Did you know you can actually sear watermelon like a steak? Neither did I—and, to be frank, I didn’t know I would ever want to. But I once interviewed a melon farmer about how to choose watermelons and he said something surprising: Rather than chill his, he liked to leave them to bake in the summer sun for hours. The heat, he said, brings out floral, almost tropical flavors, stuff you’d never tasted in a fruit you’ve had a thousand times. I didn’t buy it—after all, cold watermelon on a hot day is one of the truest pleasures of life. But I tried it, and sure enough, he was right; the flavors were all over the place, in a great way.
So I got to thinking about what other kinds of heat we can apply to watermelon. A magnifying glass in the sun? A dug-pit barbecue? Eventually I decided to try that old friend of everybody, the Hard Sear. And lo, with a little pre-heat pat-down with paper towels to dry the juices, it seared gorgeously; there’s so much sugar that caramelizes in seconds, giving you wonderfully complex flavors, a little bit of a dark side to its normally simple, sweet innocence.
And so, with this salad, I tried to get the best of both temperatures: first giving the melon a good, quick caramelizing sear, then chilling it immediately so it doesn’t cook the inside and to get that crisp, refreshing bite back. To play up the “meatiness” the melon takes on in the pan, I also add some black olives, some salty mild cheese as a savory foil, and some cucumbers to highlight a little mild, neutral “meloniness”.
Oh, and I hope you don’t mind the cheffy presentation in the pictures. It’s just as delicious cut up and tossed together in a bowl, but, inspired by a beautiful watermelon salad at the restaurant Rouge et Blanc the other day, Whitney and I decided to get a little extra fancy. If you’re into it, it’s super easy—just cut the watermelon into cubes as best you can, shave the cucumber into ribbons with a peeler, and get stacking!
Seared watermelon salad
5 pounds sweet, ripe watermelon
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
¾ pounds cucumber, preferably seedless
12 black olives
3 ounces ricotta salata, feta, or other crumbly white cheese
3 sprigs basil
1-2 lemons, as needed
Salt, to taste
Prep watermelon: Cut watermelon into 1” slices and cut off the skin and white parts. Cut slices into a few rectangular slabs, so that they fit easily in the pan. Set melon on two or three layers of paper towel and press some paper towel on top. This will dry the juices on the surface so it’ll caramelize without splattering.
Sear watermelon: Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat until very hot and add just enough oil to film the pan (not the full tablespoon). When the oil “shimmers," remove the watermelon from the paper towel and carefully lay it in the pan—as many slices as will fit comfortably. Sear until you start smelling a sweet, caramel smell, then lift with a spatula and take a look. When the seared side is dark brown, remove.
Flip or repeat, then chill: If you love the caramelized flavor, you can flip and sear the other side too, but don’t cook the watermelon so much it loses its crisp snap. If necessary, wipe out the pan and repeat until all the watermelon is seared on 1 or 2 sides. Once all the watermelon is seared, put it in the freezer for a few minutes to stop the cooking, then back in the fridge to chill and firm back up.
Prep the salad ingredients: Dice, slice, or shave the cucumber into ribbons with a peeler and sprinkle it with salt. Sliver or chop the olives. Crumble the cheese. Tear, chop, or slice the basil leaves. When the watermelon is cold again, cut it into 1-inch cubes.
Assemble salad: You can gently toss everything together with a good squeeze of lemon juice, sprinkle of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. But the different shapes lend themselves to fun (or pretentious, depending on your view) presentations. Try dressing the melon and cucumber with lemon and oil separately, then stacking cubes, rolling up ribbons of cucumber, and assembling playgrounds of fruit, tucking in olives, basil, and cheese.