Last night, I was helping clean up after yet another end-of-school-year party. And, yet again, I found myself shaking my head as the poor host of the party freaked out about the trays and trays of leftover watermelon that had taken over her kitchen counters.
Watermelon always seems to put us in that position. Here is this amazing, crunchy, sweet, thirst -quenching gift from the earth and time after time, it ends up being the last girl left on the dance floor. It has two strikes against it, I think. First, it's always competing with some summer treat that's downright sexier, say a strawberry shortcake or, in last night's case, a cherry vanilla sheet cake with my son's entire Mudcats baseball team scanned onto the top of it. Second, there's just so freakin' much of it. Frankly, I think that if it came packed as tiny little balls in those precious little plastic containers that usually hold raspberries and ransom-like price tags, watermelon would go like hotcakes. I also think that most of us don't know what to do with watermelon other than slice it and serve it, so people get just plain sick of the stuff.
As I stuffed leftover hamburgers into a Ziploc (with plans to win big with my dog back home), I told my watermelon-panicked host exactly what she should do with the stuff. After she heard my description of a watermelon, feta, and tomato salad, Amy's lip curled ever so slightly and she said ever so politely, "could that really be good? It just sounds so weird."
I thought the same thing when my girlfriend Pat brought this amazing dish to a picnic three years ago. I took one look at the funky combo of ingredients and visibly wrinkled my nose. But Pat promised that if I just gave a taste, I’d be won over instantly by the unexpected yet tongue tantalizing contrast of juicy, sweet, crunchy fruit and creamy, tangy feta.Not only was she right….she was onto something. Over the course of that summer, the feta/watermelon combo (in a wide array of variations) showed up at at least four dinner parties I attended. And each time, guests were slow to try it yet quick to finish it. I spent last summer whipping up my own versions and conning my friends and family into giving each a try. Sometimes I used blue cheese instead of feta. Sometimes I added a sprinkle of cayenne to spice things up. On occasion I added thinly sliced red onion or some mint from my garden instead of basil. Black olives were also a nice touch. Mostly, I just tossed the watermelon, tomato, basil, and feta together with some olive oil, vinegar, salt and cracked pepper and called it a day. And every single person who tried these salads became a fan. My sister Jamie went so far as to declare I was a genius. (I didn’t bother correcting her.)
Try this recipe. Experiment. You’ll love the way the watermelon and tomatoes mingle together. And your body will love the fact that both watermelon and tomatoes pack a serious punch of Vitamin C, the antioxidant lycopene and a whallop of summer flavor at a pretty low caloric cost. Following is a good basic blueprint--- make as much or as little as you want but think in terms of about a 2/3 watermelon to 1/3 tomato ratio. (is ratio the right word here? Whatever.) Eat this salad promptly—time is not its friend.
2 1/2 cups seedless watermelon, in 3/4-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups ripe gorgeous tomatoes, cored and cut into ¾- inch chunks
1/2 cup crumbled feta (French, Greek or Bulgarian are tastiest)
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar
Pinch cayenne (highly optional)
1/2 cup basil, torn, chopped or cut into chiffonade
Toss the watermelon, tomato, cheese, and basil into a pretty bowl. Add olive oil and vinegar directly to bowl. Toss gently. Add cayenne (if using), salt and pepper to taste. Toss again lightly. Do not refrigerate. Serve within 30 minutes.