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Massimo Capra: Watermelon panzanella Add to ...

Anybody who knows me knows that I absolutely love watermelon.

My appreciation for this fruit started when I was very young - the long, hot, muggy summers in Italy's Po valley made for very slow days trying not to sweat.

As a kid I was always down by the river on the farm where my uncles worked, playing in the sand and running around the forest by the riverbanks. I loved the freedom that I had at that place.

The natural, rich soil of the Po river valley is some of the most fertile ground in the world, and because of the perfectly flat fields it's easy to cultivate and extremely generous in yield. The Celts were farming here even before Roman times.

After lunch I would go to the field, pick a watermelon, bring it down to the river and set it in cool running water. Then, at the end of a busy play day I'd split it open and gorge on it; sometimes I'd jump in the water to clean myself up.

To this day I haven't tasted fruit as good as that. Nothing beats picking your own fruit, and you never forget the first time you had something good.

Now, in the summertime, I buy watermelon for my crew and we muse over how good it used to taste when it had seeds.

Fruit should never be eaten too cold, as it dulls the flavour, and I always try to stick to what is in season. Right now, it's watermelon.

In recent years, it has appeared on menus as a savoury item.

One of the things we offered on our recent Summerlicious menu was a watermelon soup. We have also used it in a salad with watercress and the familiar feta and watermelon salad. This panzanella with watermelon and white balsamic vinegar makes a great accompaniment for grilled chicken or lamb.

Watermelon panzanella

What you need

4 slices of focaccia, ½-inch thick 2 cups watermelon, cut into ½-inch cubes 1 medium red onion, julienned 2 cups yellow, red or green heirloom tomato, diced 1 cup of cucumber, peeled, seeded and sliced into half moons 1 bunch of mint or basil 1 cup of ricotta salata Extra virgin olive oil White balsamic vinegar (good quality) Salt and black pepper to taste

What you do

Season the focaccia with salt and pepper and some olive oil, toast in a skillet or in a preheated oven at 375 F until crisp, and set aside.

In a bowl, combine the watermelon with the tomato and cucumber, season with salt and rest for five minutes to allow the juice to come out.

Add the mint (or basil) and red onion, mix well, sprinkle some olive oil and white balsamic vinegar on it and mix with the bread. Top with the ricotta salata and serve with a generous grating of black pepper.

Normally in Italy, panzanella is soggy bread soaked in tomatoes and their juices; the North American version is with the bread still soaked, but crisp.

The key is to mix it at the last minute and serve at once; flavour with mint if you intend to eat it with lamb and with basil if you choose chicken.

Serves many.

Massimo Capra is co-owner and chef of Mistura Restaurant and Sopra Upper Lounge in Toronto and guest chef on the show Restaurant Makeover.

*****

Beppi's wine matches

This salad ought to be juicy enough to need no accompanying beverage. But if you're serving it as a starter, try a crisp, fruity, aromatic white, such as a riesling, muscat or sylvaner from Alsace. A good choice would be Dopff & Irion Crystal d'Alsace Sylvaner 2006 ($12.45 in Ontario). You also can't go too far wrong with a lean, herbaceous, Italian white such as verdicchio or Vernaccia di San Gimignano. If serving it with lamb or chicken, choose a crisp red, such as a Beaujolais or cabernet franc.

Beppi Crosariol

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