I met my first watermelon salad at The Covington restaurant in Edgartown, MA. The dish consisted of watermelon cubes tossed into a pile of salad greens, alongside turnip shavings, pickled scapes, feta cheese, and balsamic vinegar. The juicy red chunks did the job normally reserved for tomatoes, and availed themselves beautifully. Their sweet acids bent the salad around them, and a leafy salad with watermelon metamorphed into watermelon salad with leaves. Refreshing and sweet, the salad seemed to make me hungrier the more I ate.
A few minutes later in the hotel lobby I gushed about the joys of watermelon in salad to whomever would listen. A receptionist named Shania was not impressed. “We put that stuff in salad all the time.” She’s from the hills of Jamaica, a land of year round gardens and daily salads. She spoke with authority on vegetables but didn’t dwell in specifics. “If it can grow in the backyard it’s going in,” Shania said, when I asked her what else goes into a Jamaican watermelon salad. The only ingredient she named as unfit for watermelon salad are tomatoes. They can be too bossy, she explained, and take over the flavor. As for the watermelon, the only guidance she offered was to cut the chunks small. “If the pieces are too big, people will pick them out and eat them.”
The one aspect where Shania got very specific was the dressing. It was nothing more than a simple mix of brown sugar and cheap white vinegar. I was baffled that the dressing, and the salad as a whole, contained neither salt nor oil. Most chefs and food processors would agree that salt and fat are of paramount importance to creating flavor, and that food without these key ingredients will taste bland.
But she insisted. “In Jamaica people can’t afford oil,” she said. And if you do have oil, she added, you should save it in case they have to fry a fish. The problem with trying to make this dressing in the U.S., she says, is that “the brown sugar here isn’t right. It clumps together.” I explained that American brown sugar is simply white sugar to which molasses has been added. I found some chunks of evaporated cane juice from a local specialty store, and submitted them. She approved.
So I mixed a few chunks of sugar into some cheap white vinegar, and used it to dress a salad of lettuce, onion and watermelon.
Invigorating, thirst quenching and light, this salad was satisfying on every level. The watermelon washed the leaves, helping them go down effortlessly.
I realized that my original watermelon salad at The Covington similarly did not contain oil or salt, although the crumbled feta provided both salt and fat. But those additions, nor the turnip shavings and pickled scapes, did not elevate the salad above the simple version inspired by the backyard salads from the hills of Jamaica. You don’t need to be fancy with watermelon salad. Just stay out of the way and let the ingredients speak for themselves.
In essence, the core of this recipe is to add watermelon to salad, with Shania’s vinegar and sugar dressing. Feel free to adjust by adding anything that grows in the backyard. Except tomatoes.
½ cup white vinegar
3 tablespoons proper brown sugar
4 cups salad greens
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup minced red onion
2 cups cubed watermelon, in ½-inch chunks
Sir the sugar in the vinegar.
Wash, dry and trim the greens. Add the onion and garlic and toss. Add the watermelon chunks and the dressing. Toss again, and serve.