Mad about Illinois River Valley melons
They’re luscious, ripe, and ready. At their succulent best, their quintessential peak.
Melons – specifically watermelons and cantaloupes. Every so often my grandfather used to grow watermelons and cantaloupes. But they were never more than just OK. Our black, loamy soil was much too rich. Papa knew that was why, but it aggravated him that he couldn’t grow good melons. So after a few years passed, he’d make another attempt. And again the melons would disappoint. And a few years later, he’d try again.
Papa wanted to produce melons as good as those grown by friends who lived just a short drive west of Springfield. But some things just aren’t meant to be. His friends lived around towns such as Beardstown, Chandlerville and Kampsville, where the Illinois River Valley’s sandy soil produces some of the world’s best cantaloupes and watermelons. Then as now, the first Illinois River Valley melons began showing up in late June/early July. By mid-August through September, they’re at their abundant best, sold at farmers markets and out of the back of roadside pickup trucks.
No store-bought melon ever tastes half as good. The first Illinois River Valley melons of the season are best consumed as is, just a slice – or two, or three. And, incidentally, they’re at their most flavorful when still warm from the sun. I wouldn’t dream of eating the first melons of the season any other way. But by this time of year, I’m ready to occasionally use their succulent flesh in other ways.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A decade ago if anyone had asked me if it was possible to grill watermelon, I’d have laughed at such a ridiculous notion. That was before I first tasted grilled watermelon at Bacaro, a restaurant in Champaign whose chef, Thad Morrow, is a longtime friend. I ordered it out of curiosity and trust in Morrow’s expertise. But I must admit that I was a bit dubious while waiting for it to arrive. The first bite was incredible, not as sweet as I thought it would be, with an almost meaty texture. By the second bite I was trying to figure out how to make it. By the time I finished, I had it. And I’ve been making it ever since.
Grilled watermelon may seem like a culinary joke, something esoteric that experimental chefs create in high-end restaurants to titillate jaded diners’ palates. But trust me, it’s not at all weird to eat. Grilled watermelon’s texture and taste are a revelation, yet not at all strange. It makes a terrific warm weather salad, served as is, in the olive oil and its own juices, or on a bed of greens such as arugula or mixed baby lettuces, dressed lightly with a raspberry or balsamic vinaigrette. Crumbled blue cheese or feta pair well with it (non-grilled watermelon and feta salads are common in Greece). And if you’d like to try grilled watermelon, but don’t want to make it yourself, Maldaner’s is currently offering an appetizer of blue crab salad with grilled watermelon.
- Seedless watermelon
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing the melon
Cut the watermelon in halves and then into slices about 1 ½ inches thick. Cut the slices into quarters, thirds, or halves depending on the size of the wedges. You should have pie-shaped (or half-moon shaped) wedges, using one piece per person. Cut off the rind and discard.
Lightly sprinkle the wedges on both sides with the salt. Stand the wedges on their edges on a rack over a sink or pan and let drain for ½ hour.
Preheat the grill to high.
After the watermelon has drained, rinse each piece under cold running water. Place each piece between two folded paper towels and gently but firmly press to remove excess water. Stop when you feel the watermelon begin to crunch.
Brush the watermelon lightly on both sides with the olive oil. Grill over high heat until grill marks have formed and the melon is slightly softened, about five minutes. Remove to a platter and let stand.
Chilled melon tomato soup
I’ve been making this cold soup every summer for more than 25 years. Not only is it delicious, but it’s also incredibly easy and quick to make. There’s no cooking involved. Just cut up the ingredients, and purée in a blender or food processor. The original recipe came from the Elsah Landing Restaurant cookbook. In the 1980s and 90s, the little café, located in the tiny, picturesque Mississippi River town of Elsah, was hugely popular with visitors from the Greater St. Louis area as well as Edwardsville and surrounds. On weekends folks would stand in line for hours to enjoy their famous breads, soups and pies. The restaurant is no more, but its out-of-print cookbook has become a collector’s item: new copies are available through Amazon for over $72 (used copies are far less expensive).
I’ve made a few changes to the recipe over the years. The original calls for sour cream. I’ve substituted yoghurt, which makes the soup lighter and more refreshing, which is especially welcome in the warm weather in which this soup is most appropriate. While I often still use the original garnish of crisply fried bacon bits, I’ve found that the basic recipe lends itself to all sorts of improvised, mostly ethnic, delectable variations.
Note: Since tomatoes and melons are simultaneously at their peak, it might seem that it would be better to substitute fresh, pureed tomatoes for the canned juice. But my experience has shown that only canned tomato juice provides the right consistency.
- 1 ripe cantaloupe
- 1T. lemon juice, or to taste
- 1/4 c. minced sweet onion
- Heaping 1/2 c. peeled, seeded, and diced cucumber
- 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper, preferably white, or to taste
- 1 c. plain yoghurt
- 4 1/2 c. canned tomato juice
Scoop out enough cantaloupe to measure 2 c., pressing the flesh down in the measuring cup so that it’s packed solidly. Do this over a large bowl to catch the juices.
Put the cantaloupe and its juice in the container of an electric blender or food processor. Add the lemon juice, onion, cucumber, pepper and yoghurt and purée until completely smooth. Pour into a large container and whisk in the tomato juice. Check the seasoning and add a little more lemon juice, salt, pepper or other seasoning if desired. Chill thoroughly. (If all of the ingredients are chilled ahead of time, this can be served immediately.)
Serve in chilled bowls or glasses. Martini or margarita glasses are especially attractive. Sprinkle with whatever garnishes you choose – no more than a tablespoon or two –just before serving. Makes about 8 cups.
Note: All fresh herbs and other raw garnishes should be finely minced, diced, or thinly sliced.
American: Garnish with crisply fried bacon bits and scallions
Mexican: Substitute lime juice for lemon. Garnishes: toasted pepitas, chili powder, cilantro
Scandinavian: Garnishes: fresh dill, scallions, peeled, seeded and finely diced cucumber
Japanese: Add 1 T. soy sauce and 1 tsp. minced ginger to the soup base. Garnish with a drizzle of sesame oil and one or more of the following: minced pickled ginger, toasted sesame seeds, and thin shreds of nori
Southeast Asian (Thai/Vietnamese) Use lime instead of lemon juice. Add 1 T. red, green or yellow Thai/Vietnamese curry paste or to taste, and fish sauce to taste to the soup base. Garnish with Thai or holy basil, mint, and cilantro.
Italian: Add 1 tsp. minced garlic and substitute balsamic vinegar for the lemon juice in the soup base. Garnish with basil.
Greek: Add 1/4 - 1/2 tsp. cinnamon to the soup base. Garnish with fresh mint, oregano, and/or marjoram
Spanish: Substitute sherry vinegar for lemon juice; garnish with a sprinkle of smoked Spanish paprika and a skewer of green olives.