Despite being a summertime classic, the watermelon is a plant shrouded in mystery. Historians are still studying how the watermelon developed from its ancient parent plant, while scientists continue to debate whether it is technically a fruit or a vegetable.

Group of watermelon

SEASONAL in Southern California

History

Watermelon descends from a highly drought-tolerant plant that grew in southern Africa at least 5,000 years ago. Prized for their high water content, as well as the water storage capacity of their rinds, evidence of watermelon cultivation has been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs as well as in India and China. Moorish traders brought the watermelon to Spain around 960 A.D.,  and while its spread through Europe was slow, the watermelon was found throughout the continent by the 17th century. Brought to the New World by European colonists, the watermelon spread quickly through both North and South America, was readily adopted by Native Americans, and was carried to the Pacific Islands in the mid-18th century. In 1939, Japanese scientists bred the first seedless watermelon; today, this variety accounts for 85 percent of total watermelons consumed in the U.S.

Nutrition

Watermelon is a good source of vitamins A, B5 and C, as well as potassium, copper, antioxidants, and the amino acid citrulline.

Storage

Whole, uncut watermelon can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week, or at room temperature for up to two weeks. Cut watermelon should be wrapped or enclosed tightly, refrigerated and used within 5 days.

Preparation

Watermelon can be used in both sweet and savory dishes to add crisp yet melting texture and a burst of juicy flavor. It goes wonderfully with other summer crops such as leafy greens, cucumbers, sweet corn, and a variety of fresh herbs. The deep flavor of watermelon pairs well with tangy cheese, fruity vinegars, and even cured meats; it also blends well with fresh tomatoes and herbs in gazpacho, and can be used for complex flavor in sauces for pasta or barbecue. Combine watermelon with citrus, coconut, or dairy for refreshing juices, aguas frescas, granitas, popsicles, and cocktails. Watermelon rind is a favorite for pickling, and the seeds can be roasted with spices just like pumpkin seeds

Cooking

Slice watermelon into thick rounds, divide into quarters, and trim off rind. Sprinkle both sides of watermelon slices with salt, and let rest for at least 20 minutes. Gently brush off salt and pat watermelon as dry as possible. Brush both sides of watermelon lightly with olive oil, then place them on a medium-hot grill and cook briefly, just until grill marks appear. Remove watermelon from grill; serve drizzled with balsamic vinegar and topped with crumbled goat cheese, roasted pepitas, and chopped basil.

Pro Tips

To easily juice a watermelon, turn the watermelon bottom side up, cut a medium-sized hole in the rind, and lift out the cut section. Insert an immersion blender or hand mixer into the hole, and blend, pressing gently against sides of watermelon, until all the flesh has been pulverized. Pour gently out of the hole into a pitcher.

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