Peak N.C. Watermelon Season Is Here. Learn to Pick Like a Pro and See What Local Restaurants Are Cooking. | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Peak N.C. Watermelon Season Is Here. Learn to Pick Like a Pro and See What Local Restaurants Are Cooking. 

Whiskey Kitchen's panzanella salad

Photo by Stacey Sprenz, Tabletop Media Group

Whiskey Kitchen's panzanella salad

Watermelon is an iconic summer food. It's the perfect choice for a potluck picnic dessert, an essential part of any barbecue spread, and a refreshing poolside snack. For many of us, watermelon recalls childhood memories of hot summer days munching ripe, ruby slices, juice dripping down our chins. Raise your hand if, like me, you ate down to the rind and scraped off every bit of pink flesh with your front teeth.

Even though it's perfect on its own, watermelon is a versatile ingredient and can be enjoyed in many ways. In the South, folks like to sprinkle salt on their slices. The combination of sugary watermelon with a dash of salt—be it sea, Kosher, pink Himalayan, or table salt—yields an irresistible sweet-savory combination. Mint is a classic addition to watermelon drinks, where it lends a crisp, herbaceous foil to the fruit's sugary sweetness.

Watermelon can also cross over to the savory side. On a Carolina Beach trip three years ago, I ordered my first watermelon and feta salad and swore I'd never eat it any other way. And the North Carolina Watermelon Association's online recipe arsenal proves that watermelon can go beyond salads, featuring recipes for watermelon soup, tacos, lettuce wraps, and pizza. There is even a recipe for Parmesan-roasted watermelon rind, a part that I'd previously considered inedible. I've also since discovered that in the South, rinds are often pickled.

Watermelon may be a summer-long fixture, but it's especially delicious in July when it hits peak season in North Carolina. There's even a designated Watermelon Day at the State Farmers Market—this year's event will be held on July 26 and will feature free slices, recipes, and the Largest Watermelon in N.C. contest (last year's winner weighed in at more than two hundred and thirty-seven pounds!).

But what everyone really wants to know is, how do you pick a melon that hits the trifecta—ripe, sweet, and juicy? The National Watermelon Promotion Board confirms the oft-repeated advice to use color and sound as your guide. A melon should have a creamy underside, the yellower the better, and should sound hollow when you knock on it. But if you prefer to leave the selection and creative preparation to the pros, here's where to munch and sip your way to watermelon-induced bliss at restaurants around the Triangle.

Panzanella Salad at Whiskey Kitchen

Downtown Raleigh's Whiskey Kitchen gives savory watermelon salad a fresh spin, pairing locally-sourced melon with smoked mozzarella cheese instead of feta. Chef Clayton Anderson lightly cold-smokes ciliegine—soft, rich, and creamy balls of mozzarella—to impart a subtle smoky flavor that tamps down the melon's bright sweetness.

Melon and mozzarella make a fine pairing, but Anderson takes things firmly into summer territory by adding the duo to panzanella. Panzanella is a traditional Tuscan tomato-and-bread chopped salad that was created to revive pieces of stale bread, which eagerly soak up the juices of summer-ripe tomatoes and olive-oil-and-vinegar dressing. Here, watermelon cubes and mozzarella balls are combined with chunks of heirloom tomatoes and buttery croutons crafted from Tribeca Bakery baguettes, then dressed in a red-wine vinaigrette and garnished with fresh basil.

Watermelon Rosé Sangria at Nanataco

Sangria knows no seasonality and is practically synonymous with party time, but, when the wine is rosé, and the fruit is watermelon, it adds up to a refreshing summer sipper. Though diners at Durham's Nanataco start asking for the Watermelon Rosé Sangria in spring, but the seasonal libation isn't available until summer. It's best enjoyed on the patio with a trio of tacos or a big ol' plate of nachos.

The sangria was created by owner Jennifer Gillie, who drew on her bartending background to transform sangria, which can be cloying, into a balanced, nuanced beverage. Instead of chunks of fruit, Gillie starts with watermelon agua fresca, a refreshing non-alcoholic fruit beverage that's popular in Mexico. To make things boozy, she combines it with Laurent Miquel rosé, a dry, French wine, and silver tequila, an unaged tequila with sharp flavor. To add in citrus and spice (and everything nice), she mixes in habanero simple syrup, fresh orange and lime juices, and a dash of salt. To tone down the sweetness and add effervescence, Gillie tops her creation with rosé Cava and garnishes it with a cilantro sprig for a pop of color.

Watermelon Cooler Cupcake at The Cupcake Bar

Since 2008, The Cupcake Bar in Durham has earned a following for its specialty cupcakes, whose flavors are often inspired by owners (and sisters) Anna Branly and Katie Braam's favorite cocktails. July's menu will welcome back the perennially popular Watermelon Cooler Cupcake, which was inspired by a watermelon and mint tipple Branly discovered at nearby Geer Street Garden.

For the cupcake base of the cocktail-turned-confection, Branly and Braam start by sourcing locally-grown watermelons from Lyon Farms or the Durham Farmers Market, then make a watermelon puree. They discovered that if they replaced the milk in the cupcake batter with puree, they could achieve a delicate watermelon flavor without thinning it out (which would result in a soggy cupcake). The watermelon cupcake is then topped with mint buttercream frosting and pieces of fondant fashioned to look like watermelon seeds.


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