My dad has never been much of a food guy. I still remember his go-to comfort dish when I was a kid was something he called bread soup, which, if I recall correctly, consisted of torn-up white bread soaked in milk. I guess growing up in North Dakota will do that to you.
But when it came to melons, he was way ahead of the curve. Served a wedge of cantaloupe, hed sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Ive never seen anyone else do that, but the combination is terrific a good melon is way too wonderful to be treated only as a sweet.
There are plenty of traditional examples of this. The most obvious is melon and prosciutto.
Ive been playing with versions of my own recently, mainly because my kitchen counters have been overflowing with melons, just now in season.
For example, tomato-watermelon salads seem to be everywhere, but I have not been able to come up with a combination of my own that really seems to me to be an improvement on either watermelon or tomato by itself.
Instead of trying to make the two work together, I just replaced the tomato with watermelon in a Middle Eastern combination with cubed fresh feta. The textural difference is interesting, the watermelon being crisp and somewhat granular rather than the tomatoes melting softness.
But what really makes the dish work is the flavor pairing of power with power. The watermelon is so explosively juicy and sweet that you can add all kinds of big tastes not just salty feta but also jalapenos! toasted cumin! lime! fresh mint! without overwhelming it. In this watermelon salad, the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts, no matter how large they might be.
Another of my favorites has been the relatively sedate pairing of cantaloupe, smoked chicken and arugula.
I tried many versions of this before finally getting the one that worked the way I wanted. I tweaked the ratios of ingredients, adding more chicken or more arugula. I experimented with different vinegars and oil, and I balanced and re-balanced the dressing. (Because the melon is so juicy, you really need only a fraction of the fat youd normally use. Also, add the dressing right before serving to keep it from becoming watery.)
It was one of those frustrating exercises in which I could sense that a really great salad was lurking right around the corner just out of my reach. All it needed was one little thing to pull it into focus.
Then I had a flash of inspiration. What about a final, very generous grinding of black pepper? And that did it. Maybe Ill have to give that bread soup a try after all.
WATERMELON SALAD WITH FETA, MINT AND CUMIN-LIME DRESSING
Total time: 20 minutes; servings: 4 to 6
2 pounds watermelon cubes
1 pound feta, cut in cubes
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1. Combine watermelon, feta and jalapeno in serving bowl.
2. Toast the cumin seeds in a dry pan over medium heat until they become fragrant and begin to pop, about 2 minutes. If using a mortar and pestle, grind the cumin seeds to dust, add lime juice, salt to taste and oil and whisk to a smooth emulsion. If using a blender, combine the cumin seeds, lime juice, salt and oil and blend until smooth.
3. Just before serving, add half of the dressing to the watermelon mixture. Toss gently to keep everything whole and taste the salad. If desired, add more dressing. Add the chopped mint and toss gently.
Nutrition per serving: 281 calories; 12 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 20 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 67 mg cholesterol; 13 grams sugar; 847 mg sodium.
SMOKED CHICKEN AND CANTALOUPE SALAD
Total time: 20 minutes; servings: 4
Note: Whole smoked chickens are available at some fancy grocery stores and delis. If you cant find a whole smoked chicken, use a rotisserie chicken instead.
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1/2 pound shredded smoked chicken
3/4 pound diced cantaloupe
1 tablespoon oil
Pinch of salt
2 ounces (4 generous cups) torn arugula
Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a small bowl, combine the shallots and the vinegar, and set aside to steep for at least 5 minutes while youre preparing the rest of the ingredients.
2. Combine the chicken and the cantaloupe in a serving bowl, and set aside until ready to serve.
3. When ready to serve, whisk the oil into the vinegar mixture to make a smooth emulsion. Season with a pinch of salt.
4. Add the arugula to the chicken and cantaloupe. Pour dressing over the mixture and stir gently to ensure that everything is evenly coated. Finish with a good grinding of freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Nutrition per serving: 161 calories; 15 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 43 mg cholesterol; 7 grams sugar; 96 mg sodium.