Watermelon, Feta, & Mint Salad
When David and I decided to travel to Europe one of the first things we did was to get a few phrase books so we could learn how to say the most important things in each country like, “Where are the bathrooms?”; “How much is a room?”; “One ticket, please”. You know, the kind of phrases that we would need to actually “get by” wherever we went. David did better than me when it came to learning and remembering the things that helped us navigate the train systems, the bus systems, the hotels and that sort of stuff and I basically learned how to say – “excuse me, do you speak English?”. Yes, I know… That’s a bit pretentious… don’t hate on me. For the most part we never really had problems communicating anywhere we went. In Greece, when we went to a restaurant the server would lead us into the kitchen, open each pot on the stove and we would point to what we wanted to eat, it was a pretty good system actually. In some places the menus had pictures on them, which made things very easy, and in other places we would have to just guess. Luckily there were only one or two mishaps when we had to guess. The worst was when David’s meal included 3 extremely large scampi, antennas and all, sitting in a deep pool of tomato sauce. David, never a big fan of messy food (especially in public) exclaimed quite loudly after the waiter set the dish on the table, “How am I supposed to eat that?”. Luckily the waiter didn’t speak English and we hoped the spontaneous outburst was thought to be excitement about the fabulous dish!
The best thing that ever happened, when we had to guess at a menu item, was in a small village somewhere in Germany. The server brought out our food which ended up being a breaded chicken cutlet, cooked to perfection, with the most delicious gravy drizzled over it, some vegetables and these superbly fantastic, little roasted potatoes. The meal was actually indescribably good and as we finished our plates the server returned with a heated cart and dished out a small second helping of the meal to us, which really took us by surprise, but was so welcomed. We ate a lot of meals in Europe and many of them were really, really good, (especially in Greece) but for me, that one meal in Germany, despite not being able to communicate to the server very well, was my favorite meal of the trip.
There was one country however, where I learned a few key words and phrases that I would put to good use, and that was Italy -Biglietto (ticket), Passaporto (passport), and Quanto (how much), to name a few. The guidebook we had even started with a simple lesson on how to order drinks in Italian… un caffè, un tè e una birra (one coffee, one tea, and one beer), which was easy to remember. But it didn’t stop there, nope… I learned un caffé con leche (coffee with milk), un tè con limone (a tea with lemon), and una birra nazionale (a national beer). So basically anywhere we went if got thirsty, we knew at the very least we could always get a coffee, a tea, and a beer. There were other super easy phrases we learned like, gelato per favore (gelato, please)…what flavor you might ask… why… cioccolato, or vaniglia, or if we were going to be super daring fragola (strawberry). We also already new some general Italian words like espresso, cappuccino, and of course pizza and spaghetti. For the most part, truth be told, the big cities in Italy are pretty tourist friendly so speaking English wasn’t usually a problem.
There was one particular phrase that I did memorize, so when we were in a smaller town that may not have been on the regular tourist path, I could use to order lunch at any deli - Due fette di prosciutto cotto per favore, (2 slices of cooked ham, please) and right after that I would add, e due panini (and two bread), then a slight pause and I would add, e formaggio (and cheese). Now at this point the person should invariably ask me what kind of cheese I would like and I would look into the case for something I might recognize and I would point to it and say um, questo (um, this one). I practiced this line over and over, until it was engrained in my memory and I could recite it flawlessly on command. Finally the day arrived where we found ourselves at the counter of a small deli and without hesitation I stepped up and confidently spoke my line – “Due fette di prosciutto cotto per favore, e due panini, e formaggio… … … umm… questo formaggio per favore… … due fette”. With that the woman behind the counter sprung into action, while I grabbed a few self serve items like potato chips and a couple of drinks. When she was done wrapping and bagging our lunch I asked “Quanto costa?” (how much does it cost?) and she told me the amount in lira. I smiled, handed over the money and said “Grazie, mille Grazie” (thanks, a million thanks). As she handed me my change she looked at me, smiling, obviously pegging us as Americans and said… “Your Italian is very good, you ordered like a pro, have a nice day”. All that effort I put in and she spoke perfect English the whole time! David and I sat on a nearby bench and laughed about this while we ate our very simple lunch of bread, meat, and cheese.
Speaking of simple lunches you can’t get any simpler than this Watermelon, Feta, and Mint salad. The first time I ever ran across a recipe for this type of salad, I passed it up. I was sure that a watermelon “salad” with feta cheese in it would be awful… boy was I wrong. It is light and refreshing, especially in mid summer when watermelons are at their peak flavor AND it’s really one of the simplest things you’ll ever make. This base is also just the starting point for so many other things as well. You’ll find recipes that add cucumber, some that add kalamata olives; some that add red onion or even arugula or other types of greens and those are all quite good as well. Here we are starting with the basics, because the foundation you put down is actually very important. Here’s the thing… You want to be sure you’re getting a good watermelon, one that has a really good flavor, and those usually come from farmers markets rather than the grocery store. You also want to buy a good feta cheese, and that means sheep’s-milk feta, not cow’s-milk feta, and if you can, avoid the pre-crumbled stuff and buy it in a block and crumble it yourself. These two ingredients make up almost the entire salad, so you want them to be as good as they can be. Now some good news… This is one of those recipes that the ingredient amounts are just guidelines. You should adjust each to your own tastes. Scale the recipe up or down depending on how much watermelon you have, add more feta if that makes you happy or sprinkle on some extra mint if you want, you’re in charge: make it the way you like it. Then maybe take it to the park and sit at one of those wooden picnic tables with some of your friends and pass some time enjoying the day… and each other’s company!
Here is how I made my batch today:
5 - 6 cups 1-inch cubes of watermelon
zest of one lemon (removed with rasp style grater)
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice, more to taste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to taste.
3 - 4 tablespoons sliced mint leaves, plus several small leaves, whole, for garnish
½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
Put the cubed watermelon into a large bowl.
Add in the lemon juice and olive oil and gently toss to coat the watermelon evenly.
Sprinkle the lemon zest and mint leaves over the watermelon, season with a little salt and a few grinds of black pepper and gently toss a few more times, just to mix.
Transfer the watermelon to a large serving bowl or plate (or into separate bowls as desired) and top with the crumbled feta cheese, some small whole mint leaves, a drizzle of olive oil, and a dash of black pepper.
That’s really all there is to it. Simple and tasty… one of those lunch items you wouldn’t mind eating while sitting in some small piazza in San Gimignano, watching people go by.