Flash in the Pan

Let the watermelon do the work


I tried my first watermelon salad at The Covington Restaurant in Edgartown, Massachusetts. The dish consisted of watermelon cubes that were tossed into a pile of salad greens alongside turnip shavings, pickled scapes, feta cheese and balsamic vinegar. The juicy red chunks served a purpose normally reserved for tomatoes, and they availed themselves beautifully. Their sweet acids bent the salad around them, transforming a leafy salad with watermelon into a watermelon salad with leaves. Refreshing and sweet, the more of the salad I ate, the hungrier I seemed to be.

A few minutes later, in the hotel lobby, I gushed about the joys of watermelon salad to whoever would listen. A receptionist named Shania was not impressed, saying, “We put that stuff in salad all the time.” She was from the hills of Jamaica, a land of year-round gardens and daily salads. She spoke with authority on vegetables but didn’t dwell on specifics. “If it can grow in the backyard, it’s going in,” she said when I asked her what else goes into a Jamaican watermelon salad. The only ingredient she named as unfit for watermelon salad was tomatoes. They can be too bossy and take over the flavor, she explained.

As for the watermelon, the only guidance she offered was to cut the chunks small.

“If the pieces are too big, people will pick them out and eat them,” she said.

The one aspect Shania was very specific about was the dressing. It was nothing more than a simple mix of brown sugar and cheap white vinegar. I was baffled that the dressing, and the salad as a whole, contained neither salt nor oil. Most chefs and food processors would agree that salt and fat are of paramount importance to creating flavor.

But she insisted.

“In Jamaica, people can’t afford oil,” she said. And if you do have oil, she added, you should save it in case you have to fry a fish.

The problem with trying to make this dressing in the U.S., she said, is that “the brown sugar here isn’t right. It clumps together.” I explained that American brown sugar is simply white sugar with added molasses. I found some chunks of evaporated cane juice from a local specialty store and submitted them. She approved.

So, I mixed a few chunks of sugar into some cheap white vinegar and used it to dress a salad of lettuce, onion and watermelon.

Invigorating, thirst-quenching and light, this salad was satisfying on every level. The watermelon washed the leaves, helping them go down effortlessly.

I realized my original watermelon salad at The Covington similarly did not contain oil or salt, although the crumbled feta provided both salt and fat. But the addition of cheese, as well as turnip shavings and pickled scapes, did not elevate the salad above the simple version inspired by backyard salads from the hills of Jamaica. You don’t need to get fancy with watermelon salad. Just stay out of the way and let the ingredients speak for themselves.

Watermelon salad

In essence, the core of this recipe is to add watermelon to salad with Shania’s vinegar-and-sugar dressing. Feel free to adjust by adding anything that grows in the backyard — except tomatoes.

  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons proper brown sugar
  • 4 cups salad greens
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup minced red onion
  • 2 cups watermelon, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Sir the sugar into the vinegar.

Wash, dry and trim the greens. Add the onion and garlic and toss. Add the watermelon chunks and dressing. Toss again and serve.


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