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Watermelon salad with arugula and feta

Start with water melon cubes that are bite sized and seedless.
Start with water melon cubes that are bite sized and seedless.
C. Frye

Summertime offers many opportunities to take advantage of locally grown fresh produce picked at the height of flavor during its harvest season. Nothing fresh from a tractor trailer trip of hundreds of miles can compare with produce grown nearby that doesn't suffer the results of a long journey from farm to table. So, while local produce is abundant, have at it. Come winter, you'll be glad you did. Although out of season produce can be delicious, it's always risky and often disappointing. How many times have you bought peaches in February from far south and found them to either never fully ripen or to be of lackluster flavor? While summer fruits and veggies are plentiful, make time to enjoy them in ways both ordinary and unusual.

Perhaps no one fruit says summer more than a cold piece of watermelon with its pink-red flesh glistening from its natural sugar content. I admit to face planting into a big slice while leaning over the back lawn or kitchen sink and being as messy as possible. It's just a summer ritual, albeit somewhat undignified and age inappropriate. Bottom line: watermelon brings out the kid in me. It's a simple pleasure and a reminder of happy, carefree times. For those of you who may be wondering, yes, I also still split my Oreos before eating them because that's another childhood ritual I cling to—some habits are fun to keep, no matter what your age.

However, not every occasion is informal, and sometimes it's wonderful to turn what's usually considered picnic food into an elegantly plated dish. This watermelon salad does just that. The flavor combination of sweet watermelon, bitter arugula, and salty feta is striking, as is the combination of colors. This is a salad guests will remember and talk about because it's not only unusual, it's surprisingly refreshing.

With a three-ingredient salad, there’s no place to hide a lackluster ingredient that is either over- or under-ripe. Choose wisely when shopping for watermelon, the star of this salad. Your watermelon should be ripe but firm enough to cut into cubes and hold a cube shape. An over-ripe melon will not hold a cube shape very well and that’s a big part of the look of this salad. We’re used to seeing round salad ingredients like cherry tomatoes and olives but cubes make us do a double take. So, start with a melon that will cube nicely and make bite-sized cubes that are as uniform as possible. Make sure the cubes are free of seeds. You can start out with a seedless watermelon or you can remove the seeds as you cube the flesh. Seedless watermelon gives a better chance of making fairly regular-shaped cubes but it can be difficult to get out the small white seeds. Seeded watermelon, on the other hand will produce a lot of waste as many pieces will be too seedy to use. Although I generally prefer the flavor of a seeded watermelon, for this recipe, seedless just works better and is easier to work with. That said, if there’s a 10-pound watermelon in your fridge, certainly you’ll be able to create 2 cups of seed-free cubes from it. Make sure you cut away all of the rind and use the premium part of the watermelon (toward the center) that has the most flavor. After cubing the melon, set it aside to assemble later.

I am a big fan of arugula, sometimes called rocket, especially now that it is easier to find already washed and bagged at the grocery store. However, the long stem of the arugula leaf is not something with which I want to populate my salad bowl or put into my mouth. Leaves are great, stems are not. It's a time-consuming labor of love to remove the stems but this is another detail that can make or break this salad. Take the time to place the arugula on a clean, dry kitchen towel or in a big colander and remove the stems before tossing each leaf into your salad bowl. If you find yellowed leaves or a few that look like an insect made a meal of them, be ruthless and toss them out. This salad only wants the premium leaves and you will be glad when it's plated and looks great.

Before moving on to this salad's last ingredient, there is some good and bad news about arugula. The good news is that this leafy green is a natural powerhouse packed with phytochemicals, folic acid, Vitamins A, C, and K, as well as high levels of iron and copper. It has natural cooling properties that are good during warm weather, and it helps with hydration. The ancient Romans believed that when eaten regularly, arugula could increase strength and vitality and acted as an aphrodisiac. Today it is touted as supporting bone and brain health as well as being a cancer-fighting food. The bad news is some of the good news: people on blood thinners should avoid leafy greens high in Vitamin K because K is a natural blood thinner. So, be mindful of your guests and their health issues. This ingredient is, unfortunately, not for everyone.

Feta, the third and final ingredient before the dressing, comes in various forms and is readily available in the cheese section at most grocery stores. For this salad I prefer to make my own cubes from a whole piece of feta because that way I can ensure that they look like uniform cubes and not crumbles. There's something visually pleasing about a salad that has regularly formed shapes. Perhaps it looks less sloppy or like the person who made it took the time to put some love and effort into the job. Perhaps it's merely visual and the eye is comforted by similar shapes. Whatever the cause, making cubes of the feta that are slightly smaller than the watermelon cubes is the way to go. Use a chef's knife to cut up about 3 ounces of 1/4-inch cubes. If some are misshapen, resist the urge to use them. Should your feta be flavored? Basil-sundried tomato? Garlic and herb? Both are lovely but not here. The watermelon is the highlight of this salad and feta's role is to provide the salt that will balance the sweet of the melon. Plain feta, either fat-free, fat reduced, or regular is the best choice for this salad. So, cube the feta and set it aside.

All three ingredients can be prepped ahead of time and stored in separate containers. This is not a salad that I like to toss ahead of time with the dressing. Perhaps it's because the edges of all those little cubes get damaged the more they are handled or that too much dressing absorbed over time overwhelms the main ingredients. Whatever it is, I prefer to toss this salad shortly before serving and feel it is best that way. My recommendation is to prep the ingredients and refrigerate them in individual containers.

What about the dressing? A simple orange-based balsamic-olive oil dressing works well with this salad. It requires the juice of one orange with no pulp, 3-4 tablespoons of good quality extra virgin olive oil, and a teaspoon of balsamic. A fig balsamic works well but is not essential. A dash of sea salt and some freshly ground pepper are also good. Either place the ingredients together in a jar with a tight lid and shake or use a battery-powered milk frother to mix the ingredients and make the dressing. If using a frother, be sure to have plenty of room in the container because this can be a sloppy adventure. The dressing should be made ahead so the flavors have time to mix and mellow. Just be sure to agitate it before using.

There's an order to the assembly of this salad, which can be done within an hour before serving. Place the arugula in a bowl and add the dressing. Toss so the arugula is well coated. Add most but not all of the watermelon cubes and toss very, very lightly. Add the feta and again toss lightly. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with the remaining watermelon. Again, it's the watermelon that's the star here and if it all slipped to the bottom of the bowl, that wouldn't be helpful. Be sure to keep this salad refrigerated until the last minute and to serve it quite chilled.

A last detail for this salad is how it is served. Generally, I'm a fan of the salad bowl. Not for this salad. A 7-inch plate (dessert plate size) lets your guests see more of the salad and keeps it from marinating at the bottom of the bowl. Plating it this way helps to show it off and makes an attractive start to a meal. It also gives guests a better opportunity to get a good look and realize that yes, that really is watermelon in a salad. Some may wonder what a fruit is doing among the greens and dairy but they'll understand after the first bite. Enjoy!