Sunday, July 22, 2018

On Cucumbers and Watermelons: Two Summer Salads

As soon as you enter my local supermarket, you are destined to hit The Pile. There is no way around it. It's about ten feet to the left from the entrance, poking you in the eye -- imposing, unavoidable, determined not to give in -- a small mountain of vegetables du jour. Pumpkins in October, cranberries in November, yams in January. "A" is for "April", "asparagus" and "artichoke". And sure thing, in July, it’s the watermelon. Sugar babies, seedless babies, yellow babies, dark green and perfectly round melons the size of a soccer ball, and the all-too-familiar picnics -- those oblong giants with pale green zebra-patterned skin that feed a crowd.

Yet, I still cannot get used to buying watermelons in the supermarket. It's so 21st century. Back in the old days, watermelons came on trucks. They never made it into the farmers market and onto a stall, because no farmer in the right might would bother unloading a truck of watermelons. Instead, they parked their trucks at the edge of the market, next to the flower shops and waved to customers.

"Come beauty, come here, these are like honey, like candy, like sugar, you won't find any other watermelon like this in the entire market," men on trucks advertised their goods shamelessly.

Being a city kid, I thought that watermelons grew on trucks. And I waited the entire year for the trucks to arrive. They stayed through July, August and the first week of September, and then they disappeared.

Watermelons in the supermarket make me suspicious, just as those baby melons make me twinge. Where did they come from, those shameless little melon imposters? In the good old days, watermelons were gigantic, they were like one-person-cannot-carry-it-home big, they were like hot air balloon big, like the Supermoon on steroids big.

Buying a watermelon was the best part of going to the market in the summer. It was like shopping for a lottery ticket. Dad and I would debate for hours the best technique to pick a winner -- because there were no special breeds -- just plain old-fashioned watermelons -- and sweetness was not guaranteed. One had to bank on a lot of sunshine, on 85+ long hot days in the edge of the countryside, one had to bank on warm, fertile ground to grow a winner. Folks grew (and chose) a watermelon just like one would grow (and choose) a thoroughbred. You never knew what you are going to get, and it was all part of the thrill. At the end, to be on the safe side, Dad I and always bought two. I bet on myrtle green watermelons bordering on black -- dark, round and shiny. Dad pursued a different strategy. He would press the left ear onto the round belly of his candidate and knock on it with his right hand. Once, twice, three times. "It has to sound hollow," he said, "but not too hollow, because then it will be rotten."

Back at home, we left our babies in a tub of cold water and waited until dinner. If they were good, we had nothing else. We ate on the balcony, silently, under the flickering yellow lights, because everyone knows that that's the only way to appreciate a good watermelon.

With two watermelons to choose from Dad and I had a steady share of winners. But every once in a while, we scored a bummer, and Mom was merciless.

"Jeez, you two," she would say rolling her eyes, "these taste like cucumber."

No wonder cucumber and watermelon pair so well.

p.s. I stole the watermelon and cucumber salad straight from Odeon's menu. I had a dinner with my GFs the other day and we all went gaga over it. I hope that the good folks from Odeon won't mind, after all, I've been a regular for twenty years, so hopefully I am forgiven. It all stays in the neighborhood. And the second salad, well, it's a long story. As you might have guessed, my mother hated cucumbers. They were a watermelon gone wrong and never really an option on her menu. Hence, it took me a while to embrace cucumbers in their full glory. Therefore the avocado...

Watermelon and Cucumber Salad with Feta, Arugula and Basil Oil

* 2 cups watermelon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
* 2 small seedless cucumbers, cut into 1/2-inch dice, or sliced 1/4-inch thin crosswise
* 1 cup feta crumbles
* 1/2 cup sliced radishes
* 5 oz baby arugula
* 2 tbsp basil, finely chopped
* 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
* 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
* 1/2 tsp salt and freshly ground pepper each

Whisk together the vinegar, basil, salt, and pepper. Slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking constantly, to form an emulsion. 

On a large platter, arrange the arugula leaves. Top with cucumber, radishes and watermelon. Sprinkle with feta. Drizzle with the basil oil. Mix gently and serve.

Cucumber and Avocado Salad with Chunky Herbed Feta Dressing

* 2 large cucumbers, or 3-4 medium-sized seedless cucumbers
* 2 ripe avocados
* 4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
* 2 tbsp mayonnaise
* 2 tbsp sour cream
* 1 tbsp olive oil
* 1/2 cup buttermilk
* 3 tbsp chopped mint
* 3 tbsp chopped chives
* salt and freshly ground pepper

Peel the cucumber. If you are using smaller, seedless cucumbers, just go ahead and cut them into 1/4-inch thick slices. Otherwise, cut the cucumbers in quarters lengthwise. With a sharp knife, cut out the seedy part, and then cut the cucumbers into 1/2-inch pieces.

Season the cucumber with salt, put in a colander and leave for about 15-30 minutes to drain. Remove cucumbers from the colander and pat dry with a paper towel.

Prepare the dressing. In a small box combine feta and olive oil. Mix with a fork until it forms chunky paste. Add the mayonnaise and sour cream and continue to mix. When everything is fully incorporated, add the herbs and buttermilk. Season with pepper.

Cut the avocados into 1/2-inch dice.

In a bowl mix the cucumber and avocado. Add the dressing and gently combine. Serve.

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