It was 3:30 in the morning. I heard the alarm clock going off in my parents’ bedroom. I knew by 3:31 my dad would be coming down the hall into my bedroom to find an 8-year old me, head buried beneath a pillow and several dinosaur-covered blankets.
“If you’re coming with me, you need to get up now,” he would say in a very firm voice.
“Ok, ok, I’m waking up,” I would mutter back, still very much half-asleep. Pulling myself away from the comfortable bed on those early summer mornings was nothing short of barbaric, but I knew that a sweet reward wasn’t too far away. As I threw on a shirt and some shorts and made my way downstairs, my dad would already be jingling his keys, signaling the beginning of our pre-dawn trek. Where could we be going so early on a July morning? The produce market of course!
Once or twice a week, my dad would make the hour-long journey to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables for a few small produce markets closer to our hometown of Burlington. The produce markets would expect their deliveries around sunrise or shortly thereafter, which is why such an early departure time was required. Somewhere along the way, my presence was requested on these visits – but what 8-year old child would willingly spend a day of his summer vacation waking up at 3:30 in the morning? He had to find a way to entice me, to make me feel like this trip would be worth my while. He did this through watermelon. Yes, watermelon.
After we had picked up the produce from the hub in Winston-Salem, he would always take the biggest, sweetest watermelon he could find and smash it open. There was no finesse here. The melon was very unceremoniously dropped in the parking lot, shattering into bite-sized pieces for us to enjoy. The sweet, juicy melon tasted so refreshing on those early summer mornings, when the heat and humidity were still hanging in the air from the previous day. With hints of sunlight on the horizon, we made fast work of the watermelon, leaving nothing but some rind and seeds behind. It was then time to get back to Burlington to deliver the goods we had picked up.
Now, I realize those mornings were about more than just slurping down watermelon in the parking lot of a produce hub in Winston-Salem. They were about spending quality time with my dad. Bonding over delicious food in such a non-conventional way is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. This experience inspired the recipe that I will now share below.
Just the other night, I found myself craving watermelon – but in more of a grown-up way. The gears in my head started turning. How could I quickly transform watermelon into something even more vibrant and flavorful without losing the integrity of the melon? With a few simple ingredients, I think I figured out the answer to my question.
I like to start this recipe with a seedless watermelon. If you’re feeling ambitious and don’t mind picking seeds, go for it. I opted for the easier solution this time. I cut the watermelon flesh into bite-sized cubes. I arranged those cubes on a plate. Then it was time to dress the melon up a bit by adding some citrus to the party. You should take three small limes and zest them. Zesting a lime refers to the process of scraping off the outermost part of the lime – the bright green part. If you start scraping down too deep, you’ll run into the bitter white portion of the lime, which you do NOT want. Using a fine grater should be able to achieve the results you want for this recipe. Once you have gotten a tablespoon or so of the lime zest, add that to a small saucepan. Then it’s time to juice those three limes for all they’ve got! Squeeze ’em hard and get all of that juice. Pour the juice into the saucepan with the lime zest. Now to add a little spice, get out a piece of ginger root. You’ll only need about a teaspoon of very finely grated ginger root. All you need to do is peel it and then grate it until it’s almost a paste. You don’t want to bite down on a big hunk of ginger, because it would totally overwhelm your taste buds – plus, it’s spicy! Add the teaspoon of finely grated ginger to your lime zest and juice.
Now to add some sweetness, take about 1/4 cup of your favorite honey. I used a local wildflower honey that I found in Rappahannock County. The honey will very nicely balance out the tart flavor of the limes and the spicy heat of the ginger. Stir the ingredients over very low heat on the stove just for a minute or two until the honey has thinned out and everything is evenly mixed. It’s ok to pull this off the heat as soon as all of the ingredients are incorporated.
In a small pan, pour in a handful of your favorite nuts. I used walnuts, but you could certainly use sliced almonds, pecans, or even pine nuts. Toast the nuts in the pan, just for a few minutes until you can start to smell them. It should only take a few moments over low to medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally. While the nuts are toasting, take a few basil leaves and roll them up, like a cigar. Then take a knife and start shredding the basil into ribbons. Now you’re ready to assemble your watermelon salad.
Take a few spoonfuls of your dressing and drizzle it over the watermelon cubes. You should see a few flecks of green as the lime zest clings to the watermelon. The honey will almost seem to shine over the chunks of melon, giving everything a nice glossy sheen. Then for a bolder green color, sprinkle some of the basil ribbons over the watermelon. Add some of your toasted nuts on top of everything to give a nice crunchy component to your salad. Think of the toasted nuts as the croutons for your salad – giving a vital crunch to an otherwise soft dish. Finally, add a dash of salt and a tiny amount of fresh black pepper. The color contrast will delight your eyes and the flavor profiles you’ve combined will tickle your taste buds.
It’s the perfect dish to make during the summer season and it can serve as a light lunch or a snack to carry you over until dinner. It only seemed fitting to make this on Labor Day, a holiday that many people view as the unofficial end to summer. It’s a dish that combines so many of our favorite summer ingredients into one simple, but elegant dish. So as I bid this summer a fond farewell, I’ll do so by giving a tribute to my favorite melon. As I do this, my mind will be transported to those early summer mornings spent with dad in the produce truck. So long, summer.
May all your melons be sweet,
The Taste Bud