Sunday, July 29, 2001

It's the season for making the most of Watermelon

But first, some basics

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The simmering days of late summer are ripe for diving into a cold, crisp watermelon. But before you take the sweet plunge, here's what you need to know about buying, cutting and storing watermelon.

        • Out of Africa: More closely related to cucumbers than cantaloupes and other muskmelons, scientists believe watermelons are native to Africa. The Egyptians enjoyed their share of watermelon, which also was cultivated in the Middle East and Russia for thousands of years. African slaves brought watermelon to North America in the 17th century.

        • Yellow bellies taste best: Watermelon expert and plant physiologist Penny Perkins-Veazie of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Lane, Okla., suggests making sure the stem end of the melon looks healthy and free from disease. Then, look for a yellow “belly” on the underside of the melon, which indicates ripeness. Finally, make sure there are no soft spots. The finger “thump test” doesn't work for gauging ripeness on all varieties of melons, she says. Plus, most people don't know what to listen for when they thump the melon.

        • Keep them chilled: It's best to refrigerate watermelons as soon as possible — or store them whole in a cool place. Once cut (halved or quartered) and left on the rind, watermelon will keep in the refrigerator about a week. If the melon is chunked, balled or otherwise cut off the rind, it will keep only two days, refrigerated.

        • Good for you, too: Remember when the tomato people got all excited about lycopene — the red pigment that has been proven to help prevent heart disease and cancer? (The tomato types told us pizza was actually good for us because it was covered with tomato sauce.) Well, watermelon contains more than three times the amount of lycopene as tomatoes. So there. And although watermelon is mostly water (94 percent), it's a good source of vitamin C.

        • De' seeds, de' seeds: To de-seed watermelon, cut melon in half, then in quarters. Cut through the flesh of the melon along the seed line with a pairing knife. Now, lift off the piece of the melon you just cut. Using a fork, scrape the seeds from the piece you removed and the remaining flesh on the rind.

        • Recent innovations: Researchers produced seedless watermelons about 20 years ago, but they have been widely available (and reasonably priced) only within the last five years or so.

        • What's next: Dr. Perkins-Veazie says the next innovation probably will be a smaller watermelon — about the size of a cantaloupe — that can be carried home from the grocery and stored easily. Scientists also are working on producing watermelons with edible rinds.

        • Careful when cutting: Like cantaloupes and other melons, watermelons are low in acid and — once cut — can provide good growing conditions for harmful E. coli bacteria and other pathogens. This is why it's important to always refrigerate watermelon after cutting it, and to use a clean knife for slicing it.

        • My, those seeds sail: Jack Dietz of Chicago still holds the world record for watermelon seed spitting of 66 feet, 11 inches set in 1989. As far as we know, no one was injured in the spitting contest.

Watermelon Gazpacho

        3 very ripe tomatoes, cored and seeded
        4 cups seedless watermelon, cut into 2-inch chunks
        1/2 large Vidalia onion, or other sweet onion, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
        1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into large chunks
        1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
        1/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves
        1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
        1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice, or more to taste
        Coarse sea salt or kosher salt
        Coarsely ground black pepper

        In a blender, combine tomatoes and watermelon. Puree for about 30 seconds. Add onion, cucumber, garlic, basil, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Puree until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Adjust lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, thin with water until loose enough to drink from a glass.

        Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, about 2 hours. Place 2 ice cubes in each of 6 tall glasses. Fill the glasses with gazpacho, and serve. Makes 6 servings.

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