DRESS IT UP

"Watermelon. Not just for picnics anymore," trumpets the National Watermelon Promotion Board, and who could resist a pitch like that? Especially when said pitch is accompanied by recipes for watermelon pad thai, pulled pork and watermelon barbecue sauce and more — much, much more.

How weird is that? Maybe not so much, said Alex Stratta.

Stratta, executive chef of Alex at Wynn Las Vegas, tends to incorporate a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables in his seasonal menus, and this is definitely not picnic food. Stratta often uses watermelon at this time of year.

"For me, it goes hand in hand with summer," Stratta said. "Corn, chanterelles, watermelon, basil and tomatoes.

"I think people relate it to casual summer days. What’s important in making menus is if you can associate the flavor with something nice. That association, when the product is at its peak, is always really positive."

For one of the dishes currently on his menu, Stratta air-dries watermelon pieces to remove the water (which he saves for consomme or gelee) and then uses it as a garnish on an amuse-bouche with cantaloupe gelee, yellowtail and caviar. The drying process, he said, produces a texture like that of a soft pear; "it gives you this intense, crunchy watermelon."

For another dish, he wraps watermelon with prosciutto — "kind of a take on melon and prosciutto, but with watermelon" — and pairs it with prawns atop a salad.

"For our old menu last summer, we had a watermelon and arugula and fennel salad which was very popular," Stratta said. The watermelon was thinly sliced and arranged with sliced fennel, arugula and ricotta salata cheese for a combination he said was particularly refreshing.

"It’s also good in relishes," Stratta said. While noting that he’s "not crazy about fruit and fish," he does like to grill salmon with a teriyaki or miso glaze and serve it with a fresh watermelon salad.

"It’s nice and easy and it goes really, really well," he said.

Stratta said he has a chef friend who pairs pickled watermelon rind with foie gras, and "it’s pretty good."

"And of course there’s the watermelon martini," he said. "Just juice the fresh watermelon and make your martini and garnish with diced watermelon."

Mary Wilson, a registered dietitian and extension nutrition specialist with Nevada Cooperative Extension, said watermelon’s not only versatile, it’s something you can feel good about eating.

"It’s a good source of Vitamin C, has some beta-carotene and some potassium," she said, and relatively few calories, at only 50 per cup.

"And it has a lot of water in it, so you actually get some good fluids from something like watermelon," she said. "It’s about 92 percent water and 8 percent sugar, so it has a relatively small amount of sugar," and trace amounts of some vitamins and minerals.

And one other good thing, in these days of supermarket sticker-shock.

"I find it pretty cost-effective," Wilson said. "I will buy a watermelon and cut it up and we’ll eat it for a week. I find that it keeps relatively well in the refrigerator." She also freezes watermelon, though she suggests eating it while still frozen because the texture breaks down.

When choosing a watermelon, look for one that’s firm and symmetrical, free of cuts or blemishes, heavy for its size and with a creamy-yellow spot where it sat on the ground while ripening. Look for new seedless varieties, golden varieties and the smaller "personal watermelons" for smaller households.

Wash both your hands and the watermelon thoroughly before cutting it (to keep bacteria from penetrating the rind) and refrigerate it once you’ve cut it.

And have fun experimenting. For more recipes, visit www.watermelon.org.

Squash puree with cinnamon and watermelon, anyone?

ROASTED SANTA BARBARA PRAWNS WITH WATERMELON, PROSCIUTTO AND ARUGULA

For the prawns:

24 large prawns, shelled and deveined

 1/2 cup Wondra flour

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon garlic puree in oil

1 tablespoon diced shallots

2 tablespoons butter

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chicken stock

Season the prawns well on both sides and dredge lightly in flour, removing any excess. Heat a heavy pan with olive oil over high heat and sear the prawns well on one side. Flip them over and add the garlic puree, shallots, butter and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to brown over high heat and finish with chopped parsley and deglaze lightly with the stock to glaze.

For the watermelon:

24 1 1/2-inch cubes of red seedless watermelon

24 thin slices of prosciutto, 1 inch wide and 3 1/2 inches long)

No sooner than 15 minutes before serving, wrap the pieces of watermelon evenly and tightly with prosciutto and reserve, refrigerated, until needed.

For the salad:

2 cups arugula

1 cup white frisee lettuce

1 tablespoon balsamic vinaigrette

Salt and pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil to taste

1 tablespoon aged Balsamico vinegar

Toss the greens in the vinaigrette and arrange in the center of eight plates (dividing equally), then arrange three of the blocks of prosciutto-wrapped watermelon around the salad. Finish with three of the roasted prawns, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with oil and vinegar and serve warm.

— Recipe from Alex Stratta

WATERMELON PAD THAI

8 ounces flat rice noodles

 1/4 cup canola oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon fresh minced ginger

1 pound cleaned medium shrimp

1 to 2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 cup fresh bean sprouts

 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaf

1 cup chopped scallions

1/8 cup catsup

1 cup seedless watermelon puree

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 cup chopped dry roasted peanuts

Place the noodles in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to stand, nudging them apart with a fork, until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain.

Heat the oil in a large heavy sauté pan or wok over medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic and ginger for 60 seconds and add the shrimp. Stir fry, while adding the soy sauce, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the noodles and stir fry another minute or two and stir in the sprouts, cilantro leaf and scallions. Mix the catsup into the watermelon and stir into the pan with the sesame oil. Cook until hot, sprinkle with the chopped peanuts and serve immediately. Serves 4.

MINCED GRILLED CHICKEN SALAD CUPS WITH WATERMELON

8 sheets phyllo pastry

Melted butter

4 cups cut-up marinated grilled chicken breast, cooled

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup light mayonnaise or plain low-fat yogurt

 1/2 teaspoon mild curry blend

1 tablespoon snipped dill

Dash seasoned salt

8 3-inch watermelon isosceles triangles about  1/2 inch thick

Arrange a phyllo sheet on a work surface and brush with butter. Fold in half and brush again; repeat brushing and folding until a rectangle is formed that can be pressed into a cupcake tin with the corners laying over the top edge of the cup. Repeat to create 8 phyllo rectangles and press them into the cups of 8 buttered cupcake cups.

Bake in pre-heated 400-degree oven until golden and brown. Remove from oven and cool on rack.

Place the chicken and celery in a mixing bowl, set aside. In another bowl stir together the mayonnaise, curry, dill and dash of seasoned salt. Pour over the chicken and celery and toss to coat.

Divide the chicken salad among the cups and press a watermelon triangle into the center of each mound. Serve immediately. Serves 8.

PULLED PORK AND WATERMELON BARBECUE SAUCE

1 4-to-5 pound pork butt

24 ounces dark beer

2 cups barbecue sauce

2 cups minced seedless watermelon

Pressure-cook or slow-cook the pork butt in the beer until the meat is pull-apart tender (in a covered roaster all night in a 275-degree oven, or under pressure about 45-50 minutes or according to manufacturer’s directions). Cool, trim and discard the fat from the meat. Chop the meat and reheat.

Warm the barbecue sauce and just before serving, stir in the watermelon.

Serves 8 to 12.

FROSTED WATERMELON

Seedless watermelon cut into  1/2- to  3/4-inch-thick slices

Yogurt

Granola or similar cereal

Using your favorite cookie cutters, cut shapes out of watermelon slices. Frost with vanilla or other flavor yogurt. Sprinkle with granola.

GRILLED CHICKEN, BOURSIN AND WATERMELON SANDWICH

1 9- or 10-inch-round herbed focaccia

5.2 ounces of Boursin cheese

2 or 3 grilled skinless boneless chicken breast halves, sliced

 1/4 cup sesame seeds

3 or 4 thin slices seeded watermelon

2 or 3 ounces baby arugula

Split the focaccia through the center as for a sandwich and spread the Boursin over the cut sides of the bread. Arrange the chicken over the Boursin on the bottom piece of bread. Sprinkle the sesame seeds over the watermelon and grill it quickly over hot coals just to warm. Arrange in an even layer over the chicken and top the watermelon with the arugula. Place the top of the bread, Boursin side down, over the arugula. Cut into halves or quarters. Serves 2 or 3.

WATERMELON STACKED BREAKFAST PANCAKES

 1/2 cup maple syrup

1 tablespoon butter

3 6-inch hot pancakes

1 1/2 cups minced seedless watermelon

Heat the maple syrup with the butter until the butter melts. Place a hot pancake on a warmed plate and top with one-third of the syrup and one-third of the watermelon; repeat the process with the syrup and watermelon topping the third pancake.

Serves 1.

KIDS’ WATERMELON PIZZA SUPREME

1 (8- to 10-inches round and 1-inch thick) watermelon slice, drained to remove excess moisture

1 cup strawberry preservesv

 1/2 cup white chocolate chips

 1/2 cup raisins

 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1 cup sweetened shredded coconut

Place the watermelon slice on a serving platter and cut into 6 wedges, leaving them in the shape of a pizza.

Spread the preserves over the watermelon and sprinkle the toppings over the top.

Serves 6.

— Recipes from the National Watermelon Promotion Board

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