- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

You can’t have a proper Fourth of July celebration without flags and watermelon. The melon is juicy, cooling, refreshing. Why, you could even make a case for watermelon as the most fun and happy fruit.

Fun? Sure, just rub down a 10-pounder with some Coppertone, toss it into a pool along with a few children and see what happens. Or give them each a greased minimelon to race with across the pool. Later, accompany dessert of watermelon with a seed-spitting competition.

Who could find a happier Citrullus lanatus (that’s watermelon by another name), than one that’s been plugged and spiked with vodka? An adult game could be trying to say Citrullus lanatus three times after a serving up such a melon.

The United States grows hundreds of watermelon varieties. Besides the traditional oblong picnic melons with red flesh and lots of black seeds, most markets carry round types with yellow and orange flesh and no seeds.

The first recorded watermelon harvest occurred nearly 5,000 years ago in Egypt, and watermelons were often placed in the burial tombs of kings to nourish them in the afterlife. It wasn’t until about 50 years ago that the first seedless melon was bred. Just as a horse bred with a donkey produces a sterile offspring, seedless watermelons are the result of a plant breeding technique.

However, seedless watermelons do contain some undeveloped soft seeds that are quite edible, although almost impossible to spit.

What seedless melons lack in size, they make up for in sweetness. Grown and harvested correctly, seedless varieties are sweeter because the energy that would have been used to make seeds is used to make sugar instead.

There’s no mysterious thumping needed when choosing a watermelon. Look for a firm, symmetrical shape that is free from bruises, cuts or dents. Lift it up. The watermelon should be heavy for its size.

Watermelon is 92 percent water, the reason for its heft. Turn it over. The underside of the watermelon should have a creamy yellow spot from where it sat on the ground and ripened in the sun. If the spot is white, the melon was picked too early.

Refrigerate whole watermelon for up to a week. (If the melon is too large to fit in the refrigerator, store it in a cool dark place for up to 4 days.) Not only does it taste better cold, chilling prevents the flesh from becoming dry and fibrous. Refrigerate cut melon in plastic wrap or an airtight plastic container for up to 2 days.

To cube watermelon easily, cut the ends off. Stand it up on one flattened end and use a sharp knife to cut off the rind in strips from top to bottom. Cut the peeled melon crosswise into slices.

Stack a few slices at a time and cut them into cubes.

For a healthy summer snack (watermelon has the highest lycopene content of any fruit or vegetable and is a good source of vitamins A and C), freeze cubes of watermelon in a single layer on a baking sheet or tray. Place the cubes in the freezer until frozen, then transfer to a zippered plastic bag and store in the freezer.

The cubes can also be used to add a hint of flavor and color to a pitcher of water, tea, lemonade or limeade.

Don’t stop at eating just the flesh. The rind can be turned into delicious pickles, and, in some cultures, the seeds are toasted for a snack. But eating the seeds isn’t as much fun as spitting them.

Watermelon sherbet

2 cups cubed, seeded watermelon

cup sugar

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

1/3 cup cranberry juice cocktail

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice

Place watermelon cubes in a blender or food processor. Cover and blend or process until smooth. (There should be 3 cups of the mixture.) Stir in sugar.

In a small saucepan combine gelatin, cranberry juice cocktail and lime juice. Let stand for 5 minutes. Stir mixture over low heat until gelatin is dissolved.

Stir gelatin mixture into melon mixture. Pour into an 8-by-8-by-2-inch baking pan. Cover and freeze for 2 hours or until firm.

Break up frozen mixture and place in a chilled mixer bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on medium to high speed until mixture is fluffy. Return to pan.

Cover and freeze for 6 hours, or until firm. If not serving immediately, pack into airtight container and store in freezer for up to 1 month.

Makes 8 servings.

Gingered melon slush

4 ice cubes

2 cups cubed, seeded watermelon

Dash ground ginger

2 teaspoons honey

Orange peel and mint for garnish, optional

Place 4 ice cubes in blender. Cover and pulse until crushed. Add watermelon and blend for about 1 minute, until slushy. Add ginger and honey, and blend for about 10 seconds. Pour into glass and garnish with orange peel and mint, if desired.

Makes 1 serving.

Spiced watermelon with yogurt dip

1 teaspoon salt

teaspoon ground ginger

teaspoon ground cumin

teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste

4 cups cubed watermelon

1 cup plain yogurt

cup cilantro leaves

In a skillet set over medium-high heat, stir together salt, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric and cayenne to taste until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Cool.

Place watermelon in large bowl and sprinkle with toasted spices.

In another bowl, mix together yogurt and cilantro. Serve watermelon with wooden picks for dipping into yogurt.

Makes 4 servings.

Watermelon and feta salad

4 cups watermelon cubes

1 cup diced cucumber

cup crumbled feta cheese

2 tablespoons julienned basil or mint leaves

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In large bowl, combine watermelon and cucumber. Add cheese and basil or mint and toss lightly.

Divide among 4 salad plates and drizzle with oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes 4 servings.

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