Before we get into today’s recipe I thought we would talk a little bit about — recipes. Whether they are simple or confounding, guarded like state secrets or given away freely as gifts, recipes are the language of cooking and in fact, why we are here.
I’ll confess. Following a recipe, whether it’s the first time or the 50th, makes me anxious. Then again, filling out credit applications, establishing online accounts, or assembling furniture from China also makes me anxious. I guess I just don’t like following instructions.
In culinary school we were taught to read a recipe all the way through before you did anything. And keep reading it until you understood what you were to do and, hopefully, why you were doing it.
Even more important, before you pour cake batter into the prepared pan or reduce sauce by half, read the recipe one more time. Is there something you missed? It’s a lot easier to add the pinch of salt or scattering of bay leafs you might have overlooked before it’s cooked. Like the adage, “measure twice, cut once.”
We always follow a recipe to the letter the first time out, even if it sometime defies logic. Then, if the results are satisfactory and you feel you may want to make it again, make some notes — what would you do differently? In that sense, cooking is like empirical science — you observe and adjust. You’re not just assembling a list of ingredients. You’re manipulating them.
Today we are using the iconic fruit of summer, watermelon, in a salad that’s ideal for a Fourth of July picnic. The fruit can be cut a day ahead, covered and refrigerated. The dressing can be made a week or two in advance and doesn’t require refrigeration. Just toss the two together a half hour or so before you are ready to eat.
Also, unlike some of the other summer standards like potato salad or coleslaw that rely on mayonnaise and can pose some health concerns if not handled properly, this salad is a lot more durable in the heat. I’m feeling less anxious already. Try it.
Feeds 20 or so
For the dressing:
2 teaspoons red chili flakes
1 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
4 tablespoons light corn syrup
4 bay leaves
6 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
For the salad:
1 medium “personal” seedless watermelon
1 medium red onion
2 medium red bell peppers
1 jicama about the size of a baseball
1 small bunch cilantro
4 ounces cotija cheese
Pace all the dressing ingredients except the oil in a small pot, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to steep for 20 minutes. Strain into a glass or stainless steel bowl and allow to cool. Stir in the oil. Reserve.
Cut the rind from the watermelon and cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes. Place in a large bowl. Cut the peel and white pith from the oranges, cut in half lengthwise and remove the center pith. Cut each half into thirds. Add to the melon. Peel the onion and cut it down the center lengthwise. Slice the onion as thin as possible and add to the fruit. Seed and dice the red bell peppers, and add to the bowl. Peel the jicama and cut into matchstick size pieces. Add it. Dice the cilantro and add to the bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to eat.
To finish the salad, shake up (or stir) the dressing to combine, then pour it over the salad and toss. Top with the crumbled cotija cheese.
Brian Shaw and his wife, Ardie, own Cafe Del Rio in Virginia City.