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.

RANT and REMEDY

img_1863
Photo © Fadia Jawdat 2017

I lost my appetite on November 8, 2016. I lost my focus as well. My heart was broken. Frequently, my eyes welled up with tears. Kitchen life reflected my despair and translated into a total disinterest in food writing and meal preparation, even the produce at the Farmers’ Market lost its appeal.

Luckily there was a welcome distraction: a family visit starting in mid-December and ending January 1st. A family visit that was to become the perfect escape from reality, setting aside, for a while, all anxieties and fears of things to come. Two weeks of house guests indulging in excess: Celebrating family, togetherness, tolerance, cooperation and love.

I cannot remember what we cooked: providing variety was a must to accommodate the different diets: There were omnivore teens with large appetites, one vegan, vegetarians, meat eaters and mindfull eaters, gourmets and gourmands.  But I do remember numbers and quantities: feeding ten daily and up to eighteen occasionally. There were slabs of fresh and smoked salmon, heaps of pasta, pots of rice and beans, loads of vegetables and fruit, platters of cheese, stacks of pancakes and bagels, and our very own family Christmas tradition of endless supplies of Mulukhia, baklawa, chocolate and wine.

Family and friends contributed, sharing in the purchase of ingredients, the prepping, cooking, setting up and cleaning up. Generosity and kindness were a daily exchange. Laughter, hugs and tears were the modus operandi.

Then came January.

My family’s departure left me empty and forlorn. The blinders had to come off eventually. I woke up from my food coma. Awareness replaced oblivion and reality crept back into our lives. Like a beached whale, I vowed to stay away from cookies, chocolate and cheese and to march and protest instead. I had enough leftovers to last me for weeks. Stepping into the kitchen or standing at a stove or a sink made me uneasy.

January was to be frugal. The nightmare we awaited had arrived and had turned into reality. No safety net can protect us. No chocolate or wine can shield us. Images of the future made my stomach turn.

January was frugal, lean and austere. February might very well be the same as well. I search for comfort. Starches have to be avoided, sugar and fat too. I am lucky I still have the freedom of choice.

Soups are what bring me solace during the winter months. They’re a meal in a bowl with all the nutrition and the healing one needs. I like to make a big enough batch to divide and freeze or to last me a few days. I love lentils soups of all sorts and colors, potato leek (without the cream), curried carrot and parsnip soup, but most of all I love the puree of black bean I have made for years. It is silky in texture, deep and layered in flavor and a tablespoon of Sherry drizzled over each bowl will hit the spot!  Use a garnish or two to brighten this warm and soothing bowl of soup: a slice of lemon, a pinch of chopped cilantro or parsley and some grated carrot.

Read the recipe and use it as your guide, but remember you’re the boss. You taste and you adjust spices or add more broth or water to loosen things up. You can make it a day or two ahead. And by the way, if you have a leftover batch of thick soup, mix in some sour cream or tahini and serve it as a black bean dip or “hummus” with tortilla or pita chips!

Black Bean Soup
Serves 8

Ingredients:
2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
1 large Onion, chopped
5 medium size Carrots, chopped
3-4 Celery stalks, chopped
3 tablespoons Oregano
3 teaspoons Cumin
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Black Pepper (a dash of Cayenne if desired)
4 cans Black Beans
5 cups Vegetable Broth
8 cloves Garlic
1/4  to 1/2 cup Lemon Juice
Sherry and garnish (lemon slices, sour cream chopped parsley or cilantro, grated carrot)

Method:
Chop onions, garlic, carrots and celery. You can use a food processor for speed and ease.
In a large pot, heat oil and saute onions, garlic, carrots and celery. Add oregano and cumin.
Add broth slowly stirring and bringing to a boil. simmer covered for 10 minutes. Add all the beans, salt to taste and simmer for 15-20  minutes. Adjust seasoning.
Let cool a little then blend with an immersion blender. (food processor can be used in batches). Add lemon juice to taste, and loosen with additional broth to desired consistency.
Drizzle a tablespoon of Sherry in each bowl.
Garnish with a slice of lemon or a dollop of sour cream, chopped parsley or cilantro and grated carrots for color.
Serve with Tortilla chips if desired.

Spring: Ris & the Ramp

IMG_5456
Red veined Sorrel, ramps, watermelon radishes, beets and white Hakurei turnips. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Since living in Washington I have grown accustomed to making a big deal over spring. Spring is a THING! It’s a happening.

My heart skips a beat at the sight of the first robin or the first peeping crocuses. Soon the trees will burst with gigantic magnolia blooms and a little later the glorious cherry blossoms will summon the photo-snapping tourists. The stretches of daffodils color the drive along the parkways, and the tulips adorn front yards with splashes of pinks, whites, purples and yellows.

But it seems the wait is a slightly longer for spring at the farmers’ markets. I drive myself sick with anticipation. I look for the appearance of ramps that indicate the beginning of Spring produce. I hadn’t heard of ramps until a few years ago when a celebrated Washington chef, Ris Lacoste brought them to my attention.

IMG_8535
Ramps. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ris is a dedicated mentor, contributor and educator. I am genuinely fond of her. I admire her sincerity, humility, her wit and her brilliance. She is not only one of DC’s top chefs, but her generosity of spirit allows to sit on many a board, consult and advise many restaurants and organizations, teach and mentor young aspiring chefs. Over the years, Ris and I would run into each other at the store and at every community event in the city where we never missed a chance to chat. She was in the restaurant business and I worked in the food retail business. We had loads to talk about and share.
So when Ris mentioned ramps one day, I took note. I went searching and researching for this illusive plant that turns out is a small wild leek, native to the Appalachian mountain region in eastern North America—now how would I ever have known that?—It is foraged in the woods. Ramps  have a short seasonal appearance that grace the market stands in April. Communities in Southern Appalachia celebrate ramps with annual festivals and restaurant chefs, plan whole menus around them.

But there is also a controversy around the ramp. Chefs may have glorified it but botanists have scorned its over-harvesting. It takes five to seven years for ramps to produce seed, and a year at least, for the seeds to germinate. Quebec, Canada, has banned its sale since 1995 and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has banned its harvesting since 2002. For further detail this NYTimes article tells it all.

Boycott or buy?
I usually get carried away with my shopping at the market, often coming home with enough stuff for a family of eight. Maybe it’s an exaggeration. But seriously, the amount of produce that could go bad while waiting for me to find time to process is overwhelming. I therefore commit to a specified budget. A $5 small bouquet of ramps that dwindles down to a mouthful when cooked, may not be the most economical way for a poor foodie to be spending her money. Maybe I will buy one small bunch as a ceremonial act of confirmation— to mark the beginning of the season and to bring in the Spring.

That said, there are so many other lovely temptations that won’t burn a hole in my pocket. Ramps are gorgeous but so is everything else at this time of year. I cannot resist the red-veined baby sorell, the zucchini blossoms, and the baby new potatoes, the spring onions and baby beets, not to forget the white Hakurei turnips and rainbow radishes as well.

IMG_8556

For dinner I will make a salad with roasted beets, sliced turnips and baby sorrel, and a Spring Minestrone Soup that was inspired by Heidi Swanson’s recipe in her cookbook Super Natural Cooking.

Here’s her recipe: I have substituted quinoa for the brown rice and I have added lemon juice for a touch of brightness. I find quinoa earthy and delicate in flavor, overall more nutritious, and it takes less time to cook. If you are looking for a heartier bowl of soup, brown rice is more filling and comforting. You can use a frozen, cooked, store-bought version of both. I always keep a bag of each in my freezer for the occasional need. (Or you can use your own cooked, frozen quinoa or rice. They freeze easily. Place your left-over cooked rice or qinoa in a zip-lock bag, pat to release air, and seal).

Version 2

Spring Minestrone (with 0r without Ramps)

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 shallots or Spring onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced(Bunch of ramps if available)
(Bunch of ramps if available, washed and chopped)
3/4 cup Quinoa (cooked)
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup sugar snap peas or snow peas trimmed and cut in half
8 spears asparagus trimmed diagonally into 1 “ pieces
1/2 cup green petite peas (frozen or fresh if you have them)
Lemon juice, Salt and Pepper to taste

Heat olive oil, sauté the shallots and garlic, (and chopped ramps) until soft. Add the stock and bring to a boil. add the the vegetables and cook until desired tenderness. I like them crisp and bright green, that will only take a few minutes. Stir in the cooked quinoa. Add lemon juice, S & P to taste.

As for my bouquet of ramps, I photographed it, washed and minced it, sautéed it with fresh thyme and added it to my sautéed chicken livers, finishing it off with a splash of sherry.

Happy Spring!

Years ago, I fell in love with Heidi Swanson’s blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com/ after I had come across her book in 2007. You may not come back to my blog ever again after you’ve seen hers. But I need to give credit where credit is due and after all, my blog will always reference the books, cooks and people who have inspired me over the years.

All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat