This week's look at what's bountiful, new or even mysterious in the produce aisle.
In ancient Egypt, the watermelon was regarded as a precious source of portable hydration. So revered was this sweet, juicy commodity that it was sequestered in the tombs of Pharaohs.
But few Pharaohs would recognize the vast array of watermelons available today. Seedless varieties are valued for their convenience--and safety. And while yellow and orange varieties are popular largely for their novelty, when it comes to taste they are largely indistinguishable from the flush pink watermelon studded with black seeds of most Americans' youth.
Little-known fact: Watermelon is a vegetable--it's related to the cucumber, not the muskmelon--is 92 percent water and contains ample amounts of vitamins A and C in addition to potassium.
Buying and Storing: The rind of a ripe watermelon ranges in color from pale to dark green and is often striped. Pass over any melons with bruises or soft spots and choose one that is symmetrical, whether it is round, oval or oblong. Turn the melon over to check the "underbelly" for a yellowish cast know as the ripe spot. This spot signifies that the melon sat on the ground long enough to mature. And go ahead and pick it up. A watermelon should feel heavy for its size, whether it weighs five or 40 pounds.
Watermelons naturally detach from the vine when ripe, so look for a stem end that is shriveled, not cut. Harvesting melons early is a no-no since melons do not grow sweeter after harvesting, only softer.
If purchasing a precut watermelon, avoid those littered with white, or immature, seeds. Also beware of pale flesh and white streaks.
Store a whole watermelon at room temperature for up to two weeks. Once cut, leftovers should be loosely covered with plastic wrap and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.
Preparing: Simple. Slice and serve (preferably with lots of napkins). Once upon a time, home cooks would pickle the rind.
But perhaps you wanted new ideas? Some chefs pair watermelon with salty and spicy dishes, for example, with goat cheese in a salad or with chardonnay in a savory sauce. Or you can substitute watermelon for tomatoes in your favorite salsa recipe. Or toss red and/or yellow chunks with a dressing of simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water simmered until the sugar dissolves), lime juice and red onion. Either salsa makes a refreshing topper for tortilla chips as well as for grilled, broiled or baked chicken or fish.
Thirsty? For the kiddies, try a watermelon granita or smoothie. Or freeze the juice in ice cube trays and serve as a Popsicle or with lemonade.
And for the over-21 crowd: watermelon juice goes surprisingly well with vodka, gin, tequila and brandy, maybe even Templeton Rye. Watermelon margaritas and martinis are all the rage. Or cut a watermelon in half, drizzle it with vodka and chill. Serve sliced (again, with lots of napkins).