Many people in Greece count the number of swims as a measure of how good summer was to them. I count the number of watermelons to judge how sweet or hot my summer was.*
How to choose a watermelon (karpouzi)
In my opinion, the best place to get a watermelon is from a neighborhood green grocer (manavis) because they have the freshest produce and a lot of turnover. Farmer’s markets (laiki) are not always sure bets since some vendors carry watermelons from town to town; some established roadside stands next to a field are OK (see Comments). Grocery stores are fine, especially if you’re short on time; you’re single and the store will cut one to fit in your mini fridge; or you’re on foot and it’s the closest location. Walking home and uphill with a 10-kilo watermelon in your arms is no easy task! I’ve done it in 39°C weather and don’t wish to repeat that experience.
Purchasing from a stationary or roving watermelon truck — you know, the dude who yells incomprehensible stuff over a loudspeaker — is sometimes a risk because you don’t know if these are rejects from city farmer’s markets (laiki) or how long they’ve been baking in the sun, though it is convenient for people who are far from town without a vehicle or physically unable to lift, carry or travel long distances.
No matter where you get a watermelon, it comes down to selecting a ripe, fresh one. How do you do that?
1. Look for a yellow or cream-colored spot
Every watermelon has a non-photogenic, non-green side that sat on the ground to grow (see above photo) — if it’s yellow, it’s ripe. Watermelons don’t ripen once picked, so it’s essential to find one that was picked at its peak.
2. Look for a stem that is still green
The greener the stem, the fresher the watermelon. If it’s brown, dried and shriveled, it might still be OK if #1 and #3 are true, but more likely it’s been sitting around and may soon turn mealy. You can still eat the watermelon or use it for sorbet and popsicles if it’s slightly mealy, but it’s not at its peak freshness.
Warning: If the grocer has purposely cut off the stem, (s)he is trying to trick you into buying a bad or old watermelon.
3. Pick it up and feel if it’s heavy
I realize all watermelons are heavy, but it should seem weighty for its size because you’re looking for high water content. i.e., A melon we purchased was 14 kilos, which seemed like a lot because it looked small. If it’s light or average, it might be drying up inside.
4. Listen for a high-pitched hollow sound
When thumping a watermelon, it should not thump; it should sound high pitched like hitting a tight drum. If you don’t understand what to listen for, feel free to skip this step and use the other three tips.
Some people talk about symmetry or looking at the lines of the watermelon; I’ve found that it makes absolutely no difference. Others say to scrape or look at the dullness or shininess of a rind, but that’s not a good indicator either if the rind has been waxed or treated.
Usually, if #1 and #2 are true, you don’t need to go any further. I’ve chosen many wonderful watermelons using only the first two criteria and using the last two as experiments. All have been sweet, all have been ripe, all have been fresh.
When cutting it, I recommend starting on the stem side if you intend to stand it up in the fridge. It’s flatter on the non-stem side.
* We ate a record 19 watermelons one summer because our ex-apartment logged an indoor temperature of 92°F (33°C) or higher every day, as it was uninsulated, on the top floor, and the air conditioner broke. We moved and bought a new AC unit since then. I also favor watermelon over sugary “juice” from Tetra Paks that many people are inexplicably crazy for in Greece, which is why I’m eating them well into October.
- In ” Όλα με το μαχαίρι,” Greek newspaper Ta Nea reminds us that the Greek word for watermelon is υδροπέπων (ydropepon) — hydro (water), pepon (melon). So where did the word karpouzi come from? The Turkish word for watermelon is karpuz.
- Watermelon has lycopene, which helps the skin on your face look smoother, tighter and moisturized. Combined with cherries and nectarines, the skin stands a better chance against the sun though they’re not substitutes for a minimum SPF 15 lotion to fight the effects of aging. See “Eat These 3 Fruits for Great Summer Skin.”
Near the end of the season, I have perfectly good watermelon sitting around because I can’t eat a 15-kilo monster on my own. That’s when the watermelon sorbet recipe comes out, and I put a little bit of summer in the freezer.
3/4 cup (175 ml) sugar or fructose* (Splenda does not work well)
3/4 cup (175 ml) water
3 1/2 cups (830 ml) chopped watermelon pulp without seeds
1/4 cup (60 ml) fresh lemon juice
Ice cream maker
Reusable ice cream container or Tupperware (or eat it all!)
*The amount of sugar/fructose should be adjusted according to the sweetness of the watermelon and your personal taste.
1. Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat, cover and gently boil for 4 minutes. Cool, then chill syrup well in the refrigerator.
2. Puree the watermelon in a blender. The end result should net 2 1/2 cups (590 ml); use more watermelon if needed.
3. Combine watermelon puree, sugar syrup and lemon juice. (I chill again after combining; having the coldest possible ingredients is ideal when making ice cream or sorbet)
4. Pour into the ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, you can also put the mixture in a shallow metal pan, put it in the freezer and beat/scrape it every half hour or so.
Makes 1 quart and is best eaten right away. Recipe based on Beat This! by Anne Hodgman, a staple in my kitchen
Photos from feteafete.com (sorbet) and portlander.about.com (watermelon)
In the News
“Watermelon thieves saved from well by Greek police” – Telegraph
“Looters hide Greek antiquities in watermelons” – BBC
“Immigrants found in watermelon truck” – Reuters
“Watermelon and melon producers protest prices” — Kathimerini
“Siamese watermelon of Larissa, Greece” — Eleftherotypia
“Smugglers hide migrants in watermelon truck” — Eleftherotypia
“Simple ways to stay cool in the heat” — Ta Nea
* Article updated August 11, 2010