Chomped, slurped, even sipped, watermelon is taste of summer

You can use it in salads with hot sauce or sweet teas with a shot of booze; you can pickle the rind, or even fry it

Summer, for me, has always meant an abundance of watermelon.

Growing up in rural South Georgia in the ’60s and ’70s, you’d see pickups so overloaded with ginormous melons that they almost touched the ground. (You still do, in fact. You just can’t score one for a dollar bill.) And when it came time to cut a watermelon, it wasn’t unusual to have an entire half melon all to yourself.

Dressed in wet swimsuits, we’d cut out the frothy pink heart and slurp it down, juice dripping down our arms and legs. The adults would warn us not to swallow too many seeds, lest a vine take root in our stomach. (Yuk, yuk.) We’d throw what we didn’t want to the hogs and let them go at it, jostling for choice chunks of watermelon that I’d probably save in the refrigerator today.

A few weeks ago, I posted a note on Facebook asking for watermelon recipes. No surprise that a number of folks from my hometown, Bainbridge, told me they were purists. “No salt, no feta, no basil, no onion. Just cold and unadorned,” said Bryant Conger, now a physician in Roswell.

Others offered exotic ideas reflecting their own heritage.

Cookbook author and Mumbai native Raghavan Iyer said he likes to make watermelon curry with red chiles and garlic. The dish, from the Indian region of Rajasthan, is in his cookbook "660 Curries" (Workman Publishing, $29.95).

Nandita Godbole, a chef, cookbook author and blogger in Roswell, piqued my attention with the mention of Watermelon Bombs, so I asked her to elaborate. Seems she dusts melon balls with a mixture of rock salt, pepper, dried mint, dried mango and roasted cumin. Sometimes she douses them with rum or mango vodka.

While many people make a salad of watermelon and feta, often with red onion and fresh mint or basil, New Orleans chef Alon Shaya likes to spice it up with harissa, a red-chile paste from northwest Africa that is common in his native Israel.

As the James Beard Award-winning chef writes in his new cookbook, "Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel" (Knopf, $35), the harissa adds "a whole new dimension, a darker, ruddier flavor, to the mix." Made from rehydrated arbol, guajillo and ancho chiles, and a cooling touch of cumin and coriander, Shaya's harissa is downright addictive. It makes a strong case for putting hot sauce on cool, sweet watermelon.

As I tested recipes for this article, I was reminded how lovely watermelon is to sip. And there’s no need to be fancy about it: Once you’ve scooped the flesh out of half a melon, I invite you to turn it up like a cup and slurp down the accumulated pink juices.

To get a watermelon base for concocting drinks, you can puree chunks in a blender or food processor. Or simply put it in a bowl and crush it with a potato masher—the soft flesh breaks up easily. If you want a cleaner juice, strain it through a wire-mesh sieve or cheesecloth.

Now you can concoct agua frescas, teas, lemonades, cocktails.

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A nice drink at 1Kept Kitchen & Bar in Buckhead is made with a syrup of sugar and watermelon-flavored tea. Frozen melon balls take the place of ice cubes and keep the drink from watering down. For an adult beverage, you can add a shot of booze.

I shamelessly stole 1Kept’s idea to concoct my Watermelon Iced Tea with Boozy Option.

Instead of buying packaged flavored tea, I made traditional sweet tea, added watermelon puree and lemon juice, and found that it tasted good with whatever spirit I had nearby.

“Bourbon or gin?” I asked my friends, then proceeded to shake up Mason jars filled with my “secret tea.” (With mint springs, lemon slices and frozen melon balls, it is quite a pretty drink, if I do say so.) They chugged it down and told me it tasted like summer in a glass.

Of course, once you’ve assembled your watermelon salads and libations, there’s the matter of the rind. Sure, you can toss it. But why not turn it into something delicious?

Southerners for generations have pickled watermelon rind or used it in sweet-savory chowchow. But the rind can have other uses.

“I slice the rind thin and treat it like green-papaya salad,” Gunshow executive chef Joey Ward told me. He tosses the rind with fish sauce, tamarind, palm (or brown) sugar, chiles, herbs, limes, shallots and garlic — and says it’s “great to serve with fish or grilled chicken.”

In "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking" (Gibbs Smith, $45) Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart take it a step further, battering and deep-frying the rind like okra.

In the process of cooking at high heat, the rind almost melts inside the crunchy crust. Fry up a batch, and watch it disappear. If you really want to wow your guests, pair it with hot sauce. As in Shaya’s harissa!

Fried watermelon rind with harissa: Now that’s an Old South-meets-New South bite that proves how versatile an ingredient watermelon can be. Sweet or savory, in chunks or just drunk, it’s a favorite summertime ritual.

And if you prefer, you can always eat it neat. It’s perfect all by itself.

Recipes:

These recipes showcase summer watermelon in a variety of ways. You can use it in salad and drinks, even fry the rind and eat it as a snack.

Alon Shaya’s Watermelon and Feta Salad with Harissa

Sweet watermelon and salty feta have become a modern classic. Alon Shaya, the Israeli-born chef who lives in New Orleans, zips up the combination with a dressing made from spicy harissa. You may use store-bought harissa, or see recipe for Shaya’s version.

Alon Shaya’s Harissa

Once you make this, you’ll want to eat it with everything (eggs, rice, beans … watermelon!). If you can’t find guajillos, Shaya suggests using four additional ancho chiles.

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Fried Watermelon Rind

Who knew that watermelon rind can be batter-fried and eaten as a snack? Alon Shaya’s Harissa makes a great dipping sauce for the salty nosh; ranch dressing or comeback sauce would be wonderful, too.

Watermelon Iced Tea with Boozy Option

This refreshing summer libation, adapted from a drink served at 1Kept Kitchen & Bar in Buckhead, is nothing more than sweet tea with watermelon puree and lemon juice. Feel free to add a glug of your favorite booze.