Like quiche, caprese salad, and hummus, watermelon and feta salad is something that enjoyed its time in the food trend spotlight. Now, it seems familiar, and maybe a little tired.
The basic ingredients are simply chunks of watermelon, crumbled feta and sometimes a sprinkle of chopped mint—things you can find in any grocery store or corner market.
But, a number of chefs are using watermelon and feta as the basis for dishes that are a little more complex, and perhaps, serve as inspiration for the home cook.
Spice it up with harissa
One of the opening recipes in New Orleans chef Alon Shaya’s cookbook Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel is for watermelon and feta salad with harissa, the North African spice whose base includes chili pepper paste, roasted red peppers and herbs.
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“This is great salad for the hottest days of summer, when you can hardly move,” the chef told The Takeout.
Shaya explains: “My Saba (grandfather) and Safta (grandmother) are Bulgarian and they would eat this salad all the time.” (Saba coincidentally is also the name of Shaya’s restaurant in New Orleans, while he also owns Safta in Denver.)
“It’s so good in its own, other than harissa for a little spice, and sometimes nuts like walnuts or pistachios, I’ve never felt the need to take it further. I guess if I was to get crazy, I’d put some thinly sliced prosciutto over the top.”
With greens and olive oil
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., says he eats watermelon and feta salad at home all the time, using a recipe developed by the late cheese expert Daphne Zepos.
It has a base of arugula, topped with Greek feta, watermelon, roasted red peppers, walnuts, Kalamata olives, and extra virgin olive oil.
Says Weinzweig, “Most Americans still don’t realize that fruit and olive oil are really delicious combination. Ten years ago, (the salad) was exotic. Now it’s kind of mainstream, and it’s a base for innovation.”
He adds, “I think the savory, salty tang of the feta is a great balance for the fearless moistness of the watermelon. And then I like that with the arugula. It gives a little sharp greenness to it.”
Weinzweig encourages anybody who’s making the salad to use good feta. “I always say that bad feta won’t work.”
As an entrée
The New Orleans restaurant Gabrielle sits in the middle of what chef Mary B. Sonnier calls “the fried chicken triangle,” including Willie Mae’s Scotch House and Dooky Chase’s.
Because of that, the restaurant made “a conscious decision” years back not to serve chicken, but focus instead on duck. That includes its watermelon and feta salad topped with fried duck wings.
“It’s a take off of fried chicken and watermelon,” Sonnier says of the dish created by her chef-husband Greg. The concoction is topped with a balsamic glaze.
An Asian inspired version
In recent years, chef Joanne Chang’s Boston restaurant, Myers+Chang, has offered a watermelon, tomato, and tofu salad that is dressed with nuoc cham, the sweet-tangy-savory Vietnamese dipping sauce that uses fish sauce at its base. It is topped with Thai basil and crispy fried shallots.
“It’s fresh and light and tart and amazing,” Chang says. She’s going to see if it can be added to the menu before this summer ends, or tee it up for offer next summer.
“Watermelon and feta are both really summery and easy to put together. Salty and sweet and refreshing. Literally, my mouth is watering now,” Chang says, ending an email with a smiley face.
As a jumping off point
Rishi Manoj Kumar, executive chef at Bar Sotano in Chicago, is using the fruit/dairy combination as the jumping off point for a new dish at the basement restaurant, owned by chef Rick Bayless.
Kumar created a kanpache watermelon aguachile, a multi-layered riff on the seafood dish from northwest Mexico that usually features shrimp.
His version features thinly sliced sashimi-grade kampachi, or yellowtail, seasoned with kosher salt.
It sits on a watermelon-based broth that includes lime juice, chile tepin (a dried red chile), salt and sugar “to balance the tartness and also bring out more of the watermelon notes,” Kumar says.
Instead of feta, Kumar makes a granita from coconut milk and lime juice, in a four to one ratio. The dish is topped with micro herbs of anise hyssop and penny royal.
At home, Kumar has another cool take on the salad. “Give me some watermelon, feta and throw in some fresh chopped jalapeño and good bunch of herbs (mint, basil, fresh thyme, cilantro),” he says. “That sounds like a great summer afternoon snack to me.”