This time of the year, crops with long growth cycles are coming into the local markets in abundance. This late, late summer leaning into fall is a perfect time to enjoy the variety of melons now riding each morning on farmers' trucks.
Over the last couple of weeks we have been eating “Sugar Melon” Watermelons and Cantaloupes with regularity. When the fruit is this good, little else is needed other than proper selection and the ability to peel and cube the fruit. Look for unblemished fruit, devoid of soft spots and sometimes (depending on the type of melon - cantaloupe/yes, watermelon/no) carrying a good whiff of the fruit scent from inside.
To work yourself towards a more elaborate use, feel free to look towards both the liquid and solid form. While not often a good idea out at a restaurant, watermelon margaritas (or for that matter cantaloupe ones in a nod to our buddy Virgona) are delicious when simply made at home from HQ tequila blanco, fresh squeezed lime and the pureed fruit.
Should margaritas not be your thing, look into a cantaloupe soup. Season plain cantaloupe puree with sea salt, a touch of white pepper, a bit of rice wine vinegar and some chopped herbs – consider any combination of thyme, tarragon, savory or marjoram. Add dry cured ham (Serrano, Prosciutto) crisped and crumbled or a julienne of oven dried tomatoes – or both - for another layer of flavor.
Another fine place to work in melon is within a salad. Salads like the assertive Watermelon Pickle and Crispy Pork served at Fatty Crab allow the natural sweetness of the fruit and the acidity of the pickle to set off the fat-salty duo the pork brings to the dish.
An version of this dish, adapted by Melissa Clark from the New York Times' now defunct "The Chef" column, follows after the jump. If you have Times Select or wish to join you can see the whole article here - it includes a glimpse of food shopping in Chinatown with the often colorful Mr. Pelaccio.
By MELISSA CLARK Published: August 16, 2006 Pork and Watermelon Salad Adapted from Zak Pelaccio Time: 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 hours, plus at least 24 hours' marinating
For the pork belly:
3 pounds raw, uncured pork belly, skin on
2 cups kecap manis
6 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lime
Canola oil or peanut oil, for frying
All-purpose flour, for dusting
Salt, if needed
For the watermelon salad:
5 pounds watermelon
2 cups rice wine vinegar
3 shallots, sliced
2 Thai bird chilies, sliced
2 kaffir lime leaves
1 ounce (2 inches) fresh gingerroot, peeled and sliced
1/2 round (1 ounce) palm sugar or 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
For the dressing:
1 1/2 rounds palm sugar (3 ounces) or 6 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
6 ounces gingerroot, peeled and sliced
6 cilantro roots and 1 inch of stems, cleaned and trimmed
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 scallions, trimmed and sliced, for garnish
1 cup torn Vietnamese coriander (rau ram) leaves, for garnish
1 cup torn Thai basil leaves, for garnish
Sesame seeds, for garnish (optional).
1. Crosshatch pork belly skin with sharp knife, making cuts 1/2-inch apart. Place pork belly in non-reactive dish. Combine kecap manis, vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce and lime juice, and pour over pork belly. Chill for 24 to 48 hours, turning several times.
2. Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place belly, skin side up, in baking pan with 2 cups marinating liquid and 2 cups water. Liquid should come halfway up the pork; if not, add more water or use smaller pan. Cover pan with foil. Bake until a skewer penetrates the belly with little or no resistance, 3 to 4 hours. Remove pork from liquid and let cool. Leaving skin on, slice belly into 1-inch chunks.
3. To make salad, cut watermelon flesh into 1-inch cubes (discarding seeds). Reserve rind. Refrigerate flesh until ready to use. With sharp knife, remove outer green skin of rind, reserving white part. Dice white rind into 1/2-inch cubes. Transfer to a heatproof bowl.
4. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine rice wine vinegar, shallots, chilies, kaffir lime, ginger, palm sugar, salt and 1 cup water, and bring to boil. Cook until sugar dissolves. Strain liquid over white rind. Let cool, then chill for at least 1 hour or as long as 2 days.
5. To make dressing, roughly crush palm sugar using a mortar and pestle or place in a plastic bag and crush with a hammer or heavy can. In a food processor, combine sugar with vinegar, lime juice, ginger, cilantro, garlic and salt, and blend until smooth.
6. In medium saucepan or wok, heat 3 inches canola or peanut oil to 375 degrees. Lightly dust pork belly cubes with flour, shaking off excess. Working in batches, fry pork belly until dark golden brown and crispy, 6 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Season with salt, if necessary.
7. In a mixing bowl, toss the watermelon flesh with just enough dressing to coat. Divide pork among serving plates, and top with watermelon flesh and a few cubes of pickled rind. Drizzle additional dressing around plate. Garnish with scallions, coriander leaves, basil, and sesame seeds, if using.
Yield: 8 servings.