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

a vegetarian meze dinner party

vegetarian meze dinner party

A few months ago, my friend Amadi suggested putting some of the recipes I've already posted together in a meal plan post. I immediately latched onto this idea, and have been daydreaming about it at least every day since then, but it sat at the bottom of my list for a long time because the idea of photographing and developing an entire dinner was totally daunting. I cook meals like this for friends and family all the time, and I post two new recipes here every week, but it would take so much more work to write and photograph an entire post about an elaborate dinner.

But it was during one of these moments of anxious daydreaming when I realized that, actually, most people are probably like me. While it can be fun to occasionally spend the whole day cooking, life is usually pretty hectic, and it would be so much more lovely to spend all the time you would have spent cooking just enjoying the company of friends and family, savoring a beautiful meal together. So for my first meal plan post, I've put together a classic dinner party that you can easily accomplish with just a little daily effort. Hopefully there will be more of these posts in the future (Sunday night meal prep, summer grilling, make-ahead brunches, and holiday planning are all on the horizon), but for now, I thought it would be nice to keep things simple with an easy vegetarian meze.

hummus
labneh

A meze (also known as mezze, mazze, or mazzeh) is a meal or appetizer course consisting of a bunch of small dishes. A meze will often include lots of finger foods, so it's a really great tool for entertaining, especially if you don't have enough room for a big seated dinner. And while this vegetarian meze looks elaborate, it actually only takes about 4 days of cooking for 35 minutes/day, to pull it off (not counting the optional tasks, like blending your own spices). It's absolutely not aspirational, even though it looks it.

The first trick to planning an easy dinner menu is knowing what to make when; for instance, the amba should be made earlier in the week because it needs a few days to pickle in the fridge, while the feta should be plated about an hour before guests arrive, and somewhere in the middle, the spreads won't suffer from sitting in the fridge for 1 or 2 days. By spacing things out, you'll only have to put in a little effort at a time.

amba
olives

But even more than scheduling, I'm a fan of relying on cleverness instead of hard work whenever possible. So the second trick is including a few things that you can buy, but which still seem really special and lovely. While making everything from scratch can be fun when you're looking for a big project, sometimes it's nice to simply place ingredients together in an appealing and surprising way. Everyone will be delighted with the feta, radishes, and herbs, which will take you literally 5 minutes to put together. Don't be surprised if this even outshines the homemade double-roast baba ganoush, which takes 45 minutes to make (although it's a tough call).

To make this meal plan super straightforward, I've put together a grocery list and schedule. If you follow my plan below, you'll totally pull it off with just a little effort every day. I've timed the schedule so that you will have everything ready for a Saturday dinner party, but you can obviously change the days if you'd prefer to throw a party on another day.

feta, basil, and radishes

The Menu: A Vegetarian Meze Dinner Party

Labneh dressed with extra virgin olive oil and za'atar or your favorite dried herb *
Hummus dressed with extra virgin olive oil and baharat or paprika
Baba ganoush dressed with olive oil and parsley
Tabbouleh (I added pomegranates to this one, which is optional)
Feta cheese with olive oil, basil (or mint), and radishes
Olives
Amba
Pita bread *

* For this easy menu, the labneh and pita bread are store-bought, but feel free to make your own if you're feeling ambitious.

Dietary restrictions

Edit the grocery list and schedule if you plan to add any of this to your menu:

To make this vegan, you could replace the labneh with muhammara or banadurah harrah, which would take more time to prepare, but can be made ahead of time on Thursday when you make the hummus (or you could just leave out the labneh). The feta can be replaced with your favorite vegan cheese.

Cooked quinoa can be used instead of bulgur in the tabbouleh, and you can use carrot and cucumber slices instead of pita bread, which makes the original menu gluten free.

The Grocery List

Pantry

2 15.5-ounce cans chickpeas
Tahini
Pita bread
Apple cider vinegar
Salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Bulgur (preferably burghul number 1, but couscous, quinoa, or another bulgur will work)

Spices

Za'atar or your favorite dried herb (optional: make your own za'atar)
Baharat or paprika (optional, make your own baharat)
Yellow curry powder
Ground fenugreek seeds (optional)
Turmeric powder
Red pepper flakes

Produce

7 lemons (if they don't seem very heavy, buy more to be safe)
3 pounds baby Italian eggplants (about 7 baby Italian eggplants)
1 small head garlic
3 big bunches parsley
4 plum tomatoes
1 bunch mint
1 bunch green onions
1 bunch basil (or skip it if your mint bunch is really big and you want to find a way to use it up)
1 bunch radishes
Assorted olives
3 green, unripe mangoes
Pomegranate seeds (optional, for the tabbouleh)

Dairy

Feta cheese
Labneh (if you can't find labneh, you can buy whole milk Greek yogurt and just use it as is. Greek yogurt is not exactly the same thing as labneh, but it's still very tasty, and great if you add a lot of extra toppings)

tabbouleh
baba ganoush

The Schedule

Wednesday

Go grocery shopping.
Pickle the amba. (25 minutes)

Thursday

Make the hummus and plate it, but don't dress it. (15 minutes)
Cut the pita bread into wedges and put it in a ovenproof serving dish. Cover it to keep it from drying out. (5 minutes)
Plate the olives. (1 minute)

Friday

Make the baba ganoush and plate it with the olive oil and parsley on top. (40 minutes)

Saturday morning

Make the tabbouleh and plate it (add pomegranate seeds if you bought them, and and use a food processor to chop the herbs by just pulsing them a few times, if you want to speed things up). (30 minutes)
Wash/dry the basil and slice the radishes. (10 minutes)
Set the table (either for a sit-down meal or hors d'oeuvres around a coffee table)

Saturday evening, the hour before serving

Plate the feta with olive oil, basil, and radishes. (2 minutes)
Plate the labneh with olive oil and za'atar/herbs. (5 minutes)
Dress the hummus with olive oil and paprika or baharat. (2 minutes)
Plate the amba or just open one of the jars. (1 minute)
Put the pita bread in the oven at 200° F for about 15 minutes until you're ready to serve. (1 minute active time)
Check the photo below to make sure you didn't leave something in the fridge, and enjoy!

vegetarian meze