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Vegetarian on the Inside

August 17, 2010

Vegetarian on the Inside
By Alix Hui
 
I have a melon-purchasing compulsion.  Just like raincoats and those cute little succulents in those cute little pots by the register at the nursery, if I see them, I buy them. 
 
Part of the appeal is the ritualistic nature of it all, melon-purchasing.  One must follow axiomatic rules of specific ordination.  I like to make a big show of it for my fellow grocery shoppers, squeezing and smelling and raising my eyebrows in faux surprise at the grippyness of a honeydew skin.  I set aside three or four possibilities for a final, elimination round and repeat the process all over again.  Sometimes, because I’m bossy and overconfident, I appraise other people’s melon choices, noting approvingly that their choice has just the right amount of flat and unripe spot to indicate that the rest of the melon ripened on the ground in the field rather than in a shipping crate next to, say, a bunch of those chemically ripened bananas (which, actually, here’s a tip: most bananas are ripened during shipping with some sort of ripening agent sprayed on their skin so, if you want to speed up the ripening of other fruits, set them near your bananas; give your avocado a banana hat!).
 
Right now, when watermelons are being offered at $2.39 a piece, well, shoot.  That’s like six pounds of melon for less than three dollars!  THAT’S LIKE NINETY-FIVE POUNDS OF MELON FOR LESS THAN FORTY DOLLARS!  So, sometimes I buy more than one.  Which, I admit, has led to a bit of a fruit fly problem in my household.
 
What to do with so much melon?  Well you can of course go old school.  Right this instant I am the proud guardian of the sweetest, juiciest, most beautifully red watermelon this side of F. Scott Fitzgerald and mostly I just scarf down half-moon slices.  Were they always this messy?  Did I get watermelon in my hair like this when I was little?  Wow.  Moment of insight.  I was the sticky kid.
 
An aside: I was poking around an online recipe website and found a recipe for “watermelon sphericization.”  What could this possibly be?  The directions include floating it in a chemical solution I’ve never heard of.  Perhaps it results in a watermelon molecule?  Is this how you extract watermelon DNA?  Weird.
 
An additional aside: My dog hates me right now.  I am making her wear one of those cone collars.  She is giving me a look.
 
Anyway, sometimes you want to dress your watermelon up and show it off to company.  And in the summertime (is it really just called “summertime” here, this July heat?  Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call this season “the-raging-hot-center-of-the-Sun” or “a big fat duck sitting on your face?”), when nobody wants hot or heavy food, why not make watermelon the centerpiece of your meal?  Watermelon, like most fruits, is best paired with its opposite.  So, light and crisp hits is off really well from the start with rich and creamy.  Which is to say that you will always find the fruit chatting up the cheese at a cocktail party. 
 
The recipe that follows is very quick and, if you’ve got a grill going, doesn’t require the oven or stove to even be turned on.  All of the fresh ingredients included are locally available and currently approaching the peak of their season.  And this is one of those dishes that can be made very spicy hot if you like.  So if you’re one of those masochistic, Hot?-A-heat-index-of-110-isn’t-hot!-I’m-not-hot-until-the-inside-of-my-mouth-is-on-fire kind of people, then by all means turn up the spiciness of the feta dressing by adding more jalapenos.
 
Watermelon and Tomato Salad with Center-of-the-Sun Feta Dressing
Modified from Ana Sorton’s recipe for Food and Wine magazine
 
Makes 8 large servings
Preparation time: 15-20 minutes
 
Ingredients
1 large jalapeno pepper
6 oz. feta cheese
¼ cup hot water
¼ cup plus 1 Tablespoon olive oil
3 large tomatoes, cut into 1-inch half-wedges
about half of a medium-sized watermelon, peeled, cut into 1-inch wedges (if you are grilling the watermelon, leave wedges large enough to manage on the grill)
¼ cup pitted Moroccan or other oil-cured black olives, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 Tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 Tablespoon fresh mint, chopped
salt and pepper
sugar, if grilling the watermelon
 
Roast the jalapeno(s) directly on the grill or under the broiler until it is charred all over.  Place in a small bowl with a small plate on top for about 10 minutes.  Then peel, stem, and scrape out the seeds of the pepper.  Put it in a blender or food processor along with the feta, hot water, and ¼ cup of olive oil.  Blend until very smooth.  Scrape into a bowl and taste for salt and pepper.  I love this dressing, by the way.  It can be refrigerated for up to two days and goes well other Mediterraneanish dishes like falafel or lentil kofte.  I’ve even started spreading it on cucumber sandwiches for a midday kick in the pants.
 
If you really want to be clever, try grilling the watermelon first.  Sprinkle one side of the watermelon wedges lightly with sugar.  Grill, sugared side down over high heat until lightly charred.  This should take about 2 minutes.  Cut the wedges into smaller pieces if necessary (basically, small enough to be picked up with a fork).
 
Arrange the watermelon and tomatoes on a large platter or in a large bowl (the platter looks nicer presentation-wise but it is a lot more difficult for people to serve themselves with the tomatoes and watermelon skittering around on the flat surface and pieces will end up on the tablecloth or floor).  Scatter the olives, basil, and mint on top and drizzle with the remaining 1 Tablespoon of olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with the feta sauce on the side.
 
Alix Hui is an Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University.  She can be contacted at alixhui@gmail.com.

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