Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Watermelon Pickles (No - This Isn't an Odd Pregnancy Craving)

Despite the fact that Labor Day has come and gone (which essentially means summer is over), watermelon seems to be popping up everywhere these days.

An article in NY Mag (ok - so it was dated late August but it took me until after Labor Day to read) included a recipe for a cold watermelon tomato soup. You know the kind of no-cook soup that's not really soup at all but just pureed fruits and vegetables but constitutes soup because its served in a beautiful porcelain bowl and garnished with chopped chives as opposed to being served in a 20 oz. styrofoam cup and garnished with a straw in which case it would be a watermelon tomato smoothie?

Then, while dining at Trattoria D'ell Arte last week in NYC, I noticed big hunks of watermelon displayed on the dessert tray naxt to the rustic blueberry tarts and towering mounds of tiramisu. Apparently, watermelon's profile has been raised from post-picnic/post-BBQ Country Girl dessert to haute NYC dessert trays.

But the most interesting form I saw watermelon take recently was watermelon pickles.

Watermelon pickles are one of those unique and totally esoteric Southern delicacies that everyone in the South is obsessed with but no one else cares about. Sort of like pimento cheese.

Essentially watermelon pickles are pieces of watermelon rind (green skin removed) that have been pickled in a sweet brine spiced with cinnamon, allspice and cloves. They are completely sweet (although the ones I tried had a little heat on the back - sort of like the kick you get when you eat spicy cinnamon candy)and reminded me of the candied apple rings that were once a prevalent staple of salad bars everywhere (seeing as I haven't been to a salad bar in a while, I can't common on their current state of prevalence).

My mother in-law, who served me my first watermelon pickle, is one of the aformentioned obessed fans and makes her own pickles since they are no longer common in grocery stores.

If you Google "watermelon pickles" there are 13,700 results returned. Many appear to be recipes and fond memories of that first watermelon pipckle, although if you had "history" to the query you get a narrower field of results. Without combing through them all (who has time) the best I can find is that Southerners pickled, canned or preserved about everything at summer's end because the availability of produce during the winter was limited (this was obviously long before we imported rasberries from Argentina in the middle of January for $5.99 for a 3-oz. container). Watermelon pickles are one of a thousand quirky Southern relishes.

Knowing what I know, my guess is that people couldn't stand to see anything go to waste - including watermelon rinds - so some clever farm wife devised this pickling process to create a sweet treat out of otherwise inedible material. Sort of similar to how the Italians have about 500 soup recipes relying on leftovers and stale bread.

Of course, I found the following bit on Schmeckfest:

Any German Russian cook will be quick to tell you, REAL watermelon pickles are made from the flesh -- not the rind. The more familar Scandanavian version of watermelon pickles are made of the bitter white rind transformed into sweet pickles. The German Russian version of watermelon pickles take the sweet red flesh of the watermelon and spark it up with sour brine, lots of dill and the surprise of red-hot peppers.

So who knows what a true, authentic watermelon pickle actually is. Pink flesh. White rind. No matter. But to make sure you get the chance to experience this truly unique condiment yourself, I've asked my mother-in-law to share her recipe and I will post it shortly.

And if that ain't country, I'll kiss your...