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Go beyond the slice with watermelon cordial, grilled watermelon salad, fruit leather

Addie Broyles

There's a bright side to every season, and if tomatoes don't perk you up this summer, then maybe the cool, sweet pink juice of a watermelon will make you forget that you're spitting the seeds on grass so brittle you haven't had to mow since March.

Driving around Texas, you can't go far without seeing a watermelon stand right now. As Texas' largest horticultural crop, watermelons are commercially produced in more than 40 percent of state's counties, according to Texas A&M University.

With seeds or seedless. Yellow, orange or red. Waiting patiently on shaded tables at every farmers' market or piled high in big cardboard boxes in front of every grocery store. Puréed and chilled in a watermelon soup at El Mesón or cut into chunks and served with ahi tuna and coriander at Uchiko.

Farmers in Japan figured out how to grow square melons a few years ago, but most of the melons you'll find here fall somewhere between the 10-pound giants the size and shape of Dan Aykroyd's head in "Coneheads" or smaller, personal melons that fit in the palm of your hand.

Seedless watermelons do contain seeds; they are just smaller, thinner and less noticeable than the solid black seeds in traditional melons.

"It's blasphemy for us," says Jamie Nickells , secretary of the Luling Watermelon Thump Association and the only full-time employee working on the annual Thump, held in June. "There's the ambience of that seed that makes it apparent you are eating a good old-fashioned watermelon."

Some watermelon lovers claim that watermelons with seeds are sweeter than the seedless varieties, but Nickells says that has more to do with the melon's growing conditions and, because watermelons are more than 90 percent water, the concentration of water inside. "If there is too much water, they might not be as sweet, but if there is too little, they might not grow," he says.

The drought has been hard on watermelon growers throughout the state, including the dozens around Luling who enter their best melons in a number of Thump contests, but the winner of the largest watermelon contest at this year's event a few weeks ago was a 74-pound Black Diamond watermelon. Black Diamond watermelons aren't just big melons: They have big seeds that are perfect for spitting. In 1989, Lee Wheelis set a Guinness World Record with a spit of nearly 69 feet, and though Wheelis still attends the seed-spitting contest, he rarely competes. "He'll compete every so often," Nickells says, "but when you spit a seed that far, the expectations are so high."

Despite what your mother or great-uncle might have told you, it's OK to swallow watermelon seeds, and just like pumpkin seeds, you can roast them after they've been tossed with a little oil and salt.

Watermelon contains some naturally occurring minerals and salts, such as magnesium and potassium, that help your body absorb the watermelon juice more quickly than if you drink water alone, but they have less sodium than cantaloupes or other melons, so don't feel guilty if you enjoy your slice with a little dusting of salt. Pepper, surprisingly, adds a nice level of complexity to the flavor, too.

By-the-slice might be the quickest way to ingest that sweet, cool juice, but watermelon juice - often called watermelon agua fresca around here - is one of the fruit's signature delights, plus it's easy to make by simply by extracting as much juice as possible from the fruit and then straining the pulp.

You can use the juice in a number of drinks or frozen as ice cubes, but don't throw out the pulp, which can be frozen into a granita or dehydrated to make fruit leather. (Watermelon jelly isn't a bad use for the juice, either. The rind has enough pectin that the jam will likely set by itself.)

Just like pumpkins, you can slice off just the top part of the fruit, scoop out the insides, carve a face into the rind and stick a candle inside, or you can use it as a beverage dispenser by screwing in a spigot and pouring watermelon punch or agua fresca - spiked with tequila, white wine or vodka, if you like - back in the melon.

Serving watermelon for dinner can be tricky, but the easiest way is mixed with leafy greens and a strong, salty cheese such as feta or goat's cheese in a salad.

A thick slice of watermelon isn't exactly a steak, but you can grill it up like one, either by marinating it first in a mixture of rum and sugar or just plain with a sprinkle of salt.; 912-2504

Watermelon Mint Cordial

In his latest book, "Homemade Soda," Andrew Schloss offers more than 200 recipes for everything from ginger beer to strawberry cream soda. Watermelon Mint Cordial can be served with seltzer for some fizz or with tequila for some kick. Not a tequila fan? Try white wine instead. "The addition of a little vinegar does much to expand the aroma of the watermelon, which is barely perceptible when you're eating the fruit," Schloss writes. Watermelons make great serving devices if you scoop out the insides to make the drink and carve a hole for a spigot that you'd screw a hose into or a plastic faucet from a tea dispenser. Set the watermelon upright using a wok ring or small round baking pan, then pour the prepared drink back in the melon and serve.

Big chunk of watermelon, about 1 pound, rind removed, cut into chunks

1/4 cup agave syrup or simple syrup

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves

2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar (balsamic vinegar works well, too)

Combine the watermelon, syrup, mint and vinegar in a blender or food processor, and purée until smooth (though there still might be watermelon seeds and shards of mint floating around). Pour the mixture into a strainer set over a small bowl to remove the solid pieces. Gently lift and stir the mixture to help the liquid pass through, without forcing any solids through the strainer.

- Andrew Schloss, "Homemade Soda" (Storey, $18.95)

Watermelon Fruit Leather

No sense in wasting perfectly good fruit pulp. This is a homemade version of the Fruit Roll-Ups you pack in your kids' lunch boxes.

Pulp left over from making watermelon juice

Pinch of salt

Sugar, if needed

Lemon juice (optional)

Purée the watermelon pulp with a pinch of salt and, if you feel like the pulp needs a little flavor boost, sugar and lemon juice. Cover a baking sheet or dehydrator rack with a piece of wax paper and pour a thin layer of purée on the paper. (If you have more than a few cups of pulp, you'll have enough to make another sheet of leather in another pan.) Cover with another sheet of wax paper and dry in a dehydrator, oven or, on one of these triple-digit days, in the back window of your car.

- Addie Broyles

Grilled Watermelon Salad

Grilling slices of watermelon is a trick I've seen in several magazines and TV shows this summer, and this is my spin on a grilled watermelon salad, based on a recipe in Bon Appétit. I prefer this salad with the strong flavor of feta, which stands up to the grilled melon, but queso fresco is a mild alternative. Goat or even blue cheese would be nice, too. Pepper is also key to the success of this dish, so don't skimp once you've assembled the salad.

1 large sprig of fresh basil

1/3 cup olive oil

2 slices, each an inch thick, of seedless watermelon, cut into about 9 wedges

Salt, to taste

2 Tbsp. lime juice

1 5-oz. bag prewashed mixed greens (you can also use sprouts, watercress or spinach)

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese or queso fresco

1/4 cup thinly sliced onions

1/2 cup walnuts, pumpkin seeds, toasted watermelon seeds (optional)

Freshly cracked pepper, to taste

In a small skillet over medium heat, cook basil and oil for three minutes. Remove pan from heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, heat charcoal for grill. (Make sure coals are nice and hot or that the gas has had time to heat up the grill rack before starting.) Lightly season both sides of watermelon slices with salt while grill is heating. Brush rack with oil and grill slices of watermelon until lightly charred, about 2 to 4 minutes per side, depending on how hot your grill is. Set aside.

After basil-infused olive oil has cooled, discard basil leaves and whisk oil together with lime juice. Toss dressing, cheese and nuts or seeds with greens. Place two slices of watermelon on a plate and top with salad. Dust with freshly cracked pepper. Serves 4.

- Addie Broyles