Watermelon

All photos © Fadia Jawdat 2017

One of my favorite summer desserts while growing up in Lebanon, was a combination of Watermelon and white cheese, Halloumi in particular. It also worked well as a refreshing afternoon snack when we came back from a day at the beach, parched and sunburned. Each mouthful combined the salt with the sweet, the chewy with the juicy crunchiness, hydrating every cell in our bodies.

Memories rush through my mind’s eye: watermelon mounds by the side of the road where farmers unload their summer crop, or the pushcart vendors shouting “Battikh Aassikkeen” (literally: watermelon on the knife). The vendors would cut open a watermelon for customers to check the saturation of color while they tested its sweetness from the slice that was handed out to them insistingly.

Lately, I have revived an old forgotten recipe for Watermelon Gazpacho. It is so easy once all ingredients are assembled. Try it before summer’s end.  I find this cold “soup” refreshing and nutritious.
It’s a god-send when your rushing about trying to get food on the table for a large group of guests and your kitchen is looking chaotic and your mind has turned to mush. It’s a great way to center yourself, call attention to the fact that dinner is about to be served, give your guests a chance to wrap up their conversations and ready themselves for the meal ahead. Serve and pass it around in shot or martini glasses with a sprig of mint or basil and a wedge of lime. But it’s also great for a quick grab and go lunch. I make a big batch (double the recipe) and keep it in bottles or jars in the refrigerator to take to work or to snack on throughout the week.

Getting Gazpacho ingredients ready…

Watermelon Gazpacho

Ingredients
• 5 cups watermelon, cubed
• 1 cucumber (peeled)
• a couple of green onions chopped or several sprigs of chives
• 1 Beefsteak tomato or favorite heirloom
• 1/4 red onion
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 tablespoons mild vinegar (I like to use Ume Plum Vinegar for its mildness and saltiness. Do not use salt if you have and use it)
• 1 tablespoons good olive oil (optional)
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1 lime, juiced and another sliced for garnish

Both lime and vinegar are the “acids” for this recipe. Let your personal taste buds decide how much of each you’d like. Add them as you go, until desired acidity is achieved. Add salt if needed.

Fresh ground pepper is great but for those who really like spice you can add Jalapeno or a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Adjust ingredients and flavors to your own taste barometer.

Add all ingredients in a blender, Vitamix or food processor and pulse. Some like it chunky others like it smooth. The decision is yours. Be sure to chill for several hours before serving. You can make this a day ahead. It tends to separate—liquid from solids—nothing that a quick stir won’t fix.

Cheers!

More reading:

  • I inevitably do a little research on a topic I am about to tackle: any interesting information out there worth sharing? There are the usual health benefits listed and the watermelon has many. But I did come across a full description of heirloom varieties in Mother Earth News and history in America, that is worth a read.
  • I also would like to share a story posted by NPR about the Bradford Watermelon, one particular heirloom watermelon making a comeback—not a commercial comeback but an inspirational one (details on the website. It seems to be the sweetest melon of all!
  • And if you are so inclined watch video on female and male watermelon flowers.

Summer Romance

Cultivating Okra brings endless joy to my summer mornings.

My daughter and I spotted okra seedlings at a farmer’s stand this past Spring.  “Mom! You love Okra!” she exclaimed “you should get some!” I had vowed not to plant any vegetables on my deck this summer. All past experiments inevitably led to heartbreak. With a dozen pots of varying sizes, I am limited in my choices and my plants are inevitably attacked and decimated by various urban pests: birds, squirrels and maybe a raccoon occasionally, not to mention the entire insect kingdom, from hungry caterpillars to stubborn aphids. Despite it all, and all summers past, I was seized by the desire to give it a go, at least, if nothing else, for educational purposes.

So… on the 26th day of May, I began with six seedlings. Three to one pot. Almost instantly, two of them died—probably the victims of the invasive, wandering mint that appeared out of nowhere. The third small seedling proved to be a fighter and lives on, to this day, although somewhat dwarfed by her heartless colonizer.

The other pot flaunted three healthy plants. I watched and I waited. I have been particularly busy lately and had no time for research, so I threw my expectations to the wind: “Jump right in and figure it out later”—my life’s new mantra and modus operandi. The first appearance of a couple of buds sent me shrieking with excitement.

It was June 8th. I thought I was seeing baby okra at first, but it turned out they were buds not pods. By June 13th the first plant gave me its first flower. I watched and I observed… Okra flowers are shy and ephemeral. They appear at the juncture of stem and leaf. Shaded by the leaves, the flower dazzles for one day, and one day only. I swooned over that first sighting: five creamy delicate, yellow petals forming a bell-like shape with a dark crimson heart and a yellow pistil with a crimson crown. By dusk it swirled onto itself, shutting out the world to gestate and give birth to the pod growing inside her.

My Okra plants are large and thirsty. By July 12th I had harvested a dozen pods. We are now the beginning of August and I have dozen more and at least fifty photographs. I sautéed my first dozen and froze them, the others, still being collected in a ziplock bag in the fridge, will have to be processed soon.

 

Carefully turning a paring knife along the upper ridge to remove the stem without breaking the skin.

August 3rd: the runt bore her first fruit. The plant is about a foot tall compared to the others that have reached 5 feet at least and looking rather spindly. The pot is much too small.

Unfortunately, I see the end in sight. I suspect we will be saying our goodbyes soon. The lower leaves, are turning yellow and falling off. I feel sad. I have kept a close eye on them daily. No other plant on my deck has given me as much pleasure, not even the thriving Basil. Like children I nursed them. Like pets I catered to their needs. I suspected it would be a fleeting, short lived affair, but I’m glad I enjoyed the ride while it lasted.

Okra, is not everyone’s cup of tea. But it boasts some amazing health benefits. It is an annual flowering plant in the mallow family—same as Mulukhia, the hollyhock, the rose of Sharon and the hibiscus. It is also called Gumbo or ladies’ fingers. It is high in fiber, low in calories and contains B and C vitamins, calcium, magnesium, potassium and folic acid. It have finally looked up its origin (Africa) and its history and discovered that leaves and flowers are edible too.

Roasted Egyptian Okra (top) and my harvest! sauteed in a pan (bottom)

I cook okra year-round using the frozen Egyptian kind found at Middle-Eastern grocers. The pods are tiny and the stems have carefully been removed. The fresh okra at the market is usually huge and seedy. I will cherish my own harvest and save it for a special occasion giving it the pomp and fanfare it deserves. The recipe that follows is a favorite family dish that can be eaten cold with bread or warm with rice.

My Okra Recipe

1lb. Okra
1 Large Tomato peeled* and chopped
1 Large Onion peeled and chopped
4 cloves of Garlic
Cilantro/Garlic mix**
Juice of a lemon or
Pomegranate Molasses

Cilantro/Garlic mix**
6 cloves garlic crushed
1 bunch Cilantro Chopped
1 tsp coriander powder***
1 tsp salt

Defrost okra, spread over dish towels to dry. Toss in a little olive oil and spread in baking sheet. Place in 375 F oven and roast until slightly golden. 15 minutes approximately.
(You can skip this method entirely and just add the okra to the onions when the latter have turned transparent and golden).
Saute onions in a little vegetable oil. After the onions have turned golden, add the okra tomatoes the four cloves of garlic and the lemon juice. Add a little water to barely cover, turn down heat to low for 10 minutes. Add garlic and cilantro mix, simmer for half an hour longer or until okra is tender. Taste and adjust salt and lemon. I love to substitute lemon juice with pomegranate molasses (I often use a little of both). Lemon is brighter, but pomegranate is deeper in flavor.

Ready, set, go: All ingredients together, add a little water to barely cover and let simmer on a very low flame.
Okra “Caviar” the finished dish, served cold. It’s better the next day. After cooking, let cool, cover in a dish and let sit in your refrigerator for a day or two. Perfect make ahead side dish or appetizer. It’s Vegan and delicious for any palate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*to peel tomatoes soak in boiling water for a few minutes

**To make the Cilantro mix, wash, dry and chop cilantro, crush garlic. In a little olive oil in a small pan, place over medium flame add garlic salt and coriander first, stir until garlic begins to turn golden, then add the chopped cilantro and fry up a little longer. set aside. You can make this ahead of time in batches and freeze. Using when and wherever needed.

*** Coriander is the seed of the Cilantro plant. It comes whole or in powder form.

p.s. Call me fickle and unfaithful, but I’d been so absorbed with my newly found affair, that I had completely forgotten my Mulukhia! Half way through the summer, when I went to find farmer Heinz I sadly discovered he was no longer coming to DC!