watermelon jerusalem salad | shaptiya salad

Watermelon Jerusalem Salad

Watermelon (or shaptiya) is important to Assyrian cuisine, but it's not really the kind of thing we usually do very much to. And it's not that we usually eat things in their simplest forms; for instance, give us some yogurt, and we will spend days alchemically transforming it into hundreds of variations. We'll stew up a pot of yogurt and swiss chard soup, we'll simmer kibbeh in a yogurt broth, we'll strain it and make labneh, we'll eat it homemade as a savory or sweet snack, and we'll even spoon it over prakhe. And that's just the short list of yogurt-related recipes and pairings currently on my mind.

But watermelon? In my experience, it's always served straight up. And that's for good reason, because when it comes to watermelon, you really don't need to do much to make it delicious. Chill it, split it open, sprinkle on a tiny pinch of salt, and enjoy the most refreshing summer treat. This beautiful simplicity is what made me think of Jerusalem salad when I was dreaming up other ways to serve watermelon. At it's most straightforward, Jerusalem salad is just finely diced tomatoes and cucumbers, and this understated elegance is preserved even with the addition of another ingredient, watermelon. The watermelon itself looks just like the tomatoes, but it tastes a lot like the cucumbers, so if you were to serve this as a Jerusalem salad to friends, they might not be able to put their finger on what's different about it (besides the glaringly different feta cheese). When you introduce something that doesn't fall in line with the tomato-cucumber binary, the flavors become just a little harder to pin down.

Watermelon
Watermelon

While I love watermelon, it comes with a couple hang-ups. First of all, there's nothing worse than cutting open a mealy, bland, and pale one. The natural solution is to only shop for watermelon when it's in season, but this isn't always enough to guarantee ripeness. And you know a ripe melon when you taste one: it's got that perfectly deep coral color, juicy, toothsome texture that's not quite crunchy, but never soggy, and that delicious melon flavor that's sweet, but with a hint of refreshing cucumber. You should definitely try to shop for melons when they're in season because this gives you the best chance, but it's totally possible to get a dud in the middle of July, and it's also possible to get a perfect melon in the dead of winter.

So when you can't just rely on knowing the season, selecting a good melon might seem totally perplexing. But it's actually somewhat straightforward if you know what to look for. Watermelons need to ripen on the vine, and there are two easy ways to tell whether a melon has had enough time to ripen.

  1. The most important thing to look for is a yellow patch on the bottom. This is where the watermelon sat in the dirt while it grew, and the patch can range anywhere from bright white to deep yellowish-orange. Generally, the yellower the patch, the riper the watermelon. You can see an example of a very yellow patch in the photo above.

  2. The watermelon should also feel pretty heavy for its size.

So if it's in season, it feels heavy for its size, and it has a very yellow patch, you've found a good one.

Watermelon Jerusalem Salad
Watermelon Jerusalem Salad

So we've talked about how to find a good one, but (at least for me!) the other watermelon hangup is all that waste. First, there's the huge pile of watermelon rind left over after you slice up all the pink stuff. And then there's the other three quarters of a watermelon left over after you've made a big salad and eaten nothing but those adorably cheerful wedges for days. They start to seem a little less cheerful on day three right? There's going to be a bonus post addressing the second problem in a few days (i.e., I'll give you a few ideas of how to use up all that leftover watermelon, with very few additional ingredients). But this salad tackles the first problem, since I ask you to make a quick pickle of some of the watermelon rinds.

Pickled Watermelon Rinds

I've definitely been known to make some questionable meals out of extremely questionable leftover food scraps, because I just hate to see anything go to waste. But my own frugality and environmentalism aside, I'd never insist that you do the same if I didn't think it tasted good. So I can say with total conviction that this watermelon rind quickle truly tastes good. This salad is not the same without it.

If you've never eaten watermelon rind, you might be skeptical, but it's actually a really common ingredient in a few different cultures. A watermelon rind preserve post will have to wait until next summer, because I don't want to turn this into an exclusively watermelon-themed-content food blog, and I'm afraid it might start to seem that way after this week. Before I get to the salad recipe, I'll just leave you with Iraqi food blogger Sara Ahmad's beautiful post about watermelon rind preserves. "At thirty, I’ve surely tasted so many peculiar flavors that it must be rare to be so startled, and by something that looks and feels like a basic marmalade. Yet, here I am, confronted with a taste unlike anything I’ve ever had before. This sparks one of those trite deeply personal inspirations: there is so much life out there."

Watermelon Jerusalem Salad
Watermelon Jerusalem Salad

Watermelon Jerusalem Salad

yield: 6-8 servings
active time: 25 minutes
total time: 1 hour 25 minutes
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watermelon rind quick pickles

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

  • 1 cup small diced watermelon rind (green skins removed before dicing)

  1. Mix the sugar, salt, and vinegar together until everything dissolves, and then submerge the watermelon rind in the vinegar and quick pickle it for 30 to 45 minutes while you're prepping the rest of the ingredients. Once it's done pickling, strain it very well and discard the vinegar or save it for another use (let the vinegar drain away for about 2 to 5 minutes).

assembling the salad

  • 4 cups small diced red watermelon (from about 1/4 of 1 medium watermelon or 1/2 of 1 mini watermelon)

  • 1 1/2 cups small diced tomato (from about 3 medium tomatoes)

  • 3 cups small diced cucumber (from about 5 Persian cucumbers)

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion (from about 2 green onions)

  • 1/4 cup washed, towel-dried, and minced fresh mint, plus 1 tablespoon more for garnish

  • The juice of 1 lemon

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • More salt to taste (optional)

  • 8 ounces small diced firm feta (about 1 1/2 cups) *

  1. Gently fold together the watermelon, tomato, cucumber, and salt, and refrigerate for an hour.

  2. After an hour has gone by, strain the salad through a fine mesh colander, discarding the liquid. Do not press the salad against the colander, but gently shake the colander a few times to drain away the excess liquid. **

  3. Add the green onion, mint, lemon juice, olive oil, any additional salt, and the well-strained watermelon rind pickles, and gently fold to combine.

  4. At the last moment, very gently fold in the diced feta after you've made sure that the pieces are not stuck together.

  5. Garnish with another tablespoon minced fresh mint and serve immediately.

* For this recipe, a firm feta is best. If you're using a soft feta, you should instead crumble it into big pieces and be extra careful when folding it in. If it's soft cheese, don't try to evenly distribute it or the pieces will just dissolve.
** Feel free to check out my original Jerusalem Salad post if you want to see why I like to salt and strain Jerusalem salad. I've also got a recipe for Jerusalem salad pico de gallo, which doesn't require straining.

Watermelon Jerusalem Salad

pita bread

Pita Bread

When I first started baking bread about ten years ago, any flatbread I tried to make turned into pita. As it first started to bake, my naan always looked like it was making those perfect little air bubbles, until they all joined together into one monstrous bubble, which lifted the flat disc of dough into a perfectly spherical orb, balancing on a single point on the pizza stone. I eventually learned how to make all sorts of other kinds of flatbreads (including naan!), but I still feel like pita bread comes naturally. And the thing is, pita bread is really easy if you know a few tricks and use a good recipe.

Pita Bread Dough

While I had the opposite problem with baking other flatbreads, the biggest challenge with making homemade pita bread is getting it to form those huge pockets. But remember that if your pita doesn't pocket or looks weirdly lopsided, you've still got a really tasty flatbread! But if you really want to master the pocketed pita, all you have to do is use the right amount of water in the dough, knead it to form enough gluten, roll your dough to the right thinness, and let your pizza stone preheat in the oven.

Most pita recipes say that you should roll your dough out to about 1/4 inch, but this is the completely wrong thickness for pita bread. If you roll your dough to 1/4 inch thickness, you will end up with really adorably puffy, flat little loaves of bread (trust me, I measured). And if you roll your dough way too thin, it will quickly turn into something similar to lawash as it bakes. It turns out, 1/8 of an inch is the perfect thickness for pita. But if you don't get the right thickness, it isn't a tragedy—the bread will still be delicious. Use the crackers in fattoush, and simply slice the puffy breads in half once they cool. It's almost like a pocket!

Baking Pita Bread

You also want to make sure that you use a pizza stone, placed on the oven floor. Let it preheat in the oven, set to 500° F, until it's nice and hot. The instant heat from the pizza stone will help the pita start to puff up before it's cooked through. At 1 minute, it will have formed little bubbles, and by 2 minutes, the tiny bubbles will have joined together, forming one giant bubble throughout the whole loaf, before the bread starts to set and bake. You then continue to cook it for another 2 minutes, until it's cooked through, but still moist and chewy. If you don't have a pizza stone, you can just use a sheet pan in its place, or a cast iron skillet; the cast iron skillet will work better than the sheet pan, although you will have to bake one pita at a time. Just let the sheet pan or skillet preheat as if it were a stone, and throw the pita rounds directly onto it.

Pita Dough Discs

Finally, make sure that you use the right amount of flour and water. Since steam builds up and pushes the dough apart from itself while it bakes, if you don't the right amount of water, your pita will not pocket. That essentially means that you should use a sensible combination of following the recipe and your own intuition. Since different brands of flours are going to absorb water slightly differently, I ask you to start with 1 1/2 cups of water and then add 1/2 tablespoon at a time until your dough reaches the right consistency. When I make this recipe, I usually use only about 1/2 to 1 tablespoon more in addition to the 1 1/2 cups.

So what is the "right consistency"? The dough should be tacky, but not soupy. It should come together in a cohesive ball, but the surface shouldn't feel dry. Think: slightly tackier than a soft piece of gum 20 seconds after you start chewing it, rather than that same piece of gum an hour and a half later (i.e., a rubber ball). And again, if you get the proportions wrong, you'll still have homemade bread at the end of the day, and no one will ever judge you for that. Even if the bread dries out too much while it bakes, you can always use it in fattoushie (that's what happened to the one below and to the left). And speaking of consistency, make sure you work your dough until it becomes smooth and elastic. Forming enough gluten is another important part of pocket formation. All of this is in the recipe below, so if you follow it, you should be able to make perfect pita with ease.

Pocketed Pita

pita bread 

yield: 8 pitas
active time: 40 minutes
total time: 3 hours
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  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast

  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water

  • 15 ounces (approx. 3 cups) white flour

  • 3 ounces (approx. 2/3 c) wheat flour

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  1. Proof the active dry yeast with the sugar and 1 1/2 cups of the water until the water looks a little foamy on top (about 5-10 minutes).

  2. Add the white flour, wheat flour, salt, and olive oil to a bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer, if you plan to knead by machine).

  3. Stir in the water/yeast/sugar mixture until the dough starts to come together. If the dough looks a little dry, gradually add a little more water, about 1/2 tablespoon at a time. The dough ball should not be too soupy or dry (somewhere in between is best). It should look a lot like store-bought pizza dough, but just a little stickier. If the dough is too wet, add a little more flour to compensate (about 2 tablespoons at a time).

  4. Knead until the dough ball passes the window pane test. It should come together into an elastic ball that has a smooth surface (see dough photo above). Kneading should take about 5-15 minutes by machine with a dough hook, or 10-20 minutes by hand. Pay more attention to the dough's consistency than the time you've spent kneading.

  5. Place the dough in a bowl, cover it, and let it rise at room temperature for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. It will rise noticeably. If it's a little chilly in your kitchen (e.g., below 67° F), you might need to let it rise for about 15 minutes longer.

  6. Place a pizza stone (or sheet pan) on the oven floor, move the oven racks up and out of the way, so you can very easily access the pizza stone, and pre-heat the oven to 500° F (or its hottest setting).

  7. Lightly flour a clean, food-safe work surface, divide the dough into 8 equal pieces, and shape each chunk into a round ball with a smooth surface.

  8. Roll out each dough ball into a circle, about 7 or 8 inches in diameter, dusting the surface with more flour as needed. They should be 1/8 inch thick, which is very thin, but not paper-thin (see above photos). By the time you are done rolling the last disc, the first one will be ready to bake. They can be held at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

  9. The oven will be ready to bake once it has reached 500° F and stayed there for about 5 to 10 minutes. This gives the pizza stone a chance to get really hot.

  10. Throw 2 to 3 of the rolled-out discs onto the baking stone. Make sure they lay flat and are not touching. Bake for about 4 minutes. They'll puff up and slightly brown. Remove and cool (they'll start to deflate at room temperature). Repeat until all pitas are cooked.

Stack of Pita Bread