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Chef John Foster: Trying all kinds of options for making the most of watermelon and cantaloupe

I’ve never been much for the watermelon, cantaloupe buzz. It starts to build this time of year, like the cicadas in my magnolia tree, but by most standards, it doesn’t last as long as most summer produce.

People are passionate about it, and the advent of the melon season sure does stir people up. Don’t get me wrong, I do love watermelon and cantaloupe, mostly for the refreshing nature of the fruit. But it seems I’m constantly stymied by its promise of flavor that dissipates to a fine mist on the second bite.

I’ve yet to find the transcendent melon, the one that I carry through the winter months to keep me focused on the future summers. It’s sometimes easier for me to anticipate disappointment rather than seeking enlightenment, and as a chef that is the wrong view to take. So, I’ve committed myself this year to more closely examine the fruits to see what I am missing. I want to seek out new varieties that might excite me and re-work flavor and texture combinations that may reveal a new layer or two.

Of course, I realize that the melons are not just for slurping down, slice by slice. I have used melons and cantaloupes in both sweet and savory preparations for as long as I can remember. I’ve fixed my share of skewers, had my watermelon and feta salad days, and yes, I know the vodka bottle trick first hand.

That’s not where I need to go, I need to find more flavor, extract more depth, and generally open more opportunities for different pairings. I see possibilities for sweet and savory and distillation. I’m intrigued by the fruit’s similarities to grapes. Could I use dry ice to turn watermelon into fizzy melon, a la fizzy grapes? The moisture of the fruit is at once both its allure and downfall. If the melon is not perfectly ripe, but somehow very juicy then you have issues with developing flavor without cooking the fruit down.

Watermelons are difficult to caramelize, melons less so because their density is greater. But both are less appealing when cooked because now the issue of texture is adversely affected. As the texture softens, the “mouth feel” changes and I for one like the cool crisp melon texture. That would suggest using it raw, chilled, even frozen, or extracting flavor through mechanical means, and finding a vehicle to convey that flavor to the palate.

My interest in watermelons has now become a science project, time to dig a little deeper.

Raw preparation is my first attempt, the simple act of slicing a piece of fruit and eating it. Chilled or not, that is our first test. Room temperature foods should have more immediate impact on the taste buds, but I’m not a big fan of warm watermelon.

Let’s split the difference and chill the melon slightly to retain the texture without sacrificing the flavor. Holding it on the palate a moment usually blooms the flavor sufficiently and the effect should be immediate. Sweetness initially, followed by a second wave when we actually chew the fruit. Want to boost the flavor? Lightly salt the melon, it will yield even more of the fruit flavor, not so much the sweetness. The green grass flavor of watermelon should be present, but in some of the newer varieties, sugar is the most prevalent flavor.

Watermelons are some of the most controlled fruits we have with some having as much as 8% sugar to go with their 92% water. So, while we may like the sweetness of a ripe watermelon, there must be more to the flavor than that.

To dig deeper, I broke the watermelon down using a juicer. There was a quick separation of pulp and “water” which yielded some interesting results. Much like the coconut water that is present in that fruit watermelon water is not inherently sweet. It has the grassiness we spoke of earlier and a hint of the potential sweetness of the slice of watermelon. Using some gentle poaching methods, I was able to transfer the flavor to mild white fish, some lighter flavored vegetables and even some rice and grains. When I was more aggressive, reducing the water, for instance, I lost a lot of the subtlety of the flavor. As for the pulp, more flavor, more sweetness, and of course all of the texture.

Ripe watermelon, full of sugars and water should have a firm, crisp texture that when cut will oftentimes not be able to hold its liquid in the slice. The pulp or framework is over saturated, and once it’s released from its rind will fall out of suspension. This is the type of pulp or flesh which will be best served raw, slice by slice for the typical summer picnic treat. A little less juicy and a more firm will be the type we use for salads, appetizers, and additions to other ingredients. It won’t give you all its flavor, you must coax it out.

As I said earlier, I’m not a fan of cooking melon or watermelon, so my main methods revolve around pairing the fruit with a variety of flavors and textures. This may require cooking other ingredients and leaving the watermelon juicy and crisp. I look for saltiness as a great match, the aforementioned feta watermelon salad, wrapped in prosciutto, or as a pickle. I’ve found that smoke goes well with the melons, especially cantaloupe and smoked corn, and smoked shallot with watermelon as a vinaigrette base. Fish and scallops are good matches, they don’t dominate the way beef, pork, chicken, and lamb do. Lastly, spiciness is a great match, owing to the sweetness and moisture that a melon brings. The fruitiness of most fresh chilies mirrors the grassiness and freshness of a melon or cantaloupe. I will always cherish the slice of watermelon dusted with cayenne that I had on a trip through the Yucatan peninsula some 30 years ago. Maybe that should be my melon moment and nudge me towards giving the melon family another shot.
Smoked corn and watermelon salsa for grilled fish

This recipe is about as quick and easy as a summer afternoon. It also combines the best of the seasonal ingredients that normally would be eaten separately.

2 cups cubed fresh watermelon
2 cups fresh corn, taken off the cob after smoking and or grilling the ears
1 large shallot, grilled and sliced thinly
1 fresh chili, diced, the amount of heat is your choice, but take the seeds out more for texture purpose than anything else
Up to 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar
Up to 2 teaspoons local honey
Salt, pepper, smoked paprika and ground cumin to taste
¼ cup chopped Italian flat leaf parsley or cilantro

When combining these ingredients try not to break down the watermelon, especially if its ripe and juicy. Leaving this salsa to sit for the afternoon will draw out the fruit’s juices and provide the needed moisture for the salsa.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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