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Thursday, August 5


Many moons ago, I used to go rafting on the American River and Truckee Rivers. This wasn’t the white-knuckle, whitewater rafting practiced by adrenaline junkies. This was a mostly gentle float down the river with my daughter and best friends. We’d spend the whole day talking and noshing, sipping rum punch, noshing, and bumping up against other rafters who were doing pretty much the same thing. The mood was relaxed, festive and flirty, even though we had our young daughters with us, if not husbands and boyfriends.

It’s not that we didn’t go river rafting with our menfolk, we often did. It’s just that the times I remember best are the times we were an all female crew: three mothers, each with a single, precious daughter. Katie and Krista. Teri and Candice. My daughter, Toni, née Antoinette, and me. The six of us were always together, along with a rotating cast of friends, lovers and husbands.

One summer, Teri, who was bartending and catering at the time, came up w
ith the idea of carving out a watermelon and filling it with rum punch. Rather than bothering to ladle the spiked beverage into cups, while bobbing on the river, she skillfully used an ice pick to carve holes in the melon’s top for extra long straws. This allowed us to drink with ease.

While we were used to responsibly pacing our alcohol consumption, the first time we sucked down Teri’s smooth rum punch, we ended up beached on a giant boulder, surrounded by fast moving water. It was a sobering experience, in more ways than one.

We were rescued by a George Clooney look-alike, living a couple hundred yards from the rapids. We weren’t his first rescue of the week, but he was sanguine about it. Shamefaced, we shared our picnic (which had survived the ordeal, securely wrapped in water tight bags) and insisted he keep the rest of the rum punch.

Nothing shouts summer with more enthusiasm than a watermelon. Between June and August, California grocery stores used to feature hundreds of huge melons, stacked on crates in front of the market. Those were the days when you could get a 30-pounder for a dollar. Alas, seedless and miniature varieties have become more popular, driving the price up and the taste down.

Watermelon originated in Africa’s Kalahari desert, eventually making it’s way to North America around 1500. It was first introduced to Europe in the 13th century --- but is much more popular in the States than it is in Britain. This is likely because watermelon is bigger, sweeter, juicier, and cheaper in the States. California, the salad bowl of the world, produces approximately 330,000 tons of watermelons a season.

This summer we have been enjoying mini watermelons (about the size of a football) in the garden. Richard especially likes watermelon smoothies. I love to eat it with young, freshly picked mint leaves.

When choosing a watermelon, hold it in your hands, if it feels heavy for it’s size, it’s likely to be ripe and juicy. Pass over watermelons with soft spots, or serious bruising.

Watermelon Rum Punch

What You Need

Lime Juice - Fresh squeezed from 4 limes
Coconut Milk - 1 cup (reduced fat is fine)

Watermelon - 1

Rum - The amount depends on the size of your watermelon. Go for three parts watermelon juice, to one part rum.

Optional: Straws - extra, extra long ones from obscure party supply stores

What You Do

Squeeze the juice from four limes. Combine lime juice and coconut milk in blender. Blend for 30 seconds. Set aside.If you want to serve the punch from the watermelon, decide which position it stands best. If you need to flatten the bottom to make it more stable, carefully shave off just enough of the bottom to allow it to sit flat. Next, cut enough off the top to permit you to remove the melon’s flesh, while retaining the thick rind for your jug. Take your time. Think about how you want the lid to look. Zigzag, curvy, or round?
Once you’ve stabilized your melon jug, and removed the top, gently cut out the flesh, using a butter knife, so as not to puncture the rind. Take your time. I often alternate between a butter knife and tablespoon for this task.

After you’ve removed all the red flesh, de-seed, if necessary. Cut watermelon into chunky pieces your blender can easily handle.

Add a few pieces of the melon to the blender, mix on low speed with lime juice and coconut milk. As the watermelon breaks down, top with rum. Blend well. Pour the mixture into freshly carved jug, retaining about a cup of the juice for the next batch of watermelon.

Each time the blender is about 75% full of watermelon juice, top with rum and blend on low for about 30 seconds. Add it to the jug until it is comfortably full. Stir the punch with a rubber spatula and taste.

If your punch isn’t sweet enough, you may want to add a bit of honey, or pineapple juice. Start with a tablespoon.

Finish off the lid of your jug, by carving a hole for straws. You can carve a single hole in the
middle for several straws, or drill individual holes for each imbiber’s straw. Of course, you can also serve the punch with a ladle. More sensible, but not as much fun.

Once the watermelon is full of rum punch, use the rest of the fruit to make a non-alcoholic
version with lime juice, coconut milk, or yoghurt, watermelon, ice, and a bit of honey. Serve from a pretty jug. Garnish with fresh mint leaves.

Watermelon Rum Punch, and her non-alcoholic daughter, taste best ice cold. Keep plenty of ice handy.

Watermelon Mint Salad

Watermelon - 1
Mint - handful of leaves

I have seen watermelons carved into all sorts of fetching designs, including a smart looking basket, with handle, trimmed in watermelon roses. And while I admire such artistry, I am happy cutting my watermelons into a simple punch jug and bowls.

Any size watermelon will yield a container large enough to serve up the juicy contents. For two serving bowls, cut watermelon in half (whichever direction yields the great depth) Separate the melon from the rind, initially using a knife, then moving to a tablespoon for the trickier parts, closer to the rind, so as not to puncture your “bowl.”

Cut watermelon into manageable pieces, either for eating with fingers (my preference) or fork.
Watermelon seeds are entirely edible, but you can remove them if you like, or buy a seedless watermelon.

Line watermelon “bowl” with freshly plucked mint leaves. Place the cut up melon inside. Cover with cling film and refrigerate up to twenty-four hours. The watermelon will absorb a refreshing hint of mint.

Serve as part of a buffet or brunch, as an appetizer, or for a refreshing dessert.

Ideas & Suggestions

For a festive dessert, or summery starter: Buy three ripe melons with contrasting flesh, for example a cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon. Using a melon baller, scoop out the orange, green and red flesh into bite size balls. Top with a scoop of lemon sorbet. Show off in pretty, clear glasses, garnished with fresh mint.

This weekend, while grooving to BBC’s
Radio 3, I discovered a new band (to me) with an old sound. They go by the name “Pink Martini,” and make music inspired by the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

Check out their website. You can listen to over a dozen tunes for free. I don’t know how I
missed this band. Based in Portland, Oregon, their albums have gone gold in France, Canada, Greece, and Turkey.

With song titles like Sunday Table, Hang On Little Tomato, Martini Cocktail, Clementine, and a wonderful version of the timeless classic Tea for Two, Pink Martini is giving Leonard Cohen some serious competition for my attention this week.

This is one of my favorite paintings, “The Merchants Wife,” by Boris Kustodiev, 1918.