If there's anything that is quintessentially "summer" for me, it's watermelon. Once I have my first watermelon, I know that summer is finally here. (Similarly, the disappearance of watermelons from the markets marks the end of summer for me, too--but that's sad and months away, so why worry about it now? ;-))
My family used to end all of our summer dinners with a big bowl of chopped watermelon, ice cold from the refrigerator. Usually we would eat it plain, but sometimes, as a treat for me, my mom would give me a bowlful of Chinese sour plum powder in which to dip my watermelon chunks, and I absolutely loved that! Though Chinese sour plums are a bit of an acquired taste for most, I just loved the juxtaposition between sweet and sour and salty between the mouth-puckering powder and the juicy watermelon. So, as I started cooking, I started looking for the sweet and savory interplay that I loved from the watermelon + sour plums in other forms, of which one of my favorite is the watermelon, strawberry, and thyme salad with balsamic vinegar and ricotta salata.
Alright, so before everyone thinks I've gone bonkers to mix strawberries and watermelon into a savory dish, let me try to first convince you that I'm not crazy. After all, salty+sweet has always been a great combo in savory dishes (and especially Asian ones): case in point, sweet and salty pork, or sweet walnut prawns, or the beloved orange-flavored chicken. I even believe that the whole current let's-put-bacon-on-our-desserts craze is merely a manifestation of our desire to have a full flavor profile ranging from the sweet to the savory in one bite. And this salad, if I might say so myself, delivers just that. Between the fragrant earthiness of the fresh thyme leaves, the sour-sweetness of the balsamic vinegar, and the salty creaminess of the ricotta salata shavings, the traditionally saved-for-dessert strawberries and watermelon really come into their own, with everything else helping to bring out the sweet juiciness of the fruit itself.
This dish is also an insanely easy one to make and a perfect appetizer salad for a summer BBQ or picnic. The longer the watermelon and strawberry chunks marinate in their light dressing of balsamic vinegar and thyme, the more the flavors really meld and combine, so preparing this the morning of a party or BBQ and then sticking it in the refrigerator until service really helps to make this dish even better. All you have to do at the last minute is top the salad with some fresh shavings of ricotta salata, and voila! an easy yet super-unexpected way to start your meal.
Of course, this is a dessert blog, so I couldn't very well leave you without a way to end your meal, too, right? To take a cue from my family's post-dinner watermelon-eating, nothing is better than watermelon except ice cold watermelon. So, it's sort of no wonder that, ever since making watermelon sorbetto last summer, I've loved the idea of watermelon in ice form. I also really liked the pairing of fresh thyme with watermelon and strawberries in savory form, so I translated it into a dessert: watermelon and strawberry granita with thyme-infused whipped cream.
Granita is one of my favorite things to make around the beginning of summer, which coincides (quite unfortunately), at my school, with finals week. Since I'm stuck indoors furiously writing final papers when the weather is just starting to hit 80 degrees with no clouds outside, I always hanker for a bit of summer indoors as well. Enter the granita, the perfect dessert to make when you're stuck inside, because, though it's ridiculously easy to make, you do have to baby-sit it for about six hours at a time, stopping every thirty minutes to scrape up the ice crystals forming around the edges of the pan until you reach a lighter-than-air and ultra-fluffy ice. (Thirty minutes being about my attention span anyways, so it works out to have forced breaks from work to stir--and sneak tastes of--the in-progress granita.)
As much time as it takes to make granita, this one is well worth it. The strawberries and watermelon make a refreshingly delicious ice--especially to eat on those hot summer nights sitting outside on the porch, and the hint of rosewater that I mixed in adds a slight and sweet mysterious aroma to the whole thing. The thyme whipped cream on top makes the whole thing turn out like a sophisticated, grown-up version of my favorite orange creamsicles, with the herbal creaminess melting lusciously into a spoonful of flaky ice. Try also freezing the cream right on top of the granita, which makes for an excellently creamy and cold summer treat.
So, with this watermelon, I now officially declare summer here!
Read on for recipes...
Watermelon and Strawberry Thyme Salad with Ricotta Salata
strawberry, hulled and sliced
fresh thyme leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Combine watermelon and strawberries and sprinkle liberally with fresh thyme leaves.
2. Drizzle balsamic vinegar on the watermelon and strawberries and then salt and pepper lightly.
3. Let the watermelon and strawberries marinate, covered, in the refrigerator, for at least thirty minutes or until ready to serve.
4. Remove from refrigerator and top with shavings of ricotta salata.
Watermelon and Strawberry Granita with Thyme-Infused Cream
makes one 9 x 13" dish
2 cups watermelon juice (see note below)
1 lb strawberries, hulled
1/4 cup agave nectar
2 tspn rose water, optional
Note: to make watermelon juice, puree fresh watermelon. Leftover watermelon juice saved for later use by freezing.
1. In a food processor or blender, blend together the watermelon juice, strawberries, agave nectar, and rose water, if using, until no solids are left.
2. Pour the blended juice into a deep 9 x 13" dish.
3. Place the dish in the freezer. After an hour in the freezer, take the dish out. Using a fork, scrape the ice crystals that have formed from the edges of the pan and break them up, mixing the juice around the entire pan. Return to the freezer.
4. Every thirty minutes, repeat taking the dish out, scraping and breaking up the ice crystals and stirring the mixture with a fork until the juice is completely frozen and a light and fluffy shaved-ice texture. This will take about six hours.
1 cup heavy cream, cold
2 heaping Tbspn freshly chopped thyme
2-3 Tbspn powdered sugar
1. Combine 1/3 cup of cream and the freshly chopped thyme in a small saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a bare simmer, cover tightly with a lid and let cool. Once cooled, chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, preferably overnight.
2. In a cold bowl, whisk together the remainder 2/3 cup of the cream with the chilled thyme-infused cream. Gradually add the powdered sugar to taste. Whip just until soft peaks are reached. Use immediately to top the granita, adding an extra sprinkle of thyme leaves, if desired.