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A few winters ago, I received a call from Marco, a friend of a friend who was in town from Spain, asking if I’d like to have dinner. Our mutual friend assured me that Marco was tall, dark and single, and that he loved to cook. Armed with ulterior motives and luscious memories of head-on prawns and the god-damn-best-ham-I’ve–ever-had, I made a pitcher of sangria and invited Marco over for a taste test. My menu for the night included braised short ribs and apple pie, with a side of romance. Marco had other ideas. A few minutes after arriving he insisted we go to an American supermarket so he could sample our wares and whip together a few specialties of his own. Initially, I was impressed.
Walking through the aisles of Gourmet Garage, Marco stopped and picked up a big round watermelon. Now he was impressed. “In America, you have melons in November?” he asked. Instead of saying no, that those melons had been frozen and flown in from somewhere far, far away, I just smiled and nodded (could it have been those big brown eyes?), and let him drop one in the cart.
Of course, this turned out to be a mistake, since when we got home and cut into it, the melon was pale and tasteless – two words that seemed to set the tone for the rest of our evening. Marco ended up being about as thrilling a conversationalist as a November watermelon, and was obsessed with talking about his ‘soon-to-be ex-girlfriend’ in Madrid, and very little else. Right after dessert, I politely showed him to the door. Alas, neither love nor lust nor Marco’s promised watermelon agua fresca were on tap that night.
But! Every cloud has a silver lining, and our awkward evening provides a valuable lesson: Everything that grows has a season, and with fruits and vegetables (and romance) timing is everything.
Now that the latent hot and sticky dog days of the summer have officially arrived, for me, there are no two better emblems of the season than sweet summer corn and big, juicy watermelons. Okay, maybe tomatoes too! But what could be better on a hot afternoon than an outdoor picnic in a park (or for the urbanites among us, on a friend’s rooftop) with hot & spicy corn salsa and a sweet, cherry dotted watermelon salad for dessert? Okay, maybe you could throw a caprese salad into the mix and call it a triumvirate…I’m sold!
Luckily for us, the very best time for the classic corn and watermelon couple is right now, from the end of July into early September. In farmers’ markets across the city, tables laden with ears of white & purple corn and basketball sized pink & green melons are popping up. The ripest watermelons (regardless of size) will ‘thunk’ deeply when you tap them. Summer corn is ready for the grill when the ears are big and plump, and the silk at the very top of the cob is turning dark brown. Fresh is best, so go to the market early and snatch the cobs still wet with morning dew.
These days, the produce section at your local supermarket is more international than a fashion week catwalk, with fruits and veggies flown in from all over the globe. As a result, you can often buy pumpkins in April and watermelons in November, but, head down to your local market over the next few weeks, and I think you’ll agree, those jet-lagged super-crops can’t hold a candle to this summery duo at their seasonal best.