(NYTIMES) - My earliest watermelon memories have all taken place in or near water, I realised the other day.
At summer camp in northern Wisconsin, there was watermelon cut in thick half-moon slices, which we ate sitting on the boat dock, spitting the seeds as far as we could, or swallowing some. The grown-ups said leaves would sprout out of our ears but, of course, that never happened.
There was also the greased watermelon, smeared heavily with Crisco, that we used for the annual football game in the lake’s shallow water and that always ended up smashed and sandy.
Back at home, the ornately carved watermelon basket filled with melon-ball fruit salad – de rigueur on the neighbours’ poolside buffet table for the Fourth of July or any other summer picnic gathering – was most memorable. There was also the watermelon, carried to the beach on a scorching hot day, that we devoured standing waist-deep in the waves.
I ate my childhood watermelon plain, unaware of alternatives. As an adult, though, I nearly always seek a salty component.
In Mexico, I learnt to eat it with hot red chilli and with salt and lime too. (Even without salt, watermelon with fresh-squeezed lime juice is an inspired combination.) There was no turning back.
Watermelon salad with sharp feta cheese and black olives was also alluring.
Watermelon rind pickles beckoned, sweet, salty and cider-vinegary. Just as other melons are paired with prosciutto, salt or a salty element is the perfect complement to watermelon’s sweetness.
As with tomatoes, a splash of olive oil, a little acidity or some chopped onions are all welcome.
For the recent heat wave, I wanted to make a simple gazpacho-like cold watermelon soup. In my mind’s eye, there would be two steps.
A mix of watermelon, honeydew and cucumber, seasoned well with salt and pepper and dressed with olive oil and lime juice, would go into the bowl.
A ladle of fresh watermelon puree would follow, along with a shower of chives, mint and basil. It would be elegant in its simplicity.
In reality, the first version was, well, bland. I discovered that the watermelon puree could handle a fair amount of seasoning. More salt, a touch more hot pepper, a little red wine vinegar and more lime, veering almost towards Bloody Mary territory, makes the soup much more refreshing.
Another squeeze of lime at the table could not hurt.
Chilled Watermelon Soup
7 cups diced watermelon, cut into 2.5cm cubes
Salt and pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1 Tbs red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
4 Tbs fresh lime juice, plus lime wedges for serving
2 cups diced honeydew melon or cantaloupe, cut into 2.5cm cubes
2 cups diced cucumber, cut into 2.5cm cubes
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbs snipped chives
Handful of small basil leaves
Handful of small mint leaves
Pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)
Pinch of flaky salt such as Maldon or fleur de sel (optional)
1. Put five cups of diced watermelon in a food processor or blender and blitz to a puree. Strain puree through a fine-meshed sieve into a bowl. You should have about four cups puree. Season with salt and pepper and cayenne, 1 Tbs vinegar and 2 Tbs lime juice. Taste and adjust seasoning. Chill bowl on ice or refrigerate.
2. To serve, place remaining diced watermelon, honeydew melon and cucumber in a small mixing bowl. Toss with a little salt and pepper, 2 Tbs lime juice and 2 Tbs olive oil. Divide mixture evenly into chilled soup bowls.
3. Ladle watermelon puree into each bowl. Sprinkle with chives, basil and mint. Add a sprinkle of crushed red pepper and flaky salt if desired. Pass lime wedges separately.
Serves four to six