Wednesday, February 20, 2008

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Watermelon Pickles

Jessica Harris has written more cookbooks than I own pairs of shoes, testament as much to her literary output as my somewhat limited sense of fashion. Yet I was happy to oblige when she asked me a while back for recipes to include in a book she was working on concerning side dishes and accompaniments. The piquillo ketchup, a killer recipe I adapted from an early canning manual, made the cut, and I’ll post images and notes when I make my next batch.

The watermelon pickle recipe she included, though, lends itself more readily to cocktails, so we’ll start with that (and get to the cocktails in a later post). Watermelon pickles, or preserves, using just the rind are a Southern standard, if maybe just a hair old-fashioned these days. I still whip up an occasional batch to accompany sandwiches, roast pork, and other savories that could use a little pep. More recently, I’ve been playing with them in drinks. Hey, those who don’t mind less gin in their martini do the same thing with olives, so no grief on that front, please.

Start with a 6-7 pound melon. Make your life easier by peeling it with a slingshot vegetable peeler before you make your first cut. Some recipes tell you to scrape off all the red flesh as well as the peel. The peel needs to go, but leave a little red on the rind. It certainly doesn’t hurt the flavor and it gives a fancy rose collar to the pickles. These make a slightly softer pickle than older recipes that call for impregnating the rind with lye or alum. You could take that route, but…meh. Too much hassle for minimal return.

8 cups of watermelon rind, cut into ½” squares
q.s. kosher salt
4 (770 g) cups sugar
2 cups (470 ml) cider vinegar
12 whole cloves
1 tsp (2.5 g) ground cinnamon
2 small lemons, either untreated or scrubbed, sliced into very thin rounds
2 oz/60g (about a finger’s length) of ginger, sliced into very thin coins

Generously salt the chunks of rind, place in a colander, and set inside a stainless steel or glass bowl overnight. They’ll throw off a bunch of brine. Rinse, drain, and throw out the brine. Place rinds in a non-reactive pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Boil for ten minutes. Drain in a colander, but do not rinse. Add the sugar, vinegar, and the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Add the drained chunks, return to a boil and boil gently for ten minutes.

Ladle into sterilized canning jars and process for long-term storage or allow the whole mass to cool in the syrup and ladle into plastic quart tubs for short-term fridge storage.

Goes well with

Lagniappe: Watermelon Aqua Fresca

Occasionally, you’ll get a dud melon with flat-tasting flesh, even if the rind is perfectly usable. If you’re the hog-keeping type, I suppose the flesh'd make good slop. Compost it if you’re so inclined. I feed mine to the Disposall. When the flesh is firm, ripe, and dripping, there’s no better way to enjoy it than sitting on the porch and spitting seeds as far as you can. Your neighbor’s yard, for instance.

But when you’ve got something in between—or just an overabundance of fantastic flesh—treat yourself to a fruit cooler the Mexicans call agua fresca. These aguas frescas (or “fresh waters”) are generally fruits or vegetables reduced with a blender to chunky liquids, bolstered with water and some sweetener such as honey or sugar, then served maybe with bigger slices of the fruits floating. In Mexico and northern Mexico (e.g. San Diego, where I live), you’ll see tables at markets loaded with huge jars called jarras of maybe 3-4 gallon capacity partially filled with cucumber, tamarind, strawberry, jamaica, mango, kiwi, and other flavors. In absence of any tequila, mezcal, or gin, you can even drink them straight.

4 cups chunked watermelon flesh
3 cups cool water
½ cup 2:1 simple syrup
q.s. salt (up to ½ tsp)

Don’t bother seeding the flesh. We’re taking the easy train on this one. Put all the flesh into a large blender with enough water (up to three cups) to fill it to ¾ capacity. Cover and blend. The seeds—some worse for the wear—will float to the top. Just skim them off. Strain into a pitcher, top off with any remaining water, and stir in the syrup and salt. Stir to dissolve. Add some chunks of watermelon flesh either to the pitcher or to individual glasses, depending on how you plan to serve it.

Pour over ice. If you plan to use it as a mixer, ease off the water (using maybe only two cups) and fortify with your spirit of choice.

Goes well with



Tiare said...

Looks very refreshing and i can imagine some Smith&Cross in this as well. But what i wanna ask you now is this, do you have any ideas for the use of the watermelon rind? i know its a great garnish..but what else can one do with it? i bet there´s lots of things..

Matthew Rowley said...

Sure ~

This is a classic Southern pickle. There is a common story that frugal mothers during the Depression of the 1930's wasted no part of the watermelon, even adding sugar and spices to what would otherwise be trash. Maybe. But doubtful. Sugar, especially in rural areas, was still expensive compared to sorghum or cane syrup. I think this was something to be relished, made because people liked the taste, not because they were being frugal.

The cider vinegar makes it a piquant, puckery confection, not really suitable for dessert, but great paired with meats. I often pair it with roast pork or a nice big ham and eat also pickled watermelon rind with sandwiches — a relish on the side for a simple lunch.