For normal people, the months of summer are called June, July and August. But for me, and a lot of other food-lovers around these parts, summer is defined not by months but by fruits. Jewel-like Hood strawberries in June, always-juicy Baird Family Orchards peaches in July, and super-sweet Hermiston watermelons in August.
Seriously, sunny days and blue skies are nice and all, but it’s these fleeting fruits, with their intense flavors so far beyond any out-of-season lookalikes, that make summer in Portland not to be missed.
And now that it’s August, the the bins of watermelons at the supermarket are finally — finally! — full of Hermistons, not those ho-hum fruits from California and Mexico. Hermiston isn’t a variety of melon, it’s a place, an agricultural town in northeastern Oregon where the hot days, cool nights and volcanic soils produce the sweetest watermelons you can imagine.
I’d like to say every Hermiston watermelon I’ve bought was amazing, but the truth is I’m about 50-50 when it comes to picking out watermelons. I’ve tried following all the advice: “Make sure it’s heavy for it’s size.” Heavy? No problem. They’re pretty much all heavy. “Look for melons with one pale yellow area, which means they sat there for a long time and really got a chance to ripen.” Hmmm, ok, that didn’t really work. I’ve definitely had some duds following that advice. “Thump it. It should sound like a drum.” Um, yeah, they all sound like a drum. “Look for ‘bee stings’ — small bumps on the stem end where bees stung it because it’s sweet.” Ok, I’m not sure “sting” is the right word here and, really, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But I take comfort knowing even the experts say the only way to really know if you got a good watermelon is to cut it open and taste it. And I have a backup plan for those times when my melon karma runs out and I bring one home that’s mealy or less than sweet. I turn it into agua fresca.
Aguas fresca are fruit-based, super-refreshing Mexican drinks that blend fruit, water, a little sugar and lime juice. You can make them with any combination of fruits you can think of, plus herbs if you want to get fancy. And when you’re saddled with a sub-par melon, or you simply don’t have room for a giant orb in your fridge, agua fresca is your friend.
You really don’t need a recipe to make watermelon agua fresca. Blend some fruit up in a blender, strain the pulp out, then add water, sugar and lime juice to taste. You’re aiming for something refreshing and fruity, not sticky-sweet. I often only add a couple tablespoons of sugar or honey for 8 cups of fruit, and cut the mix with a cup or two of water.
Kids love agua fresca. Be prepared to have the whole pitcher consumed in a matter of hours (or minutes if they have friends over). And adults looking for a simple summer cocktail can just spike it with a splash of white rum, vodka or turn it into a margarita with some tequila and triple sec.
Like I said, agua fresca is your friend.
Watermelon-Strawberry Agua Fresca
Makes about 6 servings
This recipe came about when I had both watermelon and strawberries to use up. The sweetness of the berries meant I didn’t need to use as much sugar, so if you decide to only use watermelon, you may want to add more sugar to taste. Try blending in a handful of fresh mint, too. And if you’re really feeling fancy, freeze cubes of watermelon to serve as ice cubes.
8 cups cubed watermelon
4 cups strawberries
2 tablespoons honey or sugar
Juice of 2 limes
2 cups cold water
Place the watermelon and strawberries in a blender and puree (you will likely need to do this in batches). Strain through a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. Stir in honey or sugar, lime juice, and water. Taste and adjust with more sugar, lime juice or water, if desired. Transfer to a pitcher and refrigerate until cold. Serve on ice.