On Thursday night, some friends organized an evening picnic on Boston Common to watch a little Shakespeare. The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company was putting on Comedy of Errors. Having spent at least a half-dozen summers in Manhattan and never making it to see Shakespeare in the Park (despite living anywhere from a few steps to a few blocks from said Park), I was very excited to finally partake in a little outdoor drama.
And of course friends, good food, and wine.
Our hosts, Noam and Tammie, invited picnic contributions, quoting the first Shakespeare play that I had ever read (and whose prologue I still have memorized), “Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers” (Romeo and Juliet, 4.2).
Well, lick we did…read on, my friends.
Having been privy to some little cherry tomatoes from my CSA (they called them pear tomatoes, but they were more globular than narrow) and a few tiny fruits from my tomato plant, I wanted to incorporate these precious beauties, especially rare this summer due to the blight, into a salad.
I picked up a beautiful seedless watermelon and made what is a very common salad in Israel and the Mediterranean but whose mix of salty and sweet caused several of my friends to look at me somewhat askance when I announced, “Voilà, watermelon-feta salad!” as I unpacked my savory-sweet delight. Of course, Noam, the Israeli in our crowd, came to my defense when no one wanted to try the salad, saying (my apologies for paraphrasing), “This is a classic salad in Israel, but we tend to make it with Bulgarian cheese. It’s a great combination.” I dressed the salad and served up bowls with an encouraging smile during the intermission. By the end of the play, we were picking out the last bits of watermelon flecked with feta and basil ribbons, licking our fingers (well, that might have only been the cook, er, me).
And the salad was so good, I made it the next night too.
Watermelon-Feta-Tomato Salad with Basil Vinaigrette
I first heard of and tried this seemingly strange and uncommon combination in Israel and wanted to get some background on why is so popular there. A source on Wikipedia suggests that watermelon originated in the Nile valley. Add this fruit that is 92% water to some sweltering heat, described by a favorite food blogger as “wading through warm honey,” in a Mediterranean area known for salty semi-firm yet crumbly cheese, and the experimental combination seems inevitable. Once tried, the desire to repeat the experiment is nothing short of addictive. The juxtaposition of textures – the creamy saltiness of the feta, the crisp sweet chill of the watermelon – play off one another nicely. I added the crunch of fresh-from-the-farm tomatoes and added some basil from my windowsill garden. There are so many variations and I’ve made a bunch of suggestions at the end. This salad is best served cold; make sure to add the dressing no more than 20 minutes before serving, as you don’t want the watermelon to lose its turgor.
Serves 6-8 people.
4-5 handfuls of spinach (1/2 a 10 oz bag…i.e, 5 oz) or a head of red leaf lettuce or other leafy greens.
10-12 pear tomatoes
- 1/4 of a seedless watermelon
- ~ 1/4 C feta — I use Israeli goat milk feta that is softer and more like Bulgarian cheese than a hard Greek-style feta (the brand is Pastures of Eden and I buy it at Trader Joe’s; I like it because it is not too salty; I found a nice review about it in the San Fran Chronicle). It is best to keep the store the feta in water and change the water every few days.
- white wine vinegar – 2 T
- extra virgin olive oil – 5 T
- basil (20 leaves)
- salt and pepper
Assemble salad: Rinse and spin the spinach or greens and rip into bite-sized pieces. Quarter the tomatoes. Cut the watermelon into ~1-inch cubes. Crumble feta over the salad.
Make dressing: Chiffonade the basil and put into a small bottle (I use an empty spice container).
The dressing is a standard vinaigrette (typically 3:1 oil: vinegar) that’s just a tiny bit lighter on oil – add oil, vinegar, a few grinds of pepper and a pinch of salt. Shake up to emulsify. Dip a green leaf into dressing to taste for salt and adjust seasoning for taste.
Chill salad until ready to serve. Dress ~ 15-20 minutes before serving.
This is such a versatile salad and there are so many variations you can play around with:
- Shake up the greens – mild greens work here as do those that are more bitter (like arugula)
- Add more salt with capers or olives
- Add some bite with thinly sliced or chopped red onions (I like to quick pickle them in a little white vinegar to cut some of the raw onion’s sharpness, described here) or spring onion
- Use a different acid in the dressing: instead of white wine vinegar, use a sweet balsamic or lime or lemon juice
- Try different herbs: mint, cilantro instead of basil
- Add some heat to the dressing with peppers
Here are a few more recipe ideas I found when looking around the web, one from Janna Gur for Watermelon Cubes with Salty Cheese and Capers and another Ynet article including a salad from Erez Komorovsky that adds blackberries and red onion to the mix.