T oday I was woken by the playful yelling of young boys. They were romping about in the tree and laundry filled courtyard outside the open window of this precious old apartment in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Østerbro. Initially, the loud banter in a foreign language irritated my sleepy ears – perhaps it had something to do with the previous night’s hours of leisurely drinking under the stars in yet another one of those stunning courtyards. Eventually, I rubbed my swollen eyes, attempted to decipher the boisterous boy’s Danish, and peered out the white paned glass. Although observation failed to reveal what was exciting enough to warrant continuous bursts of yelping, watching their ceaseless amusement, I couldn’t help but settle into a smile. I recalled my own childhood in the summertime, when without a care in the world (the restful morning of my neighbors was no exception), I would skip and dance (and dig up bugs) through the long, hot days until thoroughly exhausted, then reward myself with a sweet, cold treat.
As we move into adulthood, certain responsibilities make it difficult to fill every June afternoon with kite flying, tricycle riding, and ice cream licking. But when the temperature rises and the days expand, I think we should “make an effort” to take it a little easy. Our time in the kitchen is no exception. In the summer I opt for cooling dishes that require simple, often oven-free, preparations. I want to be able to arrive home after a long Saturday lounging on the beach (or in the case of this summer, on the meticulously manicured lawns of Kongens Have Park, the oldest park in Copenhagen) and practically throw together a delicious dinner in a matter of minutes. It sounds like a tall order for someone who adores vegetables, which require chopping time and a careful touch, but I know it can be done. Today’s recipe is a prime example of a quintessential summer dish that is at once simple and elegant, classic yet unique, and whose components can be prepared days in advance. It even involves an ice cream machine…
Originating in the hot Kalahari region of Africa, WATERMELON is the ultimate cooling, thirst-quenching, expansive food. It is high in vitamins C and A, is low in calories and sugar. Many consider watermelon a sweet fruit, destined for eating raw while juice trickles down the chin and arm, or as a flavoring for numerous candies and popsicles. However, watermelon is technically a vegetable and its aromatic flesh is perfect for savory dishes.
A farmer friend of mine in Georgia (where they grow some seriously tasty melons), shared a little secret for choosing ripe watermelon: If you check the root end of the watermelon, the circular patch will be yellow when ripe. The skin should be smooth, but matte, and a white bloom is a plus. There are many heirloom varieties from which to choose; my favorites include Sugar Baby and Crimson Sweet. For more information, I highly recommend Amy Goldman’s book Melons for the Passionate Grower.
APPROXIMATELY 4 SERVINGS This is one of the most refreshing summer dishes I know. I love to use a variety of heirloom tomatoes for a mixture of colors and a range of flavors. If you can’t find micro-basil (tiny basil sprouts), simply purchase the most pristine bunch of mature basil you can find and pick off the smallest leaves.
4 pounds heirloom tomatoes (any combination), quartered (or halved if small) ¼ cup thinly sliced red onion approximately ½ cup pickled watermelon rind (recipe follows) 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (the best you care to buy) ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil 1 pint watermelon and black pepper sorbet (recipe follows) 1 ounce micro-basil, or freshly picked baby basil leaves sea salt to taste
Toss quartered tomatoes with onion, pickled rind, balsamic, olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Divide salad amongst four chilled plates or bowls. Top each serving with a scoop of watermelon and black pepper sorbet; scatter basil on top. Serve at once.
WATERMELON & BLACK PEPPER SORBET
1 large watermelon (approximately 3 pounds) 3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (or more to taste) sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
NOTES Sorbet requires overnight freezing. You will need a fine mesh strainer, such as a chinois, for straining the sorbet mixture.
Cut the watermelon into quarters. Remove flesh in place in a large blender or food processor. To start, add 3 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, a pinch of sea salt, and an 1/8 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Puree.
Taste for seasoning; necessary adjustments will depend on the sweetness of your watermelon. Add more balsamic (for sweetness and acid/brightness), salt (for flavor/balance), or pepper (for heat) as necessary. Puree to combine.
Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve to remove any pith or seeds. Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.
QUICK PICKLED WATERMELON RIND
rind of 1 large watermelon (approximately 1 pound of rind) 3 tablespoons sea salt 1 cup rice wine vinegar 1 cup agave nectar, honey, or sugar
NOTES This recipe is best if started the day before.
Remove the green skin of the watermelon with a vegetable peeler (I find this one quite sturdy). Remove the flesh (leave a very thin layer of the flesh on the rind); I use a paring knife for this job. Cut the rind into a 1” dice.
Bring remaining ingredients to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan. Add watermelon rind; simmer for approximately 20 minutes or until tender (you don’t want to let it cook so long it becomes must). Allow rind to cool in pickling liquid; refrigerate overnight. Please note that these directions do not include a sterilizing/jarring step, and thus, the pickle must be refrigerated; use within 1 week.