Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rosé Wines~A Great Choice For Summer...

Growing up, my exposure to Rosé wine was the nondescript jug my mom and dad kept in the closet, right next to jug of Burgundy and the jug of Chablis. As far as I knew, this was wine; bold red, dry white and fruffy pink. Now having matured into an adult (there are some who will question that assessment when describing me) who loves wine and now sometimes writes about it here, I have become much more well versed in wine, its varieties, its regions and its industry. It seems I had forgotten about Rosé completely, specifically when the too sweet Zins and Grenaches became all the rage. I had relegated pink wine to lesser status in my now snobbishly educated wine palate. "Tut tut, Rosé you say? Ha ha ha, real wine is not pink, I'll have you know." Not very enlightened.

In the wine world, things are changing and true Rosés are again becoming popular, especially with a younger generation now exploring wine in all its forms and glory. In these recession economies, smaller wine producers were looking for a way to maximize immediate cash flow to offset the anticipated but lengthy wait for return on investment from wines aging in the barrel and bottle. Rosés seemed like the right answer to their problem. Since Rosé is best when enjoyed young and takes relatively no time at all to go from grape to bottle, it was a stop gap measure to ensure a winery's bottom line stayed in the black. While hoping for a good response from the market, what took the industry by pleasant surprise was a consumer that embraced the light, crisp and refreshing medium wine, especially in summer and in the hotter climates.

Now let me qualify, I am mostly speaking of the American market. In Europe, the scene is very different. When summertime descends upon Europe, Rosé wine is very much the wine of choice and unlike the changing American concept of pink wines (sweet and cloying), true Rosé has never fallen out of favor and has always been enjoyed. Rosé wine originally came from Bordeaux which has been traditionally known for its superb wine making skills, and it is crisp and dry.

California Central Valley
Before the 60s, wine in America was mostly red and white. It was sweet and designed for mass sale to large consumer markets. Rosé was pretty much a neglected afterthought. Bone dry wines were not popular in America in the 50s and the 60s and the largest American producers were concentrating on inexpensive blends based mostly on high-yielding varieties. Then the mega-wineries discovered Grenache. By accident, it was planted in the wrong place (the hot California Central Valley) and the skins bleached to a medium pink color. Thus was the birth of commercial 'California Rosé.'

It's pink color gave way to a new term. It could not be called white and likewise it was not truly red. This is where the term ‘blush wine’ evolved and to this day, this name is incorrectly associated with Rosé wine. California wineries began producing something they called White Zinfandel. Although it became an enormously popular drink for a few years, it did much to damage the reputation of true Rosés in the minds of America's wine drinkers. White Zin's, as they're called, are very sweet, in comparison to traditional Rosés and are much less versatile.

These early 'Rosé' wines were single dimensional and much too sweet. In spite of that, they were a huge success in America. Americans like sweet. Look at soda, candy, our version of donuts, cupcakes and pastry. The more tooth-achingly sweet anything is, the better Americans seem to like it. Winemakers, needing to make a profit to stay in business, fed the market they were given. That is, until until trendy Americans discovered dry table wines. Suddenly, the interest shifted to wines with classy French names and mass marketed sweet wines declined in esteem, if not in popularity. As with any fad in America, where consumers suddenly become overnight connoisseurs, if you were drinking White Zin and Grenache and you weren't drinking a wine whose name you could barely pronounce, you were no longer considered hip. In those days there were no serious Rosé wines in the American market. True connoisseurs knew about the classic Rosés of Tavel and Lirac, but these wines were rarely found in your local liquor store.

Today, American wine consumers seem to be rediscovering the charm of old world styled Rosés and domestic winemakers are putting their own spin on them. Rosé wines are the fastest growing segment of the American wine market and with good reason. California, Oregon and Washington State are producing some incredible Rosés. While some consumers still like their Grenache and Zin, as palates and wine-drinkers become more mature and educated, the American market is starting to catch up with Europe in its appreciation of this delicate wine. A real Rosé is a dry, crisp, refreshing mouthful of flavor that has a hint of fruitiness. It is a sophisticated and elegant drink that is great at wine pairings and most dinners. Often referred to as a summer wine, the best of these are available from the USA, Italy, Australia, Canada, Spain, France and Portugal.

The Grapes
Made in almost every wine region globally, Rosé wines are produced from a wide variety of grapes, from Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache, to more unusual grape varieties like Brachetto. Several appellations are noted for their superb rosé wines, including France's Provence and Spain's Navarra regions, where it accounts for more than half of the wines produced. Other places associated with rosé production are Tavel and the Loire Valley. California, Oregon and Washington State are now starting to make their mark, producing some of the best the market has ever seen.

Rosé wines, as noted, are typically dry. They should be served chilled and are a refreshing summer beverage. All grape juice is white, no matter what color grapes are used. Winemakers make red wines by leaving the grape skins in with the juice to absorb coloring from them. In the case of Rosé wines, the winemaker allows the skins to soak with the juice only long enough for the wine to take on a pinkish tint; then, the skins are removed and the result is a rosé wine.  In the past, it was fairly common to make Rosé wines by simply taking a white wine and adding a bit of red wine to it. Some winemakers thought this could produce interesting wines that possessed some of the hearty character of a red wine while retaining the crispness of many whites. This practice has fallen out of vogue, even in Champagne where it was once quite respected.

Skin contact
Red-skinned grapes are crushed to what is called must, and the skins are allowed to remain in contact with the juice for a short period, typically two or three days. The grapes are then pressed, and the skins are discarded rather than left in contact throughout fermentation (as with red wine making). The skins contain much of the strongly flavored tannin and other compounds, which leaves the taste more similar to a white wine. The longer that the skins are left in contact with the juice, the more intense the color of the final wine.

Rosé wine can be produced as a by-product of red wine fermentation using a technique known as Saignée, or bleeding the vats. When a winemaker desires to impart more tannin and color to a red wine, some of the pink juice from the must can be removed at an early stage. The red wine remaining in the vats is intensified as a result of the bleeding, because the volume of juice in the must is reduced, and the must involved in the maceration is concentrated. The pink juice that is removed can be fermented separately to produce Rosé.

Historically Rosé was quite a delicate, dry wine. In fact the original Claret was a pale ('clairet') wine from Bordeaux that would probably now be described as a Rosé. After the Second World War, there was a fashion for medium-sweet rosés for mass-market consumption, the classic examples being Mateus Rosé and the American "blush" wines of the 1970's that we mentioned above. The pendulum now seems to be swinging back towards a drier, 'bigger' style. These wines are made from Rhone grapes like Syrah, Grenache and Carignan in hotter regions such as Provence, the Languedoc and Australia. In France, Rosé has now exceeded white wines in sales. In the United States, a record 2005 California crop resulted in an increased production and proliferation of varietals used for Rosés, as winemakers chose to make Rosé rather than leave their reds unsold.

Pairing a Rosé
Rosé wines offer interesting opportunities in matching with food because they offer an incredible versatility. They shine in cases where a white wine is not enough and a red wine is simply too much. In addition, thanks to the low content in tannins combined with their appreciable crispness, they can be served to the same temperatures as white wines. It is often said Rosé has the same aromas of red with the advantage of being served as would a white white wine, therefore they are characterized by excellently agreeable and pleasing aromas. The versatility of Rosé wine in the matching with food is wide and they are a perfect foil to appetizers, pasta, rice, fish, meat, as well as cheese.

One of the main characteristics of Rosé is their freshness in aromas, usually the same which are typically found in young red wines, however, just like any other type of wine, before proceeding with matching, it is best to know the specific characteristics of every wine. Compared to white wines, rosés are usually less acid and have a higher roundness, factors which also depend on the technique used in their production. When compared to red wines, they have a lesser structure and a lower astringency. In general terms, Rosé wines do not have a high alcohol by volume percentage, a factor that, of course, also depends on the specific conditions of the wine and its balance. Thanks to the smoothness of Rosé, it is great with pasta, fish, in particular fish soups, and roasted fish that is richly seasoned and spiced. Rosé is also suited for mushrooms and soft cheeses.

Rosé can even stand up to some meats, particularly white meats such as chicken or pork. In summer, I find them great as an aperitif, though you may want to let them warm a bit above the temperature that you would serve a chardonnay. This slight elevation in temperature brings out the delicate sweetness of the wine all the more. Rose's are even good with cold cuts, whether lean or fatty, as well as with preparations based on vegetables.

My Selection:

Rosa Regale from Banfi
Brachetto 100%.


Cold red-grapes skin contact for 4 to 5 days allows the wine to develop its characteristic color, aroma and complexity. The wine is then filtered and stored at 0°C. Re-fermentation follows in stainless steel tanks in the Strevi cellars, where this special wine achieves its final sweetness and sparkling character.

COLOR: light ruby red. Lively pink mousse with a persistent perlage.
BOUQUET: intense, aromatic, varietal with hints of Bulgarian rose.
TASTE: soft and elegant with berry flavors and a touch of almond and nutmeg.

A soft red sparkling wine, made from Brachetto. This extremely aromatic, complex and historical grape variety grows only in the area of Acqui Terme, in Southern Piedmont.The cold maceration of the grapes, followed by a soft pressing, allows the extraction of the typical intense aromas from the skins and gives to the wine its characteristic light ruby red color. Very pleasant and extremely elegant.


This wine matches perfectly with fresh strawberries, fruit cakes, fruit salads, pastries and chocolates. An ideal aperitif as well.

Rosé is a great summer wine, cool, refreshing and delicious, But don't take my word for it. Do a tasting, find the one you like and add it to your cellar or cooler. You'll be glad you did.

Bon Appetit,


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, Installment #12: Interpreting Savory & Baking Recipes

Recipes. Does this word excite you, making your taste buds salivate with anticipation at the promise of a delectable feast created from a list of fresh, quality ingredients? Or does it terrify you? Do you have trouble interpreting complicated recipes? If the former, you are probably one of the few who does not view tackling a new or difficult recipe as a daunting task. It also means you need to look at the fact of why the word recipe excites you. I'm in this category and it may simply mean I need to get out more and taken a second look at my social life. There are the latter however, who would like to take on more challenging recipes but sometimes get overwhelmed, especially if they require the use of more advanced techniques. They stick to easier recipes and miss out on enjoying some great dishes or favorites at home, sure that those more difficult methods and techniques will end in disaster. If this sometimes describes you, know two things; A. You are not alone and B. Practice makes perfect and you can learn.

In The At Home Cook Series, we have covered all the steps necessary to get you ready to tackle a complex recipe:
  • Mise en Place, a French phrase that literally means "putting in place" referring to 'set up' in commercial kitchens. It refers to organizing and arranging the ingredients...
  • Knife Skills This seems to be the most intimidating and sometimes, can be the most overlooked aspect facing a good at home chef. Proper knives and proper instruction is safer and the more you practice and get familiar with your knives, the safer you'll be...
  • Searing and Sauteing In this installment, we move to the stove to learn the the skills for great pan cooking on the stove-top, learning how to perfectly caramelize and get that great restaurant crust at home...
  • Mother Sauces For the aspiring saucier, this installment brings us the basics and how to make a roux, and covers what is a requirement for any culinary student attending culinary school. create your own delicious and healthy sauces for your family at home... 
  • Grilling Perfect Steaks takes us through proper techniques for this summer's grill-master, with tips and tricks to make that perfect steak every time...
  • Umami What some call the Fifth Flavor, Umami rich foods are very satisfying and can actually be a healthier way to cook as well. They tend to make salt taste saltier, which means we can lower the amount of sodium in a dish when using Umami rich ingredients.... 
  • Soups and Stocks Ever wonder what was it that made mom's or grandma's soup so good, all the time? The secret was in the stock...
  • Menu Planning With a little help with proper menu planning, cooking for your family, a special holiday meal, or even a dinner party of eight, will be a much more pleasurable experience...
  • Dry Aged vs. Wet Aged Steaks What are the differences between dry aged and wet aged? Why has dry aged beef earned the title of the ultimate in tenderness and flavor...
  • How To Properly Season Your Food One of the most important yet overlooked skills the at home chef needs to master is seasoning!
  • Braising If you follow these easy steps to success, you are bound to create a very flavorful and palate appealing masterpiece!
How can you insure a successful outcome of a special meal your family and friends will all enjoy, instead of a trash can filled with wasted ingredients and an unexpected dinner out on the town? Only learning the proper techniques and the methods to gain them, can you truly guarantee success. In this next of my series, it's time to put all that we learned to the test by tackling a complex recipe. To that end, I'm going to give you some pointers on how to more successfully navigate and decipher a recipe.

Step one is to gather your "mise en place." This should include your tools (i.e. measuring spoons, pans, etc.) as well as your ingredients and perhaps, most importantly, your understanding of the steps required in order to complete the recipe. By making "mise en place"step one for every recipe you may choose to tackle, you will answer and overcome most of your recipe difficulties before you begin.

Start one recipe at a time and find the terms and Items you need to make that particular dish. What is your best partner in this investigative endeavor? Well, you could go out and invest in a kitchen companion book, probably a worthwhile investment for you serious cooks. For you once a month warriors or novice cooks, Twitter and the myriad of food sites out there, like this one, give great recipes and techniques to help with honing your culinary skills. Sites like mine usually have articles or video links to the more clinical sites that cater to the more advanced chef. Sites like these often define unfamiliar terms and offer you solutions for equipment you may not have, while also offering tools like converters, which allow you to convert measurements from, or to, metric.

Now, that we have our mise en place in place, how closely do we need to follow the recipe? This is an issue that can be argued from both sides. With savory recipes, the interchange and exchange of ingredients is much more forgiving than it is with baking. I have always stated that I view most recipes as a guide more than a stamped in stone method, especially for the more adventurous chef. With savory recipes, proteins can often be substituted for one another, within reason of course. For instance, you wouldn't replace talapia with lamb, but you could introduce a skinless chicken breast and still achieve the same basic dish and flavor profile. Not so with baking.

When it comes to baking, it is of paramount importance to follow the recipe to the letter. I recently attended a demo done by renown pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. He explained why his book Dessert Fourplay has its recipes in grams, rather than ounces, tablespoons or say, a cup. His reasoning was spot on. He stated, "With measurements, I can ask all of you to produce a cup of flour. If 5 of us did this, I would bet that each of us would actually come up with a different amount. Grams allows you to make the recipe come out exactly as intended, whether the first time making it, or the 100th." Now most of us are not going to produce a 100th version of a recipe, especially a dessert, unless we are a professional chef working in a commercial kitchen. But baking is as much a science, as a creative endeavor. You have ingredients that must work in concert with each other, in order to have a desired end result. For instance; any recipe where you forget the required leavening: baking powder or soda, yeast, eggs will not turn out. With other cooking, you often have a bit of wiggle room for errors or missteps and some amazing dishes have been created by someone inadvertently messing up on a recipe.

Do keep in mind that when this happens, it is usually pure luck. If you stray too far from the original recipe, when baking, your end result may be an inedible mess. Does this mean you can never delete a single ingredient? Not at all! If you dislike onions, or can't eat nuts, it is perfectly okay to omit or replace them, as they are optional items that won't effect the integrity of the recipe or method. Optional items are often listed as just that, "optional." But for the intermediate chef, it is not always clear which ingredients would cause a disastrous result if they are excluded, so delete or substitute with caution.

Finally don't be afraid to seek out advice and pointers from seasoned cooks and chefs. Most people are very flattered when people seek out their advice, ask for a cooking tips or even a recipe. I have found some of the best food I have ever eaten has been in the homes of family and friends. Granted, with the advantage of moving in the circles of many very talented culinarians who cook professionally, I am fortunate to know many phenomenal cooks who consider cooking a great meal merely an enjoyable hobby.

So, is it worth the aggravation and challenge of tackling an unfamiliar recipe? I say yes! You can produce a great meal in the comfort of your own home, please friends and family with a special treat, all at a fraction of what it costs to eat out. Now I'm not saying don't eat out, you all know I love to go out and dine. But, I also love to cook gourmet meals at home as well. It can be great fun to get the whole family involved and teach your children some valuable skills, along with the importance of following directions. In many cultures, eating good food is a ritual and a way of passing down the family traditions and flavors of your heritage. So dust off those cookbooks and jump in to your own culinary adventure.

Bon Appetite,

Image Sources:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The At Home Cook Series Installment #11: Braising

Braised Short Ribs
Tender, falling off the bone, full of meaty flavors with rich yet balanced aromas of red wine and hearty vegetables. Ahhh, the art of braising! Not an easy technique by any means, but when prepared properly, a braised item can be a very memorable dining experience. Cooking, by simple definition, is the application of heat to food. But all heat is not created equal. In the kitchen, there’s a big difference between moist heat and dry heat. Whenever you add a liquid to the pot or pan, for instance, when you simmer, boil, steam, or braise, you’re cooking with moist heat. If you don’t add a liquid when you sear, sauté, fry, roast, or grill, you’re cooking with dry heat. Braising is a very unique cooking method where you are actually cooking with dry and moist heat. I’ll explain…

In order to achieve a great flavor profile of your braised item, it is important to sear the protein in a hot pan (dry heat) in order to develop caramelization – browning flavor profiles-- and seal in the juices. Then by adding a liquid (moist heat) and cooking at a low temperature for a longer period of time, the braised dish will be very tender and moist. This is definitely the best of both worlds as you benefit from all the spectrums of the cooking world!

Coq au Vin
Once you have decided to experiment with braising, it is important to decide which cut of meat you wish to braise. Typically, braising is a very economical way to feed the family, as cheaper, underutilized and less tender cuts of meat are used. The slow and long cooking method allows the connective tissue and fat to break down much more, leaving those tougher cuts of meat melting in your mouth! Popular cuts of meat to braise include: shanks, brisket, flank, baby back ribs, short ribs, most cuts from the shoulder, arm and leg. These parts of the animal are exercised much more than others, which builds up and toughens the muscle, therefore it is necessary to break
Braising Meat
that muscle down during the cooking process. The very popular Filet Mignon, is a much more tender cut of meat coming from the tenderloin and it is not necessary to braise it in order to tenderize, but of course it can be done. Don’t just stop with beef though, it is very common to braise poultry, pork, lamb, fish, and many vegetables a well.

Now that we’ve chosen the cut of meat, its time to develop those delicious flavors! Many popular braised dishes include Pot Roast, Beef Stew, Swiss steak, Coq au Vin, Chicken Cacciatore, Goulash, Braised Tilapia, Beef Bourguignon and Moroccan Tagine dishes. (we'll be covering cooking in a Tagine in an upcoming installment) All of these popular dishes begin with important
ingredients; the item to be braised, vegetables, (in most cases, Mirepoix; carrots, onions, celery), normally an alcohol such as a red or white wine, a flavorful liquid or stock (water can be used), and aromatics. Once the item is seared and removed from the pot, flavor development begins with the caramelization of vegetables and with the addition of a tomato product. From here, you can deglaze with an alcohol and return the meat to the pot. Cover the item with the stock, about two thirds of the way up. Bring to a quick boil, then lower it to a simmer. Cover the pot with aluminum foil and place it in an oven for a few hours. Depending on the size and cut of the item, it can sometimes go for up to 8 hours.

Aromatics play a very important role in braising. Fresh and dried herbs, spices, vegetables, and seasonings are all ways to enhance a braised item. They can be added all at once in the pot, or bunched up in a Sachet: a small cheesecloth bag, containing various herbs and spices, used to infuse flavor into stocks. These can typically include; bay leaf, thyme, parsley stems and black peppercorns.

How do we know when it's done? The terms "falling off the bone" or "fork tender" are great gauges of doneness. Remove the cover and test the product with a fork. If it is moist enough to fully pierce through with a fork, it is probably ready.

Pot Roast
Now it's time to serve! We can ladle the braise or stew over mashed potatoes, rice, or vegetables, or choose to remove the meat and create a sauce with the left over braising liquid. All of those pronounced flavors will only get better when reduced down in a pot further to fully develop and concentrate.

There's really nothing to be afraid of and this is really not as hard as it sounds. Just take your time and like we've learned in prior installments of The At Home Cook Series, just follow the steps. It's almost like a one pot meal, where presentation and knife skills are not nearly as important as the infusion of flavor from the cooking method. If you follow these easy steps to success, you are bound to create a very flavorful and palate appealing masterpiece!

Bon Appetit!


The At Home cooking Series Installment #: Summer Cooking

Cooking with the seasons can be fun, inspiring, and a great way to use the freshest ingredients available. I try to buy local and help support the community as much as possible. Knowing where the best quality produce is available, can bring more exciting and consistent flavors to your plate.

Some of my favorite summer ingredients include: basil, heirloom tomatoes, broccoli, summer squash, cherries, peaches, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, eggplant, okra, green Beans, cucumbers, cantaloupe, radishes, beets, plums, watermelon, corn, and a plethora of other colorful and flavor packed varieties. In the summer I tend to cook lighter, allowing the vegetables’ natural flavors and sweetness to come forward and take focus on the plate.

Marinades are a great way to enhance any fresh produce. Sometimes I drizzle a little apple cider or balsamic vinegar, with a touch of organic olive oil over heirloom tomatoes or fresh sliced peaches. It doesn’t take much, and really enhances their flavor profiles.

One of my favorite summer cooking techniques is grilling outside. Grilling is a fun, outdoor, casual way to prepare just about anything. Not many people think about the benefits of grilling fruits and various vegetables, as they tend to yield unpleasant flavors when overcooked. If you can learn how to monitor the temperature of the grill, learn the hot spots, and properly cut your fruits and veggies to ensure even cooking, the grill can become your favorite source of summer cooking. I also enjoy grilling outdoors because it helps keep the heat out of the kitchen!

I am a big fan of chilled soups in the summer, and there are so many recipes to choose from. Many of the soups can be fresh purees of fresh and seasonal ingredients, or you may choose to lightly cook the ingredients before pureeing them. Whichever method you choose, be sure to focus on balance and texture. One mistake that home cooks often make when preparing soups is the final adjustment in seasoning. This may take a more experienced palate, but using fresh herbs, and even just a little salt, may kick your soup up to the next level.

Fresh berries are one of the many joys of summer, and thinking "outside the box" with these tiny flavor packed morsels can be fun, and rewarding. Whether it’s a salsa, soup, sauce, pie, filling, or just tossed in a salad, seasonal summer berries are bound to pack a punch. If the summer harvest yields more than you can handle, try freezing the berries for future use.

Cooking with organics and vegetarian dishes are at their best in the summer. The availability of a large variety of organically grown vegetables is abundant, and they create amazing vegetarian appetizers, salads, and entrees. Let the natural flavors speak for themselves. For some great ideas on how to cook organically, check out to see currently available produce and check out recipes from some of the hottest chefs in the world who use their products.

"If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen!" This phrase is all the more true when you live in sunny Florida, and keeping cool, cooking simple, and focusing on today’s harvest, will make Farmer Lee of Chef's Garden your culinary experience much more enjoyable. I wish you a healthy and happy summer, and hope these tips help you become a more successful home cook!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Watermelon Shortcake with Vanilla Sauce

Another stunner from GGM Pastry Chef Paw Mikkelsen. Obviously plated for presentation, this is an awesome recipe that your guests will love, using one of summer's most loved ingredients. Enjoy!

Watermelon Shortcake with Vanilla Sauce

6 oz bread flour
6 oz unbleached flour
1/8 oz salt
1/2 oz sugar
1 oz baking powder
3 1/2 oz butter, softened
6 oz milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, mix together the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder. Cut in the softened butter, either using a pastry blender or two knives, until it looks crumbly. Gradually add the milk, stirring just until dough forms. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until dough is chilled. Remove from refrigerator and using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out until 1/4 inch thick. Using a very sharp knife, cut into 1 inch by 3 inch rectangles. Arrange on a non-stick baking sheet and bake until golden 10-15 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on wire rack.

Vanilla Sauce
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (add more to taste)
1 cup whole milk
5 egg yolks
3 oz sugar
whipped cream

While shortcakes are cooling prepare the vanilla sauce. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together milk, yolks, sugar and vanilla. Place into top of double boiler and cook until the temperature reaches 185 degree F (heated through). Using a sieve, strain the sauce and let cool. Prepare the watermelon cutting it into rectangles the same size as the shortcakes, 1 inch by 3 inches.

Place two shortcakes on the plate roughly 2 1/2 inches apart, parallel to one another. Next take two pieces of watermelon and place them perpendicular to the shortcakes (refer to photo). Repeat until you have four layers( or make it as high as you want) of each, alternating shortcake, watermelon. Top with a dollop of whipped cream.

Note: If you want additional color on the top, add blueberries or blackberries for a nice contrast.

Bon Appetit,


Friday, May 25, 2012

When Americans think Summer, they think Watermelon

Summertime is special, not only in America, but worldwide. School is over for a few months, beaches fill up with sun-worshiping bathers, and family barbecues are in full swing. Throughout North America, the one summer food that produces the most smiles, grins and memories from both young and old is a product unrivaled in it's popularity: Spinach! What? You were thinking of something else?

Of course you all know I jest here, as is my way. We all know it's the juicy and refreshing watermelon, in all its forms, presentations and varieties. I'm sure the title of the feature and the big picture above gave it away. Did you know that by weight, watermelon is the most-consumed melon in the U.S.?

This is a food that has been consumed for over 5 milinenia and, in fact, watermelon is thought to have originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. The first recorded watermelon harvest occurred nearly 5,000 years ago in Egypt and were depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics on walls of their ancient buildings. They were often placed in the burial tombs of kings, to nourish them in the afterlife. There is even evidence of its cultivation in the Nile Valley from at least as early as the second millennium BC. The characteristically large seeds have been found in Twelfth dynasty sites and numerous watermelon seeds were recovered from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. It is not known when the plant was first cultivated, but Zohary and Hopf note by the 10th century AD, watermelons were being cultivated in China, which is today the world's single largest watermelon producer.

In Vietnam, legend holds that watermelon was discovered in Vietnam long before it reached China, in the era of the Hùng Kings. According to legend, watermelon was discovered by Prince Mai An Tiêm, an adopted son of the 11th Hùng King. When he was exiled unjustly to an island, he was told that if he could survive for six months, he would be allowed to return. When he prayed for guidance, a bird flew past and dropped a seed. He cultivated the seed and called its fruit "dưa tây" or western melon, because the birds who ate it flew from the west. When the Chinese took over Vietnam in about 110 BC, they called the melons "dưa hảo" (good melon) or "dưa hấu", "dưa Tây", "dưa hảo", "dưa hấu"—all words for "watermelon". Tiêm's island is now a peninsula in the suburban district of Nga Sơn.

By the 13th century, Moorish invaders had introduced the fruit to Europe; and, according to John Mariani's The Dictionary of American Food and Drink, "watermelon" made its first appearance in an English dictionary in 1615. From there, watermelons spread throughout countries along the Mediterranean Sea by way of merchant ships..

Museums Online South Africa lists watermelons as having been introduced to North American Indians in the 1500s. Early French explorers found Native Americans cultivating the fruit in the Mississippi Valley and many sources list the watermelon as being introduced in Massachusetts as early as 1629. Southern food historian John Egerton has said he believes African slaves helped introduce the watermelon to the United States. Texas Agricultural Extension horticulturalist Jerry Parsons also points to African slaves and European colonists as having distributed watermelons to many areas of the world. Parsons also mentions the crop being farmed by Native Americans in Florida by 1664 and the Colorado River area by 1799. Other early watermelon sightings include the Midwestern states in 1673, Connecticut in 1747, and the Indiana region in 1822.

Charles Fredric Andrus, a horticulturist at the USDA Vegetable Breeding Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, set out to produce a disease-resistant and wilt-resistant watermelon. The result was "that gray melon from Charleston." Its oblong shape and hard rind made it easy to stack and ship. Its adaptability meant it could be grown over a wide geographical area. It produced high yields and was resistant to the most serious watermelon diseases: anthracnose and fusarium wilt.

Today, farmers in approximately 44 states in the U.S. grow watermelon commercially, and almost all these varieties have some Charleston Gray in their lineage. The United States currently ranks fourth in worldwide production of watermelon. Forty-four states grow watermelons with Florida, Texas, California, Georgia and Arizona consistently leading the country in production.

In Japan, farmers of the Zentsuji region found a way to grow cubic watermelons, by growing the fruits in glass boxes and letting them naturally assume the shape of the receptacle. The square shape is designed to make the melons easier to stack and store, but the square watermelons are often more than double the price of normal ones. Pyramid shaped watermelons have also been developed. Seems the Japanese have a way of taking a common ingredient and elevating it to a 'caviar like' status, examples are: Kobe Beef, Korabuta Pork, Shark Fin soup, etc. Watermelon has now entered this elite category and while I'll cover the most popular varieties later in this feature, I'll mention the world's most expensive watermelon here:

The Densuke Watermelon:
This variety has round fruit up to 11 kg (25 lb.) The rind is black with no stripes or spots. It is only grown on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, where only 10,000 watermelons are produced every year. In June 2008, the first harvested watermelons were sold at an auction for 650,000 yen ($6,300.00 USD), making them the most expensive watermelons ever sold. The average selling price is generally around 25,000 yen ($250.00 USD).

I've decided to explore what it is about this summer treat that makes it one of the most recognized and popular foods consumed today. I'll examine what the watermelon is, its history, its cultivation, how to choose it, store it and handle it.

What is it?
Watermelons vary in taste and color depending on the variety, the soil and the climate they're grown in. They come in various shapes from round to oval to oblong. Sizes range from about 5 pounds for small round melons that fit right in the fridge and are the perfect size for a small family to as much as 40 lbs or more for large, oblong, picnic size melons. The outside of a watermelon can vary from light green to a very dark green...from a solid color to mottled green to striped. The inside flesh can be dark red to bright red to reddish pink, with many variations, including melons with yellow flesh. Most watermelons have seeds but there are also seedless varieties. Some folks think that seeds are part of the fun of eating a watermelon. Others prefer seedless varieties which are easier to eat and safer for small children. They also require less prep time when using them in a fruit salad or other recipe.

The name Watermelon refers to both fruit and plant of a vine-like herb originally from southern Africa and is one of the most common types of melon. This flowering plant produces a special type of fruit known by botanists as a pepo, which has a thick rind and fleshy center. Pepos are derived from an inferior ovary and are characteristic of the Cucurbitaceae. This now-common watermelon is often large enough that groceries often sell halved or quartered melons. They also come in smaller, spherical varieties of watermelon, both red- and yellow-fleshed, sometimes called "icebox melons."

Categories & Varieties of Watermelon

There are more than twelve hundred varieties of watermelon, ranging in size from less than a pound, to more than two hundred pounds. About 200-300 varieties are grown in the U.S., although there are about 50 varieties that are very popular. The modern watermelon lover sees his or her watermelon options as these 5 categories:

Seeded Watermelon
Oblong in shape. Weight can range from 15-45 lbs. on average. Small to large brown or black seeds throughout

Seedless Watermelon*  The most popular in the U.S. Round shape Weight can range from 10-20 lbs. on average. No seeds, although the occasional seed may occur.

*Although so-called "seedless" watermelons have far fewer seeds than the seeded varieties, they generally contain at least a few soft, pale seeds. They are the product of crossing a female tetraploid plant (itself the product of genetic manipulation, using colchicine) with diploid pollen. The resulting triploid plant is sterile, but will produce the seedless fruit if pollenized by a diploid plant. For this reason, commercially available seedless watermelon seeds actually contain two varieties of seeds; that of the triploid seedless plant itself (recognizable because the seed is larger), and the diploid plant which is needed to pollenize the triploid. Unless both plant types are grown in the same vicinity, no seedless fruit will result.

Mini or Personal-Sized Watermelon
. Small and round in shape .1-7 lbs. in weight .Red or yellow flesh
Seeded or seedless


Yellow Flesh and Orange Flesh Watermelons. Round in shape. Weight averages 10-30 lbs. Usually has seeds. Commonly used in food service environments.

Popular varieties of the categories above

Carolina Cross: This variety of watermelon produced the current world record watermelon weighing 262 pounds. It has green skin, red flesh and commonly produces fruit between 65 and 150 pounds. It takes about 90 days from planting to harvest.

Yellow Crimson Watermelon: This variety of watermelon that has a yellow colored flesh. This particular type of watermelon has been described as "sweeter" and more "honey" flavored than the more popular red fleshed watermelon.

Orangeglo: A very sweet orange pulp, and is a large oblong fruit weighing 9–14 kg (20-30 pounds). It has a light green rind with jagged dark green stripes. It takes about 90-100 days from planting to harvest.

The Moon and Stars variety of watermelon has been around since 1926. The rind is purple/black and has many small yellow circles (stars) and one or two large yellow circles (moon). The melon weighs 9–23 kg (20-50 pounds). The flesh is pink or red and has brown seeds. The foliage is also spotted. The time from planting to harvest is about 90 days.

Cream of Saskatchewan: This variety consists of small round fruits, around 25 cm (10 inches) in diameter. It has a quite thin, light green and dark green striped rind, with sweet white flesh and black seeds. It can grow well in cool climates. It was originally brought to Saskatchewan, Canada by Russian immigrants. These melons take 80–85 days from planting to harvest.

Melitopolski: This variety has small round fruits roughly 28-30 cm (11-12 inches) in diameter. It is an early ripening variety that originated from the Volga River region of Russia, an area known for cultivation of watermelons. The Melitopolski watermelons are seen piled high by vendors in Moscow in summer. This variety takes around 95 days from planting to harvest.

How a watermelon is grown
Producers generally grow watermelon in rows, 8-12 feet apart, in raised beds 4-12 inches high composed of fertilized sand or sandy loam. Tiny watermelon plants are transplanted from the nursery are implanted in the beds. Honeybees must pollinate the yellow watermelon blossom. Even the sterile, seedless watermelon requires pollination in order to fruit. In a month, a vine may spread to as much as 6-8 feet. Within 60 days, the vine produces its first watermelons and the crop is ready to harvest within 90 days. The rind of a watermelon is deceptively hardy looking, but is actually quite fragile, requiring handpicking. Watermelon producers look for a pale or buttery yellow spot on the bottom, indicating ripeness.

So, how are seedless watermelons grown?
Chromosomes are the building blocks that give characteristics, or traits, to living things including plants and watermelons. Watermelon breeders discovered that crossing a diploid plant (bearing the standard two sets of chromosomes) with a tetraploid plant (having four sets of chromosomes) results in a fruit that produces a triploid seed. (Yes, it has three sets of chromosomes). This triploid seed is the seed that produces seedless watermelons! In other words, a seedless watermelon is a sterile hybrid which is created by crossing male pollen for a watermelon, containing 22 chromosomes per cell, with a female watermelon flower with 44 chromosomes per cell. When this seeded fruit matures, the small, white seed coats inside contain 33 chromosomes, rendering it sterile and incapable of producing seeds. This is similar to the mule, produced by crossing a horse with a donkey. This process does not involve genetic modification.

The seedless watermelons need seeded watermelons in order to be pollinated and set fruit. In a watermelon field where they're growing seedless, roughly 25% of the plants are seeded varieties and 75% are seedless varieties. Hives of bees are brought into the fields to cross-pollinate from the seeded plants to the seedless plants. Because of this labor intensive process, seedless is more difficult to grow than their seedier cousins, and are priced accordingly.

Nutritional & Health Benefits
Watermelon is the Lycopene leader in fresh produce, having higher concentrations of lycopene than any other fresh fruit or vegetable. In fact, fresh watermelon contains higher levels of lycopene than fresh tomatoes: A 2-cup serving of watermelon contains and average of 18.16 mg while one medium-sized tomato contains 4 mg.

Watermelon has heart healthy properties as well because it is naturally low in saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol. A recent study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) about watermelon consumption and heart healthy benefits was completed and published March 2007. The NWPB has four new structure-function claims derived from this study:
Watermelon consumption increases free arginine and citrulline, which can help maintain cardiovascular function. Eating watermelon can help maintain cardiovascular health. Watermelon has amino acids such as citrulline and arginine that help maintain the arteries. Watermelon amino acids citrulline and arginine can helpmaintain blood flow and heart health.

A 2-cup serving of watermelon is also an excellent source of Vitamins A, B6 and C. Vitamin A found in watermelon is important for optimal eye health. Vitamin B6 found in watermelon is used by the body to manufacture brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), such as serotonin, melatonin and dopamine, which preliminary research shows may help the body cope with anxiety and panic.
Vitamin C in watermelons can help to bolster your immune system's defenses against infections and viruses and is known to stimulate the immune system and protect against free radical damage. A two-cup serving of watermelon is also a source of potassium*, a mineral necessary for water balance and found inside of every cell. People with low potassium levels can experience muscle cramps. *A two-cup serving has less than 10 percent of the daily reference value for potassium.

Choosing a watermelon
Picking your watermelon at the peak of perfection requires some skill and experience. First, look for one that's firm and free of bruises. A ripe watermelon will feel heavy for its size. When a watermelon is ripe, the spot where it laid on the ground while growing will be a creamy butter yellow color rather than white or pale green. Thumping a ripe watermelon with your finger will produce a rather dull, hollow tone. Thumping an unripe melon will create a clear tinging sound.

If buying pre-cut:
The flesh of the watermelon should appear dense and firm. Refrigerate to preserve maximum freshness. Cover the cut surface of a melon with plastic wrap to prevent the flesh from becoming mushy. Do Not Freeze. Store chunks of watermelon in covered plastic containers.

At home
Though watermelon must be chilled before eating, for that mouth-watering refreshing taste, if you're short on refrigerator space, whole melons will keep at room temperature for about 7 to 10 days. After watermelon is cut, wrap it in a plastic or foil and store it in the refrigerator. Freezing causes a watermelon to become mushy and lose it's flavor, but you can preserve that great watermelon flavor and freeze it by making a puree then freezing the watermelon juice. As with all fresh produce, always thoroughly rinse the outside of any melon before cutting.

For slices; 1/2 or quarter your watermelon lengthwise, then cut each section crossways into 1 inch slices.

To cube: Cut the flesh from the rind, and cut into 1-inch cubes. Place in covered container and refrigerate immediately. Keep cut watermelon refrigerated until consumed, up to 3-4 days.

Fun Facts
  • In some Mediterranean countries, the taste of watermelon is paired with the salty taste of Feta or Armenian String cheese.
  • Watermelon is 92% water.
  • Early explorers used watermelons as canteens.
  • The first cookbook published in the U.S. in 1796 contained a recipe for watermelon rind pickles.
  • In 1990, Bill Carson of Arrington, TN grew the largest watermelon at 262 pounds that is still in the record books (1998 ed. Guinness Book of World Records).
Watermelon is not just a fruit for eating by the slice anymore. This wonderful ingredient is now being utilized in a variety of techniques and dishes, for desserts, as an ingredient for sauces, in cocktails, as a garnish or tossed into salads. I hope you have enjoyed this look at this most refreshing fruit and are inspired to think outside the box when including it on your menu.

Bon Appetit!

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