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I know, I know. Yet another watermelon, feta, and mint salad recipe. Do we need one? Honestly, not really, but I've got a good reason for sharing one with you today. In many ways, the watermelon, feta, and mint salad resembles a classic Caprese—both juxtapose a sweet, watery fruit with a single herb and a creamy cheese (mild in one case, sharp in the other). The main difference is that, while it's easy (and all too common) to get overzealous and f*&k up a Caprese salad, a watermelon, mint, and feta salad is much more forgiving when it comes to riffing and improvising.
But before you can do that, it's important to lay the foundation.
Every long-lasting, well-liked dish (or TV show or song or actor, or anything, really) goes through a few distinct phases: its creation, its initial burst of popularity, the backlash, and finally its acceptance into the cultural lexicon. I have no idea when and where the watermelon, feta, and mint salad was created (Google Trends data seem to suggest the summer of 2004), but it was well into its initial phase of popularity when I first encountered it at a restaurant I worked at back in 2005.
There, we'd serve a carefully spaced array of a half dozen perfect cubes of watermelon in a simple lemony dressing, topped with crumbles of creamy feta cheese and a chiffonade of mint. Of course, we'd also over-gussy the plate (as was the style at the time) with lychees, brûléed muskmelon, and probably a half dozen other components that escape me at the moment.
Since then, watermelon and feta salads with mint have had their moment of backlash and have since progressed to become a staple summertime dish at my place (and, no doubt, at many of your places as well), and I've learned a few things when adapting that recipe for home use. One: You can get rid of pretty much all of the extraneous ingredients. Two: The quality of the watermelon and, more critically, the feta is of utmost importance. And three: A little zest goes a long way.
Just as the first step to pouring a great glass of wine is finding a great wine, the first step to a great watermelon salad is finding a great watermelon. When my wife, Adri, and I lived in Harlem, I bought my watermelons from my watermelon guy, an older gentleman who'd park his pickup on a corner, its cargo bed overflowing with watermelons he'd shipped up from his family farm in Georgia. He'd set up a folding chair under a small tent and man a turkey fryer rigged to boil peanuts, looking up occasionally to inform his customers that, yes, all he was selling today was peanuts, watermelons, smoked turkey necks, and collard greens.
His watermelons were remarkable. Dense, richly colored, deeply aromatic, and sweet. A far cry from the average watery, bland supermarket watermelon. I've yet to find my watermelon guy in my current home in California, but there are still ways to locate decent specimens. The best method by far is to hit your local farmers market in the summer, and look for vendors with opened watermelons who will let you take a taste before you purchase.
Is the supermarket your only option? Here are a few tips to help make the best of it:
- Look for watermelons that feel relatively heavy for their size. Watermelons that grow too fast or big can end up with hollow cracks and crevices, making them feel lighter. These watermelons typically also have a more watered-down flavor. Dense watermelons should taste sweeter and have a better aroma.
- Look for melons that show signs of a clean break at the stem. Watermelons, like all fruit, are attached at one end to their parent plants. When they reach peak ripeness, the stem will often automatically detach, leaving a clean crater behind. When the melons are picked less ripe, the stem often refuses to break free cleanly, leaving behind part or all of itself at the attachment site. This doesn't mean all watermelons with some stem attached won't be good—many still are—but a clean stem crater is generally a very good sign.
- Rap the watermelon with your knuckles. Watermelons that sound very hollow...probably are. Avoid 'em.
- Look for smaller varieties. Smaller melon varieties often (but not always) have more concentrated flavor.
I like to keep things simple for the diner by dicing the watermelon into bite-size cubes, rather than the cheffy-looking slabs, stacks, or rounds that seem to be popular and require the use of an extra utensil at the dinner table.
After the watermelon, the quality of the feta is the most variable factor. I bought every type of feta available at my local Safeway and Whole Foods to see how much variation there really is. Turns out, there's a lot.
Feta is a fresh cheese that's made by soaking pressed curds in a salty brine. The bottom-shelf brands, made with cow's milk, generally emphasize the brine flavor over anything else. They tend to have a very dry, crumbly texture, and saltiness without much tang. What you really want to look for is sheep's-milk feta, whether domestic or imported from Greece or Bulgaria,* which should have a much creamier texture and a flavor that balances saltiness with the characteristic funk of sheep's milk. That creaminess is important! It's what gives you a texture that contrasts with the crisp watermelon, making it taste all the more refreshing.
* Technically, Bulgarian feta is called sirene; it can have a slightly creamier texture than Greek feta, but there's a lot of variation among products, so it's difficult to generalize.
Once you have a good watermelon and good feta, you're almost done here! All you've got to do is toss that watermelon with some lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, and chopped mint, then sprinkle it with feta, and you'll have yourself a great little salad. But if you want to really dress that salad up, just remember that you're not fully dressed till you're zestfully dressed.
Given that it seems so obvious, it took me an awfully long time to figure out that chopped lemon zest was just what my watermelon, feta, and mint salad was looking for.
At that same restaurant, back in 2005, one of my daily jobs for the first several months I worked there was to zest citrus fruit and chop it into a fine powder. I'd zest strips off the fruit with a peeler, carefully scrape off and discard the pith, then rock my knife back and forth for a good 30 minutes.** The resulting citrus dust was used as a condiment for numerous dishes.
** A few weeks into this task, I realized that I could speed it up by taping together three knives parallel to each other and rocking them all together.
For my salad, I'm not going to demand that anyone chop their zest that fine. In fact, I prefer the moister texture and small bursts of flavor that you get from zest that's finely chopped, but not totally pulverized.
A little bit tossed into the bowl and sprinkled on top of the finished salad not only adds a lemony flavor of its own, but also brings out the floral notes in the watermelon and the tanginess of the feta, making each of those ingredients almost taste more of itself.
The only remaining question is how to incorporate the feta. Some recipes I've seen advise adding everything to a bowl and tossing it all together. I find that doing this—especially with a high-quality, soft-and-creamy feta—results in the feta dominating the entire dish, coating the watermelon with its saltiness. Instead, I prefer to sprinkle feta over the dressed watermelon just before serving, giving you more contrast within each bite.
Oh, right, back to the leading question. Do we really need another watermelon, feta, and mint salad recipe? Like I said, not really. I could just tell you, "Hey, follow your favorite existing watermelon, feta, and mint salad recipe, but you know what? Try springing for that nicer watermelon, look for the sheep's-milk feta, and make sure you add a bunch of lemon zest!", and you'd probably do just fine.
Once you get that base perfected, that's when you can start adding a few bits of this and that if you desire. Try some fresh arugula leaves or some cubed cucumbers, halved cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion, and a few small slivers of black olive. Or how about some thinly sliced chili peppers for heat? I really like a version I've made a few times with grilled (and chilled) corn, along with some cilantro chopped together with the mint.
What the heck. Here's my recipe for you anyway.