By Benjamin Goodin
Some things defy easy classification. Is an El Camino an open-air station wagon or a very short truck? Is a Jell-O salad an actual salad, and if so, is it appropriate to order one with your entrée? Are watermelons a fruit or a vegetable? The answer to the last question is, “yes, probably.”
Watermelons are a curious plant that resists conventional classification logic. It’s only loosely considered a melon, as it is not even in the same genus as honeydews and cantaloupes. Scientifically, it’s in the same family as gourds, sharing the properties of rigid skin, large internal seeds, and growing on seasonal vines. Its actual closest cousins include pumpkins and squash. Many consider the watermelon to be a fruit, considering we eat the fertilized fruit of the plant’s flowering buds, and, thankfully, not the rigid-haired vines or its leathery broadleaves.
Most folks put watermelon squarely into the fruit category because it would likely be an unwelcome surprise in a dinner side salad — much the same way tomatoes shirk taxonomical conventions and make for an awful addition to fruit salads. The reason why a watermelon’s mild sweetness is so fulfilling on hot summer afternoons is that the fruit is surprisingly nourishing despite its watery substance — it gives our body just what it needs to survive and thrive in the heat. Given its refreshing qualities, it’s no surprise that humans have been cultivating the watermelon for over 5,000 years; ancient Egyptians grew them, likely to beat the arid heat of their homeland.
Foremost among the benefits of watermelon is its namesake water content. Depending on the ripeness of an individual melon, the water content can range anywhere from 89 to 93 percent of the melon’s flesh. This means that a chilled slice of watermelon or a cup of diced cubes does a superior job at cooling and refreshing the body on especially hot days. Getting the kids to stop playing for a short bit to rehydrate is notably easier with some brightly colored cubes - they won’t mind the sweet taste either. The sweetness in question comes from the moderate sugars watermelon contains: about 12g per cup, which is slightly less than a comparable cup of cantaloupe or honeydew melon. Watermelon is also very low in calories, having only 47 in a whole cup, making it a great snack to keep yourself or the kiddos energetic in the heat without packing in hollow calories. What watermelon’s fluid flesh seems to lack in substance is quite made up for in sustenance as it contains notable amounts of key nutrients — particularly vitamins C and A.
The benefits of vitamin C are well documented and are even thought to coincide with general good health. Its not surprising either, considering vitamin C has long been recognized as an immune system booster and antioxidant. Vitamin C also promotes good cardiovascular health on two fronts: it counteracts high blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels and it helps reduce bad LDL cholesterol.
Vitamin A is also an antioxidant, and is likely better known as beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is famous for its contributions to eye health, particularly in fighting against age-related vision loss. Vitamin A possesses anti-inflammatory properties, in addition to also fighting cholesterol. Vitamin A is vital for tissue repair and cell growth, and ample amounts will help keep your skin smooth and healthy.
Given it’s famously red flesh, it’s no surprise that watermelon is rich in the carotenoid (plant pigment) lycopene, even more so than tomatoes. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that fights oxidative stress by eliminating precancerous cells; it may even be especially good at battling precursors to prostate cancer. Lycopene has also proven effective in lowering high blood pressure, therefore being a factor in preventing heart disease, and is being explored as a substance that may help promote brain cell health.
Watermelon is also a good source of L-citrulline, an amino acid that reduces muscle soreness and aids in recovery from exertion, a great boon to those who snack on it after a good, hard play in the summer sun or add watermelon to a smoothie post-workout. Doubling down on its recovery effect, watermelon also possesses choline, a nutrient that fights fatigue, boosts cognition, and soothes overworked muscles.
Most are pretty happy to crack open a watermelon and have a few slices or dice out a few cubes. Indeed, eating it raw is certainly the easiest way to enjoy this summer fruit. The natural way to cook with watermelon is to add it to a fruit salad or toss a few chunks in a smoothie. Try freezing a few chunks and using it to replace ice cubes in the smoothie or summer drinks. For the somewhat adventurous, try throwing a few slices of watermelon drizzled in olive oil on the grill the next time you’re cooking out; the results are surprising. Now, there’s always the question of what to do with the leftover rind after you’ve enjoyed the juicy insides of the melon. Artsy chefs might make a disposable serving bowl of the rind; others may get even more creative and slice up a quirky centerpiece for the table. Most folks will probably toss the rind or add it to the compost pile, but it might surprise you to know that the green, somewhat tough skin is perfectly edible.
Eating it raw leaves a bit to be desired, but stir-fried and pickled watermelon rind is actually rather popular in some cultures, and the result is something like a chewy vegetable. Sugar-pickled watermelon rind isn’t easy to find north of the Mason-Dixon line, but if you get the chance, it’s a tangy, crunchy treat. For the very pragmatic, it should be noted that the seeds you use to engage in contests of spitting distance can be excised (with patience) and roasted for a crunchy snack, just like those of the watermelon’s squash cousins.
Grilled Watermelon and Kale Salad
The sweet and smoky grilled watermelon is a great balance to the nutrient-dense and bitter dinosaur kale.
1 bunch dinosaur kale
2 c torn baby kale
1 watermelon small seedless,
cut into 1” thick wedges
varied amount salt and pepper
6 oz goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 c slivered toasted almonds
For the dressing
1/2 c olive oil
1/4 c balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp honey
varied amount salt and black pepper
1. Preheat your grill to high. Brush the watermelon with olive oil and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Grill each side for 2 to 3 minutes or until you have nice grill marks. Transfer the watermelon to a large plate and set aside.
2. Remove the stems from the kale and cut the kale into thin strips (julienne). Place in a large bowl and top with the crumbled goat cheese and the slivered almonds.
3. Whisk the dressing ingredients together in a liquid measuring cup until well combined. Drizzle over the salad and toss to coat.
4. Serve the kale salad with a wedge or two of the watermelon.
Makes 1 Serving.
Recipe & photo courtesy of watermelon.org.
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