used and intensity of heat.)

When done, top burgers with several thin slices of cheese and grill until melted. Place burgers on bottoms of buns. Spread each burger with 1 / 4 of the onion marmalade and top with 1 lettuce leaf. Cover with tops of buns.

Note: Use plain havarti cheese (not one with caraway seeds or herbs) or another mild cheese such as Monterey Jack.

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