Cool Off With Watermelon

Central Texas summer heat waves are merciless, showing up day after day with temperatures in the high 90s and triple digits. Sometimes, even countless dips in Barton Springs’ chilly waters and frozen margaritas on the patio aren’t enough to cool an Austinite’s glistening brow. The sun may be brutal, but fortunately, there’s a seasonal treat that’s just waiting to quench your thirst for crisp, natural sweetness: fresh and juicy watermelon. In Central Texas, locally grown melons start arriving at the markets in June or July, depending on weather conditions. The first step to eating watermelon is picking a local, peak-season melon and showcasing the fruit with simple preparations, allowing it to truly shine.

How to Pick a Watermelon

You absolutely reserve the right to be that grocery shopper, whacking the sides of giant melons for the coveted “hollow” sound. To be the one who turns countless melons in the giant cardboard bins, searching for just the right shade of white/yellow underbelly splotch. But, while these strategies can help you find a better melon in the store, the fact is that the safest way to ensure you’ve got a great melon is by purchasing it straight from the source. The deep, hollow sound heard when knocking a melon can indicate its juiciness, but it can’t tell you when it was harvested — the true indicator of taste. If it’s been stored for a while, a watermelon may have the same sound, but it could potentially taste bad. “You won’t know that it’s a bad melon until it’s too late,” says Farmer Scott Klehr of Villa Klehr Farms in Elgin. Klehr states that the best indicator for a great-tasting melon is whether it was vine-ripened. “On each watermelon, there is an indicator stem that tells the farmer when it is ready. When it is dried up completely, it is ready to go. We only harvest watermelons when they are ready.” Klehr also says that good, steady heat and proper fertilization of the crop are what create the sweetness in your watermelon. “You don’t want to get weather that’s too hot, but if they can be in good, steady heat for 30 days, those are the ideal conditions.” And the more rain the better, he says. “Melons can never be stressed of water.”

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Sweet and Simple

With fruit so crisp and sweet this time of year, watermelon is best served as simply as possible. Cut the watermelon into classic wedges, and serve on a bed of ice if you’re going for the “wow” factor. A generous sprinkle of flaky sea salt or tangy Tajin chili seasoning boosts the fruit’s natural sugars for a punch of flavor. If you’ve ended up with a mealy melon (things happen), it will still make a refreshing juice. Puree the pulp in a blender and press through a fine-mesh strainer fitted with a cheesecloth. Press the pulp gently with the back of a spoon to release all of the liquid, and store in a sealed jar in the fridge for up to three days. Serve with fresh mint sprigs, on ice and/or with a splash of tequila and lime juice. Alternatively, pour watermelon juice into popsicle molds and freeze overnight for a naturally sweet frozen treat.

For a delightful accompaniment to a summer meal (ideally set outdoors and with easy access to the grill), watermelon is just calling to be tossed in a bright, flavorful salad and dressed with a punchy vinaigrette for an acidic kick. Pure Luck Farm and Dairy’s chèvre pairs beautifully with chilled melon, complementing the melon’s crisp sweetness with its salt and acidity. The best goat cheese comes from animals raised with care and a cheesemaking process with an attention to detail, principles that mirror growing any crop for optimal flavor and taste. Amelia Sweethardt, owner and cheesemaker at Pure Luck Farm and Dairy, says, “If you’re starting with a very clean, well-cared-for milk, you are going to get the best results.” In pairing her carefully crafted cheese with watermelon, Sweethardt states, “The sweet and the lactic flavors of goat cheese are nice complementary flavors that give you a balance of sweet, acid and salt. It’s the perfect trio of flavors that makes the perfect salad.” Pure Luck’s plain chèvre or their acclaimed June’s Joy (blended with honey, pepper and thyme) goes incredibly well with melon. Feel free to substitute your favorite chèvre in the following recipe, seasonal availability permitting.

By Rachel Johnson • Photography by Rachel Johnson and Jenna Northcutt