Given the depth and longevity of my feelings for watermelon – and this recipe in particular – it is strange that I have never written about it. Years ago, I had a friend named Ken with whom I would exchange words of mutual passion for (not each other) watermelon. “If you knew it would take five years off your life, would you still eat it?” “Yes, the whole melon.” And so forth, on into the night. There may have been a little marijuana involved, but that was decades ago, before I drove Toyotas and lusted after other people’s Roombas.
Around that same time, I was living in a graduate dorm with a roommate from Nepal. She was in an arranged marriage to the owner of several Burmese ruby mines, though she repeatedly professed to have no interest in money or gems. I repeatedly professed interest in both, but she never gave me any. She did make me some fantastic rice pudding (it was mostly cream with some fenugreek and a little rice).
Probably the closest I will be getting to Burmese jewels is this remarkable recipe. It is from the June 2010 issue of Oprah’s magazine that is in my summer rotation of is-it-a-salad-or-is-it-a-main-dish-do-we-really-care standbys.
I like to construct this in generous layers as opposed to a tossed pile. There is so much going on in this dish (too much, my older daughter asserts): The herbalicious greenery! The richness of the peanuts and coconut! The juicy sweetness of the melon! BUT WAIT, there’s more! Fried shallots and gingery, limey, salty dressing! It makes me glad that exclamation points are an endlessly renewing resource(!).
This dish has it all; it’s a jungle on your plate. That is why I have selected it as my desert island dinner. Marooned in a remote but paradisiacal locale, I would live on it until, well, death. Or I would eat it until my eventual rescue by handsome navy seals, possibly bearing Burmese rubies. And I can’t even guarantee I would be willing to set down my plate (presuming my grandmother’s china made it through the shipwreck, though I would happily eat this off the back of an armadillo) to follow them back to bejeweled civilization. It’s that good.
Burmese Melon Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette
2 Tablespoons unsweetened finely shredded coconut (or as much as you want)
2 Tablespoons white sesame seeds
1/4 cup peanut or neutral oil, divided
1/4 cup finely chopped ginger
1/4 cup lime juice (from about 2 limes)
1 1/2 Tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons flour
kosher salt to taste
3 cups melon (cantaloupe, honeydew and/or watermelon) peeled, seeded and cut into cubes or rectangles (I have been known to use way more melon here)
1/3 cup (again, or more!) chopped peanuts, toasted
1/4 cup (or lots more) mixture of chopped basil, cilantro and mint
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add coconut and toast it, stirring often, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.
To make the dressing, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add sesame seeds to skillet and toast, stirring constantly, until golden, about two minutes. Add 1/4 cup peanut oil and ginger; Cook, stirring often, until very fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large, heatproof bowl and whisk in lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar.
In a medium bowl, toss shallots with flour, shake off excess flour. Heat remaining 1/4 cup peanut oil in a large skillet over medium high heat, about 30 seconds. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until deep golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Line a plate with paper towels. Using a slotted spoon, transfer shallots to plate and season with salt to taste; set aside to cool.
To assemble salad in the fashion that I favor, layer melon pieces on platter, drizzle with dressing, peanuts coconut, herbs, and shallots; salt to taste. Then repeat one or two more luscious layers.