In season: Watermelon

More than 1 billion pounds of watermelon were sold in the United States last year, and Aaron Pettiford Jr. was responsible for a few thousand of those. Pettiford grows watermelons in Jackson County and sells them at the Lilburn Farmers Market and at the flea market at the Starlight Six Drive-In on Moreland Avenue.

Watermelon isn’t just popular with humans. Pettiford says his biggest challenge is keeping the critters away. Chipmunks, squirrels and possums see the really young fruit as a source of water. If he can get the fruit past the size of an orange, he has a good chance of getting it to full size.

Pettiford tries out different varieties of watermelon in his home garden in Decatur. Some customers want something small and seedless, while others want substantial size. Bigger and sweeter is his niche. His current favorites are Crimson Sweet, Jubilee and Sugar Baby. Yellow meat watermelons are becoming more popular, and he’s trying several varieties this summer.

A whole watermelon can sit on your counter for up to a week, but it won’t ripen further or get any sweeter. Refrigerated, it will keep for up to two weeks, but it can begin to turn mushy after five days or so. Pettiford thinks chilling the melon makes it taste sweeter.

Is there a mystery to picking a ripe watermelon? The National Watermelon Promotion Board offers these tips. First, lift it. The watermelon should be heavy for its size. (Watermelon is 92 percent water.) Then turn it over. The underside of the watermelon should have a creamy yellow spot from where it sat on the ground and ripened in the sun. Pettiford says the idea of thumping a watermelon to see whether it’s ripe will work, but only if you’ve thumped a lot of watermelons and know just exactly what you’re listening for. He added, “You never really know until you put it in your mouth if it’s going to be sweet.”

A 5-pound watermelon should yield about 11 cups of edible watermelon. Two cups of watermelon has only 80 calories and provides 25 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C and 30 percent of vitamin A. Most impressive is its concentration of lycopene, the plant pigment that makes foods red and is considered an antioxidant. That same 2-cup serving averages 18 mg of lycopene vs. 4 mg in a medium tomato. How about a bacon, lettuce and watermelon sandwich?

At local farmers markets

Fruit: Apples, Asian pears, figs, melons and muscadines

Vegetables and herbs: Arugula, basil, beans, beets, butter beans, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, fennel, garlic, lettuce, micro greens, okra, onions, peppers, potatoes, southern peas, summer squash and tomatoes

New farmers market:

inTown Farmers Market


3 to 7 p.m.

563 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta

For more information: 404-484-0944

Last weekend until 2011:

Lilburn Farmers Market

Friday, Aug. 27

4 to 8 p.m.

Railroad Avenue beside Lilburn City Hall

For more information: 678-380-4095

Events this week

Morningside Farmers Market -- cooking demo

9:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 28

Chef Gary Mennie, Livingstone

For information:

Peachtree Road Farmers Market -- cooking demo

10 am. Saturday, Aug. 28

Chef Ron Eyester, Rosebud

For information:

Piedmont Park Green Market -- cooking demo

11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 28

Walter Osterbind

For information:

Produce from elsewhere

Just coming in: Colorado cantaloupes, Florida avocadoes, Mexican lemons, Michigan carrots, Oregon blackberries and onions

At their peak: California apples, grapes, honeydews, nectarines, okra and peaches; New York and North Carolina beans

Going out of season: California strawberries; Mexican avocadoes, blueberries and mangoes; North Carolina sweet potatoes; Washington apricots, cherries, corn and onions

From local reports, The Packer, USDA Market News

Watermelon Gazpacho

Hands on: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Serves: 12

Watermelon gazpacho has been a popular item for the chef demos at local farmers markets this summer. It’s an easily adapted recipe; just use the vegetables and herbs that you prefer. For example, chef Chris McCook of Athens Country Club made a version at the Morningside market with dill instead of mint and parsley, and no red pepper. He garnished his with feta cheese. You can make this gazpacho up to two days ahead.

6 cups peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped watermelon, plus 1 cup finely chopped

1 jalapeno, optional

1/2 cup cranberry or orange juice

1 cup peeled, seeded and diced cucumber

3/4 cup diced red bell pepper (about 1 pepper)

1/4 cup diced red onion

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, minced

1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced

Juice of 1 lime

1 1/2 tablespoons sherry or red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

1 clove garlic

8 slices French bread

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup lump crabmeat, picked over

In a blender jar, combine 6 cups watermelon, jalapeno and juice; puree until mixture is smooth. Pass through a sieve into a large bowl or refrigerator storage container; discard pulp.

Add cucumber, bell pepper, onion, mint, parsley, lime juice, vinegar and remaining cup chopped melon to watermelon liquid, and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate soup until well chilled, at least 1 hour.

Cut garlic clove in half, rub on bread slices. Brush with olive oil and toast in toaster oven or under broiler until golden brown and crisp.

When ready to serve, top gazpacho with crab and serve with garlic toast.

Per serving: 108 calories (percent of calories from fat, 18), 4 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams fat (trace saturated fat), 9 milligrams cholesterol, 138 milligrams sodium.