Summertime watermelon is a treat, any way you slice it. But this recipe elevates America’s favorite gourd to greatness.
Go to any farmers market during the summer months and you will find stacks, baskets, tables and bins laden with ripe watermelon. Summer picnics, barbecue parties, pool days and campground meals always seem to have this sweet fruit sliced and ready to eat. What better way to cool off after a day hiking than biting into an icy cold slice of watermelon?
The familiar bright red flesh and inky black seeds bring so many memories of good times with my friends and family at the campground. We would have watermelon seed-spitting contests day in and day out. My grandfather would set out targets all around the campground for us to hit. Whoever received the most points won the title of “seed-spitting champion” for the summer.
Today’s watermelon varieties comprise a beautiful rainbow of colors, thanks to many farmers planting heirloom seeds. Bearing white, yellow, pink, orange and peach hues, these fruits vary between seedless and seeded. Recently, I visited the farmers market in Tupelo, Mississippi, and I had one of the sweetest watermelons I think I’ve ever tasted. It was the size of a large football and bright green on the outside with a thin rind, then a perfectly peachy orange on the inside. It was like the candy man created this delicious variety.
There are four main categories when looking at the watermelon family: icebox, seedless, yellow-orange flesh and picnic. Each of those categories splinters into a variety of subcategories based on size, color of flesh and sweetness. It’s fascinating to realize the broad tastes and visuals each melon has. Worldwide, there are over 50 varieties for us to choose from, from as large as a picnic basket to as small as a baseball. I have chosen the top varieties we eat here in America to help you decide what is the best pick for your next side dish or snack.
This beautiful melon is the heftiest variety, with an average weight range between 15 and 50 pounds—yes, you read that correctly! This is the image all of us see when we think of watermelon—a large, bright green oval fruit adorned with yellow-white stripes and filled with that ruby red flesh. With enough mass to feed a large group or small crowd, the picnic watermelon is a perfect choice. Most of us can picture the traditional platter at a barbecue or picnic stacked high with triangle-cut pieces of watermelon. Some varieties to look for include Jubilee, Black Diamond, All Sweet, Dixie Queen and Charleston Gray.
In the 1940s, plant geneticist O.J. Eigsti developed the first seedless watermelon. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that this variety was marketed and sold as a summer staple in grocery stores. Though not 100% seedless, the small, white, almost translucent edible seeds remained, but the large black seeds were eliminated. These watermelons are usually between 10 and15 pounds and are just as sweet as a picnic watermelon. Varieties include Cut Above, Traveler, Kingman, Bijou and Sweet Polly.
Looking for a smaller-size watermelon to fit in your refrigerator without the need to remove a shelf? Then the icebox watermelon is your choice. With a weight range of 5 to 10 pounds, this melon can easily fit in your crisper drawer or on a smaller shelf in your fridge. Known as the personal or small-family watermelon, it’s compact and bursting with flavor. I can say this: My youngest child can polish off one of these icebox watermelons in one sitting. She loves this variety, and during the hot Texas summer, she will sit on the porch with a bowl filled with thin slices and consume every piece. Her favorite is the Sugar Baby; equally delicious are the Cal Sweet Bush and Bush Sugar Baby.
In the “must try” category, there’s the yellow-orange watermelon. Talk about a treat for the taste buds! The melon I sampled in Mississippi was an unbelievably sweet and delicious Mountain Sweet Yellow watermelon. It’s one of the many heirloom varieties being brought back today by dedicated farmers and home gardeners. This watermelon has a firm, deep yellow flesh that is sugary sweet, with inky black seeds. This watermelon has a much higher sugar content compared to other sweet varieties. With its classic oblong shape and dark green rind with light green stripes, this watermelon weighs up to 35 pounds. Some varieties include Yellow Doll, Moon and Stars, and Orageglo.
Take a Bite and Enjoy
Traditionally, a watermelon is cut crossway, and then those sections are cut into quarters to make perfect triangle slices, resulting in the ultimate finger food. Here are a few unexpected and delicious ways to enjoy watermelon this summer. Slice a Bijou watermelon into cubes, add a bit of feta cheese, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle salt and pepper over it all for a delicious salad. Slice a Crimson Sweet watermelon into triangles and sprinkle flavorful chili powder over the slices, then serve. Take one Yellow Doll watermelon, remove the rind and cut it into small pieces; place a few into a blender with some ice, tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice. Blend until smooth and pour into a salt-rimmed glass for a delicious watermelon margarita.
Here’s an idea for a seeded watermelon at your next campout. Cut it up into triangles, leaving the rind on, then set a few paper plates on the ground and see how many seeds you and your guests or family can spit onto the plates for a fun summer activity. One of the best team summer barbecue competitions I ever participated in as a child was the adults versus the kids watermelon seed-spitting contest. The adults won and bragged about it for months! Enjoy this summer staple; go to your farmers markets, roadside stands, grocery stores or grow a variety in your backyard and have a delicious, cooling treat.
Grilled Watermelon Salad with Goat Cheese and Basil
1 watermelon, 5 to 10 pounds
1 bag of arugula
1 large bunch or 2 small bunches of fresh basil
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
1 4-ounce container goat cheese crumbles
¼ cup toasted, unsalted pepita seeds
1 cup fresh basil leaves
½ cup olive oil
1 lime, zested and juiced, 2 tablespoons
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
In a small food processor or in a blender, blend honey, lime juice and zest, basil leaves, apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper and Dijon mustard.
Pour oil slowly through the feed tube or removable center of the blender lid while the blender is on. Once the dressing comes together, turn off and taste for proper seasoning, adjust as needed.
With a sharp knife, remove each end of the watermelon. Stand the watermelon on one end and slice away the rind. Lay the watermelon down on the cutting board and slice 1-inch-wide slices then cut into 1-inch strips. Place in a large bowl, drizzle a bit of olive oil over the sliced watermelon and sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper, toss well and set aside.
Preheat a charcoal or gas grill to medium heat. Or preheat a stovetop grill pan over medium heat. Brush down and clean the grill grate then oil. Add the watermelon slices and grill just until char marks develop, about 2 minutes per side. Remove and place back in the bowl with the olive oil and seasoning, set aside.
In a large salad bowl add washed arugula, grilled watermelon and pepitas. Add a few tablespoons of the vinaigrette and toss lightly. Taste the arugula leaves, add more dressing to the salad and toss again, taste and adjust as needed. Chop the grilled watermelon into cubes, add to the salad and toss to coat, sprinkle with goat cheese and fresh thyme just before serving.