Wildart-watermelonWatermelon is the one food that signals summer throughout the U.S. The calendar may not show it, but it’s already here.

watermelon-roadsideFlorida grows the bulk of the nation’s watermelon, though it’s grown in 44 states. The squash cousin grows in most counties throughout the Sunshine State, though the preponderance of it is in the North Central area and Panhandle.

All along the roadsides from now through August, you’ll see watermelon sold from little farm stands, markets, sand from the back of pick-up trucks loaded to their cabs with the green things in all shapes and sizes. From long Crimson Sweets to the new Joy Ride personal sized seedless, they’re popular with farmers and consumers alike.

Fun facts:*

  • Watermelon is 92% water.
  • By weight, watermelon is the most-consumed melon in the U.S., followed by cantaloupe and honeydew.
  • Early explorers used watermelons as canteens.
  • The largest watermelon ever grown weighed in at 262 pounds according to the Guinness Book of World Records

*Courtesy Premier Melon Co.

How to choose a ripe watermelon

Here’s an age-old question. Farmers may pick a melon before it’s ripe; it continues to ripen slightly. Buyers should look for these tells:

  • Strong color
  • Heavy for its size
  • Shriveled stem, if still visible
  • Whiter or yellower “belly” – where it sat on the ground

An old wive’s tale says you can tell if one is ripe by laying a pine straw on the top of the melon. If it spins slightly, it is ripe. (Try it and let us know.)

Watermelon sangria created by Chef Kenny Gilbert, of Gilbert's Underground Restaurant in Fernandina Beach, FL.

Watermelon sangria created by Chef Kenny Gilbert, of Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen in Fernandina Beach, FL.

Eat it, drink it, or pickle it – refreshing either way

Now to the good part: Eating it.

Shark watermelon bowl. /photo courtesy fruitcarving.net

Shark watermelon bowl. /photo courtesy fruitcarving.net

Every part of the melon is edible: Make rind pickles to use the shell, or carve it up (we love that shark!) to make decorative table containers for other fruits.

Because it’s so watery, add it at the last to any other fruit salad dishes.

Watermelon is just great chilled or frozen in cubes.  (Use the cubes in fruit juices or cocktails as ice cubes.)

Grill it: Serve with pulled pork, or on a salad drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of feta cheese.

Make a fun fruity birthday cake with a melon:

Slice a long watermelon into three 3-inch thick rounds; remove the round from the rind, leaving a watermelon “cake layer.” When ready to serve, spread layers with an “icing” made with whipped cream stiffened with cream cheese and lime yogurt. Layer with blueberries or other berries. Slice and serve as you would cake. Don’t forget candles!

Or, make this delicious sangria, created by Chef Kenny Gilbert of Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, Fernandina Beach, Fl.

RECIPE from Florida Food & Farm

Watermelon Sangria

For base:

  • 2 quarts seedless watermelon, peeled, diced
  • 2 cups pineapple juice
  • 1 liter rosé wine

Garnish (for each glass)

  • 4 large watermelon pieces, diced
  • 1 pickled watermelon rind
  • 2 mint leaves

Puree watermelon; place in pitcher. Add 1/3 of each ingredient to blender container and blend well. Repeat for all mixture. Put in large container and chill until serving.

For each glass: Fill a 16-ounce Mason jar halfway with ice. Add mint and watermelon pieces. Add watermelon sangria base. Garnish with watermelon pickle.

Makes about 8 servings.