The best way to eat melons? Dip them in spiced salts
Every year when July and August arrive, I’m transported to my high school years when the two-a-day football practices started. The first practice, in the morning, was awful but bearable because the oppressive Southern heat had not yet thrown its weight over the day. But by the afternoon practice, we were drenched, physically tired from running but also trying to breathe air that felt like we were underwater.
Breaks for water were crucial during these hellish practice days, but one shining memory stands out: the watermelon.
One of our coaches grew watermelons and he’d bring the hulking oval melons to the practice field. He hacked the ripe fruit into long wedges and passed them out to me and my teammates. There was a salt shaker too, for those who wanted it, like me. It was Gatorade, nature’s way.
That memory, and my propensity to shake salt on melon to enhance the taste, stuck with me, but nowadays I like to use things that are a little more interesting. Of course, there are numerous examples of this practice throughout the world. In Mexico and other Latin countries, chefs and home cooks sprinkle, crust and shower melons, cucumbers, jicama and tropical fruit like mangoes and pineapple with granular mixtures. The most notable is Tajin, made with dried chiles, lime and salt.
But instead of going for chile heat, I veer toward Middle Eastern flavors — floral, tart and nutty, similar to dukkah, za’atar and other herb-and-spice mixes — that go best with the cantaloupes, honeydews and the various other muskmelons I prefer. I open a ripe specimen and shake on one of these spice-laden mixes to relive the best part of those oppressively hot summers.
On the salty side, I like to make combinations of spices that are earthy and tart to amp up the savoriness of the salt. Sweet and smoky urfa chile mixes with coriander and sesame seeds in one mix, while the warmth of star anise and cinnamon is balanced with sour, smoky black lime in another.
And for a more sweet than salty mix, I toast and grind bay leaves into a powder to mix with ground ginger and lemon zest, adding plenty of pucker and zest to molasses-packed dark brown sugar balanced with just the right amount of salt.
Instead of simply mixing ground spices with salt or sugar, the key to these mixes is using whole spices and seeds and warming them lightly — not to toast them but to gently wake up their flavors. Once cooled and mixed, I keep the mixes in small airtight containers and store them in the fridge to keep the flavorful oils in the spices fresh.
I keep these granular mixtures on hand to fit whatever mood I may be in when the perfect melon is cleaved open on my cutting board. If a snacky craving hits in the afternoon, I pull out one of the salts for a quick shower over some melon cubes (this also makes a great appetizer to set out during cocktail hour). And the sugary mix is wonderful sprinkled on melon for breakfast or on cut fruit arranged on a platter for the quickest and easiest summer dessert ever.
Fruit purists might not need these flavor enhancers, and that’s wonderful for them. But if you have the perfect melon, these mixes will only make it taste better and offer a little variety — especially if you’re someone who eats melon every day during the summer because you know how fleeting the treasure is. Whether it’s for a simple snack or a life-saving pick-me-up (a dose of water and electrolytes), these mixes paired with melons are the ideal summer snack that brightens even the hottest days of the year.
A note on spices:
It bears mentioning that the quality of your spices makes all the difference here, so buy whole spices from a trusted purveyor that has invested in supporting farmers and stocks high-quality spices. Depending on the spices I need, I often turn to Diaspora Co., Burlap & Barrel and Frontier Co-op, which you can often find in most grocery stores.
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