To get ready for July 4, I thumped watermelons. Standing in the produce aisle of a Hampden grocery store, I tried to determine the ripeness of watermelons by picking them up and thumping their bellies. This is one of those skills, like eyeballing a crab's leg and determining that it is about to shed its shell, that comes with practice. I'm not there yet.
Nonetheless, I crave watermelon every Independence Day. It is a patriotic fruit: red, white and almost blue. Moreover, cracking open a watermelon, like throwing a Fourth of July picnic, marks the beginning of summer. Unless you are munching on melon during our nation's birthday, you are not, in my estimation, a real American.
Per serving: 313 calories, 18 grams protein, 23 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 11 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 130 milligrams cholesterol, 248 milligrams sodium
There is much to be said for the practice of simply eating a slice of naked watermelon. It is pure, primal joy. Sometimes I dress up my melon slice with a little salt, or a sprinkle of black pepper.
This summer, I felt the urge to try some new cooking tricks with my old friend. Little did I know that fooling around with watermelon is trendy. But when I paged through this month's glossy magazines, watermelon cuisine was everywhere.
Fine Cooking covered balls of watermelon with a ginger syrup. Better Homes and Gardens skewered watermelon with bamboo and topped it with an ancho chile coating. The July issue of Food & Wine had more watermelon in it than a Baltimore a-rab's cart. The magazine told how to make watermelon and tequila cocktail, and a watermelon salad with feta cheese, a favorite, the magazine reported of chef Jacques Pepin. And in its cover article on the nation's best new chefs, Christopher Kostow, chef at Meadowood resort in St. Helena, Calif., told how he grilled pieces of watermelon and served them with curried shrimp.
"Watermelon used to be relegated to the picnic table, but no longer," said Kate Heddings, senior editor at Food & Wine in New York. "Chefs have been experimenting with it, and people follow their lead. It is a seasonal, inexpensive ingredient that you can play with."
Out in California, Kostow said that grilling watermelon gives it a slight smoky flavor. He sprinkles a little sugar on one side of each slice. When the sugar meets the heat from the grill, it gives the melon an appealing glaze, he said.
Kostow told me that as a youth growing up in Highland Park, Ill., he had the usual encounters with watermelon. "I ate slices that were as cold as humanly possible. Then in college, you soak it with liquor."
But now, as a 32-year-old chef, he "likes to take a ubiquitous ingredient like watermelon and stand it on its head," Kostow said.
Meanwhile, back at the Super Fresh in Hampden, I thumped away at a stack of watermelons shipped in from Georgia, trying to find one that had the telltale resonance of a hollow door.
But when I got it home, and sliced my chosen melon open, I saw that it was soft, too ripe, in its middle.
I carved out the soft spots and proceeded to make Kostow's grilled watermelon and shrimp dish.
It was not difficult. The most time-consuming step was peeling the raw shrimp.
Grilling the watermelon slices was a first for me. I found it thrilling. I used a grill basket, a wire mesh concoction. The watermelon slices smoked as they sat atop the fire. It was trial by fire, as the softer, somewhat flabby sections of the melon sagged in the heat. The firm, fit sections, glistened.
Since the grill was fired up, I used it to cook the shrimp as well, tossing them in a skillet I placed on the grill grate. Then I built a pyramid of ingredients on my dinner plate. A dollop of plain Greek yogurt was the first level. Then came the watermelon slice and finally the curried shrimp. The textures - crunchy shrimp, juicy melon, smooth yogurt - were appealing.
There was also a green salad that went with the shrimp and melon. It was terrific. The chef had recommended using mache, a hard-to-find green, for this salad. My substitution, baby spinach, worked well. The spinach was mixed with sliced cucumber and mint leaves, dressed with lime juice.
The whole meal - curried shrimp, grilled watermelon, tangy yogurt and crisp green salad - was a success.
There was also a patriotic note. With curried shrimp and Greek yogurt served on watermelon it was, Kostow noted, a dish that reflected "the American melting pot."
Curried Shrimp with Grilled Watermelon
Makes: 4 servings
teaspoon curry powder
cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
large shrimp (about 3/4 pound) shelled and deveined
Kirby (pickling) cucumbers ( 1/2 pound) cut into spears
tablespoons coarsely chopped mint
tablespoon fresh lime juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
pound watermelon, without the rind, sliced into flat triangles, 1/2 -inch thick
sugar for sprinkling on melon
cups packed mache, baby spinach, or romaine leaves
cup Greek style yogurt
cup salted, roasted pistachios, chopped