Monday, August 22, 2005

Summer Sweet

Coming home with the aforementioned local cantaloupe, I had a sudden craving for this salad as I walked down the hot pavement of Court Street on my way to water the garden (and pluck a little harvest of purple basil and lemon balm). I have to admit, I've never made it at home--yet!--but here is the recipe, begged from the chef, plus some other late-August musings.

Late summer, bountiful time, and I'm been dreaming about ravishingly multihued tomatoes, swinging from suave to acid and back again. Intensely perfumed melons, deep orange and yellow, begging for lime. The swift crunch of a knife going through the green skin of the coldest, ruby-hearted watermelon. A watermelon (sandia) agua fresca at La Taqueria at 25th and Mission (in San Francisco), pulling the sandy bits of melon up through a straw in between bites of a veggie taco with extra tomatillo sauce and a hefty slather of avocado. Melons are the true beauties of late summer, holding all the season's musky heat in their sunset-colored, dripping flesh.

Everyone goes on and on about the beauty of figs (even me--see below to "Figs Are Sexy"), their sexy plumpness, their sticky, seed-crunched pulp. And yes, they're nice. But there's no tang to a fig, no snap of acid to pique your appetite. It's the same with white peaches: delectable, but not piquant. And in summer, piquant is what you need, something that rolls like a breeze over your tongue. Ceviche, gazpacho, lemonade, the tangy brine of seafood. I'm still charmed by a salad I had at the now-closed Chickenbone Cafe, on a hot July night during one of my first weeks in Williamsburg. The chef, Zak Pelaccio, who'd trained at the French Laundry (and now runs the kitchen at 5 Ninth), built a crisscross stack of watermelon batons topped with whorls of grilled squid. Interspersed were frilled shreds of mint and cilantro, salty bits of feta, and down at the bottom, tiny, tiny sweet-sour cubes of pickled watermelon rind. It was delicious, and also witty: watermelon two ways, both of them unexpected.

Melon – watermelon especially – goes better with salt and savory than you might expect. With something salty, and something hot, and something savory (what the flavor experts call umami, the Japanese term for the sort of savoriness you find in soy sauce or Parmesan cheese), you can fill out almost the whole flavor pantheon in one dish. And the heat doesn't have to come from pepper: the bite of a red onion will work, in a Greek-style salad of watermelon, onion, and feta drizzled with olive oil and showered with mint. Or the classic, unbeatable combination of ripe cantaloupe and sheer slices of prosciutto. Grilled or boiled shrimp on skewers with cubes of pale green honeydew, dunked in lime juice and sprinkled with red pepper.

But my favorite melon salad ever comes from a dish I've had – and had again, whenever I could – at Ponzu in SF. Asian fusion is a tricky genre; go too authentic and you'll leave your clientele wondering why they didn't just keep walking up Eddy Street for the same thing at a Formica table for half the price; go too Western and you miss the point. At Ponzu, though, the Bangkok melon salad (originated by former executive chef John Beardsley, now at Le Colonial) is something I'd eat all summer long. At a dinner with a friend a couple of years ago, we ordered one as an appetizer, and then, at the end of the meal, another one as dessert: full circle, as round as a melon, and both times we ate the whole thing.

Bangkok Melon Salad

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

2 tsp grated fresh ginger

1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped

2 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced (or grated zest of 1 lime)

1/2 cup each lemon juice, lime juice, and Vietnamese fish sauce

1 fresh red chile, minced

1 lb each cantaloupe and honeydew, peeled and cubed

1/2 a small watermelon, peeled and diced

1/2 bunch Thai basil leaves

grated zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup toasted, chopped peanuts

Combine water, sugar, ginger, lemongrass, and lime leaves or zest in a medium pot and bring to a simmer. Turn off heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain, discarding solids. Add juices, fish sauce, and chile and chill. Toss cubed melons with basil leaves and lemon zest. Add dressing to taste*. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts just before serving. You could also add mint and cilantro just before serving, too.

*This recipe sounds like it will make a whole lot of dressing. Not that this should be a problem--it sounds like something you could pour over anything--cold noodles, salad, your bare hands--and be thrilled with.

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