For me, Fellini was like a watermelon. It is there. A watermelon cannot die.”
– Roberto Benigni, Actor, Writer, Director
Buenos Aires – I know when I mentioned pickled watermelons yesterday, at least some of you had an image in mind of cutting a whole in one and upending a bottle of vodka into it. It’s a time honored practice on campuses everywhere, and probably at a few church picnics. It isn’t what I’m talking about. Nor, am I taking an entire watermelon and pickling it. Amusing though the image that comes to mind of trying to brine an entire melon, I doubt it’s an endeavor worthy spending much time on. Besides, watermelons are so, so good to eat just the way they are – Mark Twain once said of eating an icey cold slice of the fruit that it was a way of knowing what angels eat. But, there’s always something left over – seeds and the rind – and you know we hate to waste things here at Casa S… besides, I grew up eating watermelon pickles at the end of each summer.
The seeds, of course, can be dried and roasted and used as part of the recipe for the middle eastern spice mixture, za’atar, though I’ll admit I’ve never tried it, and a little online research suggests that one might need to peel each individual seed if you’re not buying them already peeled, though that’s also not clear on all the sites I visited. I don’t think I’d be up for that, waste or not. I was after the rind. I needed it for my pickles. It’s not my recipe, by the way, it comes pretty much straight out of the classic Joy of Cooking, though I don’t rigidly follow Irma’s advice. I do use a vegetable peeler and take off the outer skin, though I leave a bit of green on, and I always leave a thin layer of the flesh on too – I think it makes the pickles pretty. She recommends paring it down to just the white part.
I’m also not a real stickler for her 7 cups of sugar and 2 cups of vinegar (of unspecified type). I sort of wing it. I used half of a good sized watermelon, scooped out the flesh into a bowl for us to eat, skinned it (does this sound carnivorous?), and diced the remaining rind into bite sized pieces (a bit smaller than her 1″ cubes). I boiled the rind for a few minutes until it was just slightly softened – it starts to take on a slight translucence. Then I drained the pieces and put them in a large plastic tub. I boiled up a mixture of a one kilo bag of sugar, which is roughly 5 cups, and a half liter bottle of apple cider vinegar, which is very slightly over 2 cups. So my pickles aren’t going to be quite as sweet as hers… which is okay, because I’m not just sticking them out on the picnic table, chilled… you’ll have to wait until later this weekend to find out how they’re being used…
So I boiled this syrup up and added a cinnamon stick, half a dozen cloves, and three star anise. While still boiling hot, I poured it over the watermelon rind, making sure that the pieces are covered. Then I put a lid on the tub and left it for 24 hours. Next morning, strained the liquid off (the picture above) into a pan and reboiled it, and poured it back over again. Same thing the morning after that. So that’s 1 boiling of the rind and 3 of the syrup… just so there’s no question in anyone’s mind… once they’d cooled off later in the last day, I packed them into smalller containers and put them into the refrigerator. They’re ready to use, but they’ll get even better over a couple of more days after that point. And they’ll keep in the refrigerator for a week or two, or, of course, you could go through the whole canning process if you want to store some up for the future… my bet is once you taste these, you won’t be able to bring yourself to wait on using them for that long.
And, by the way, there are plenty of different pickled watermelon rind recipes out there, it’s not like Irma and I have some dark past together. These are just the ones I grew up on and like (the star anise is an addition that my mom didn’t used to use). Hey, these are three of the spices that are part of five-spice mixture – add in some szechuan peppers for a little kick and some fennel seed for a touch more licorice flavor, and we’d have five-spice watermelon pickles…