Chef James Dishes: Three Ways to Watermelon
I’ll spare you the standard “When I was kid…summertime/hot day…watermelon juices dripping down my chin…aww, memories” introduction. Instead, I’ll proudly tell you that watermelon is the first food I ever grew myself. Okay, this might still fall under the category of a “When I was a kid” intro, but bear with me.
Nearly 30 years later, I still remember digging a small hole in the sandy lot behind our house in Florida and carefully placing the seeds I had saved from a watermelon that my mom brought home from the supermarket. I also remember the excruciating patience it took seven-year-old me as I watered, watched and waited for that vine to produce my favorite fruit in the world.
Since then, my tastes have not changed. In New York City, I don’t have a backyard for growing watermelons, but you might catch me pushing a stroller down the sidewalk with a watermelon crammed into the seat next to my son (they don’t fit beneath).
While I have been known to simply crack a watermelon open and eat the entire thing with a spoon in a matter of hours, this tactic for watermelon enjoyment ignores the awesome versatility of this summertime staple. If you want to do more with your watermelon than eat it straight off the cutting board in a sloppy mess, read on and we’ll get watermelon into everything on your table, from cocktails to salads.
I had you at cocktail, right? Watermelon juice is the perfect mixer for almost every type of drink. In fact, whenever we shake up some watermelon cocktails at home, the kids get their own watermelon mocktails with soda water and a twist of lime.
Watermelon juice is incredibly simple to make, but keep in mind that it should be used the same day it was made. The flavor of the juice changes noticeably after just 24 hours. Feel free to make a big batch early in the day and enjoy it that afternoon or evening. If you have any leftover (though I can’t imagine you would), finish it off at breakfast—maybe with a splash of Prosecco!
To make the juice, simply cube or scoop out the watermelon’s pink flesh, making sure to not scoop too close to the rind—the light colored flesh has very little flavor. Toss the watermelon cubes into a blender or food processor and blend on low.
Puréeing the fruit at high speed can pulverize seeds making the juice bitter or break down the pulp too much, which could lead to a gritty texture. Once blended, pour through a fine mesh sieve. Mezcal gives this drink a smoky kick and jalapeño adds the spice, but if smoky isn’t your thing, mix it with tequila or vodka.
With a watermelon cocktail in hand, you might be staring at all the leftover rinds and wondering: what now? Pickles, that’s what. To make watermelon pickles, you need to trim the tough green skin from the rind. A sharp knife is the best way to accomplish this: simply shave down the side of the melon, keeping the white rind.
With all the green skin removed, cut the watermelon into slices, then cube them. You’ll want a bit of the pink fruit still on the white rind. From there, make an aromatic pickling liquid and bring the cleaned rinds to a boil to help tenderize them. Then, transfer the rinds and the liquid to clean jars and cool to room temperature before covering with a lid and placing in the refrigerator.
Twenty-four hours later, they’re ready to go (plus, they’ll stay good in the fridge for up to one month)! Scratching your head over how to use them? Try out your watermelon pickles with these ideas:
- Thai-style salad – Cut pickles into thin slices and toss them with shredded carrots, scallions, sliced cucumbers, peanuts, cilantro and mint. Then dress the mixture with a splash of fish sauce and lime juice. Serve with or without grilled meats.
- Straight from the jar – Serve pickles on a platter with cheeses, olives and charcuterie for the perfect summertime cocktail hour nibbles. (Maybe while enjoying a watermelon cocktail?)
- With bacon – It’s never a bad decision to add bacon. Wrap the cubes of watermelon pickles in bacon and secure with a toothpick. Then broil or grill to crisp the bacon for a dead-easy hors d’oeuvre.
- Taco Tuesday – Thinly sliced or minced watermelon pickles are an awesome topping for tacos—especially grilled shrimp tacos!
I learned to make this recipe when I was working for Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, AL. When Alabama watermelons were at their peak, we would dice them up, add grilled onions, mint, vinegar and olive oil and then spoon it over grilled steak. (Skirt steak is the best option here, IMHO.)
It’s a recipe I still make today, beefing up the ingredients a bit to make it equal parts topping and salad (so no meat is required). Go ahead and make it your own by adding even more ingredients: cucumbers, arugula or some cooked and toasted grains could turn this into a full-fledged meal. Now get out there and show those watermelons some love!
Three Ways to Watermelon:
- Spicy, Smoky Mezcal Cocktail
- Pickled Watermelon Rinds
- Watermelon and Charred Onion Relish
Spicy, Smoky Mezcal Cocktail
- 1 lime wedge
- 2 slices jalapeño pepper
- 1 oz. triple sec
- 1 1/2 oz. mezcal or tequila
- 2 ounces fresh watermelon juice (see directions above)
- Soda water
- Place the lime and jalapeño slices in the bottom of a glass; crush with a muddler to release the lime juice and lightly crush the jalapeño.
- Add the triple sec, mezcal and stir. Then, stir in the watermelon juice and top with soda water if desired.
Pickled Watermelon Rinds
- Rind from one half of a five-pound watermelon (approximately 1 pound)
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 ounces fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 star anise pods
- Scoop out the melon, leaving about 1/4- to 1/2-inch of pink flesh. (Use the rest of the flesh for the watermelon cocktail or salad recipes!)
- Peel off the outer green rind with a knife or vegetable peeler and cut the rind into 1-inch cubes.
- Bring the apple cider vinegar, water, sugar, ginger, salt and spices to a boil over medium-high heat in a medium 2-quart saucepan. Hold the boil for 60 seconds and then carefully add the watermelon rinds. Return to a boil and turn off the heat. Remove the saucepan from heat and cool mixture for 30 minutes.
- Remove the pickles to jars. Pour over as much of the pickling juice as possible. Let cool to room temperature and then cover with lids.
- Refrigerate overnight and eat within a month. Pickles must stay refrigerated.
Watermelon and Charred Onion Relish
- 2 cups diced watermelon
- 1 medium red onion, sliced
- 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick rounds
- 1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, torn into pieces
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1/4 cup olives, pitted and halved
- 1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Brush the sliced onions with oil on both sides and season with salt and pepper. Cook on a hot grill until charred on both sides. Remove from the grill, let cool and dice.
- In a bowl, combine the watermelon, diced grilled onion, mint, tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, vinegar and olive oil and mix gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve alone as a salad or spoon over grilled meat.
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