Managing a mix that works: watermelon and tomatoes

September 11, 2002|By Rob Kasper

THESE ARE the times that try common sense. These are the times when all the usual combinations of summer foods have been exhausted. These are the times when there is a strong temptation to get exotic, to go where few fruit and vegetables have gone before.

That is how I ended up with watermelon and tomatoes in my salad. At some level this pairing made sense. Both were red, both were in season and both were overwhelming the household.

There is a concept in agriculture known as crop management. Basically, it means staying on top of your yields, making sure you, not the plants, are running the show. It is a concept that I, as a small-time vegetable gardener, struggle with.

Watermelon, according to the seasonal rhythm of things, is a delight to be enjoyed in July and August. Back in July and August, however, the watermelon plant in my garden was taking it easy. Then in September, as the pumpkin season approached, the vine started pumping out melons faster than the Washington Redskins scored preseason touchdowns.

This might not have happened if the plant had been put in the ground early in the spring. But it was chilly in the spring, and I wasn't thinking about the midsummer joys of melondom. Part of this crop-management thing, I gather, is being able to delay your gratification for several months.

I have also been up to my eyeballs in cherry tomatoes. One grape tomato plant, which looked liked it was dead had nonetheless been producing ample supplies of out teardrop shaped fruit. Meanwhile, a sprawler, a cherry tomato plant known as Super Super Sweet, has been delivering more tomatoes, about the size of quarter, than I know what to do with.

In the past few weeks, I have gone through the familiar stages of the cherry tomato syndrome. During the initial onslaught of cherry tomatoes, I ate them like candy. For the next batch, I sliced them in half, brushed with olive oil and sea salt, and let them bake in a very low oven, 250 degrees, for two to three hours. The resulting oven-dried tomatoes were sometimes tossed in salads. But mostly they were eaten in their fragrant, crisp, just-out-of-the-oven state.

Then after a recent rain, inspiration struck as I watched the watermelon vine wrap itself around some tomato plants. If these two were going to socialize in the garden, why not try this union at the table?

It turns out that plenty of chefs were already commingling this seemingly unlikely pair. While prowling around for recipes, I found a Gourmet magazine preparation that mixed watermelons, tomatoes and rum, one from Sunset magazine that made a salsa out of watermelon, tomatoes, and mint, and one from Food & Wine magazine, that tossed watermelon, basil leaves and tomatoes together and covered them with spicy dressing made of feta cheese

I chose the cheese route instead of the booze or the mint.

I tinkered with the original recipe, which Food & Wine got from Ana Sortun, chef at the Boston area restaurant, Oleana. It called for a large roasted jalapeno pepper; I used half of one, and perhaps could have gotten away with no pepper at all. The half-pepper gave the cheese sauce a pleasant pink color, but not much heat. The sauce didn't seem to need it. I also doubled the amount of basil called for, in part because I have too much basil growing in my back yard. Another "crop management" issue.

The watermelon and cherry tomato mixture, topped with a little chopped basil, was remarkably good. For years these two summer favorites have been falling in my lap. Finally, pushed by a garden glut, I wised up and put them together.

Watermelon And Tomato Salad With Feta Sauce

Yield 6 servings

5 ounces feta cheese

1/4 cup hot water

5 tablespoons olive oil

12 wedges of watermelon (with or without seeds) rind removed

1-pint cherry tomatoes halved.

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

1 roasted jalapeno pepper, (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

If using the pepper, peel, stem, and seed it. Put it in a blender. Add the feta cheese, hot water, and 4 tablespoons of oil and process until very smooth.

Arrange the watermelon and tomatoes on a large platter or in salad bowls. Scatter the basil on top. Drizzle with remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper; serve with the feta sauce.

--Adapted from recipe in August 2002 issue of Food & Wine

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