Using watermelon in savory dishes? A sweet idea, say chefs
BY ALINA DIZIK August 28, 2012 9:52AM
Filini Bar & Restaurant Executive Chef Christian Fantoni displays a stack of watermelon cubes. Photographed on Thursday, August 23, 2012. in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Updated: September 30, 2012 6:04AM
Adding watermelon to dishes typically brings a sugary mid-summer dessert to mind.
But using the fruit on the savory side of the menu well into the fall can help you prolong the taste of summer.
While peak-growing season is in the summer months, domestically grown watermelon is available through November.
“Watermelon is such a great ingredient to work with because [it] is very rich in water, so you can add any major flavor to it,” says Filini’s Executive Chef Christian Fantoni who recently offered a watermelon salad with blue prawns on his menu.
Chicago restaurants like Atwood Cafe, Graham Elliot Bistro and Filini are using the versatile ingredient to bring out the flavors of meat, seafood or heirloom vegetables.
The melon’s light sweet flavor can highlight heartier ingredients while adding a burst of color to the plate.
Dishes such as compressed watermelon with pork tenderloin are on the menu at Graham Elliot Bistro, while Spiaggia serves watermelon granita on top of oysters this month.
Pairing the fruit with spices yields surprising flavor combinations, according to Patricio Sandoval, culinary director of Mercadito Chicago.
“Watermelon is a great sweet component to a savory meal that complements acidity and salt,” he says.
“Try marinating it in herbs like thyme, rosemary, epazote — a Mexican herb — cilantro or chiles.”
At the restaurant, diners enjoy the Callo Ceviche, which includes bay scallops, watermelon, pico de gallo, mint and a key lime habanero broth.
At home, be especially careful when adding spicy ingredients or salt to the fruit. “When you add salt to watermelon or acid to the flesh it will leach out a lot of its juice, so I recommend straining it before putting it on the plate,” says Jacob Saben, executive chef of Graham Elliot Bistro. “Remember, it got the name watermelon for a reason.” Use the remainder of the juice as a vinaigrette or heat in a saucepan to reduce to a watermelon syrup, he adds.
Making a simple salad is a quick way to incorporate the melon, suggests Derek Simcik, executive chef at Atwood Cafe. Sincik offers a seasonal watermelon salad on his menu.
He uses ingredients such as pepper, ricotta, arugula and olives to balance out the sweetness of the fruit with the bitterness of the greens and the acidity of the olives.
“Sometimes spice can be nice, like adding some jalapeno,” Simcik suggests.
Another option is pairing watermelon with feta cheese, basil, mint and heirloom cherry tomatoes to create a salad that’s being served at Bin 36.
“Adding some quality virgin olive oil helps with flavor,” says chef Willy Hewitt.
Public House offers a watermelon panzanella as a special during the warmer months. The watermelon helps the bread easily soak up the flavors, explains chef David Blonsky.
Even at home, it’s easy to move beyond simply tossing watermelon into a salad. Pair the fruit with seafood to make an especially satisfying but light-calorie meal.
“I love watermelon with any fish dish or especially scallops,” Sandoval says.
“Grill scallops to make a nice crudo with watermelon and pickled red onion.”
To keep the fruit longer, try pickling it. The watermelon is ready to eat in less than a day and can be paired with heavier meats.
At Graham Elliot Bistro the briny fruit is served with pork loin, creamy grits and okra.
“The pickled watermelon provides just the right amount of acidity and sweetness to cut through the richness of the pork and grits and is refreshing,” explains Saben.
For a quick refresher, watermelon can be muddled into tequila along with lime juice and jalapeno to create a cocktail, points out Simcik. The colorful drink is naturally sweet without being artificial.
The fruit tends to be finicky, so it’s important to know how to make the most of it.
To start, pick watermelon that’s ripe but not overly ripe, says Sandoval. “Cut it in thick slices to preserve the texture of the watermelon as much as possible,” he says.
Always opt for a seedless watermelon variety, as seeds can be impossible to pick out of a dish, especially salads.
Most of the time it’s best for watermelon to be added last, Mercadito’s Sandoval adds.
This prevents the fruit from absorbing too much of the flavors or juices and getting mushy before it’s ready to eat.
Watermelon “will loose its firmness if handled too much,” Sandoval explains.
Alina Dizik is a local freelance writer.