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Melon Mania: Savor the surprise when sweet meets spicy

This green melon has a bit of heat with cubanelle peppers and a bit of salt with ricotta salata cheese. (Mark DuFrene/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)

Few things are more quintessentially summer than an icy wedge of watermelon, with its green striated rind, crimson flesh and inky seeds just ready for spitting.

Until you grow up, that is, and your palate expands to appreciate the yin-yang, savory tang of mixing the sweetness of a perfectly ripe Galia, Tuscan, Crenshaw or other melon with something salty, spicy or just plain mind-blowing. That’s the appeal behind that Italian classic, prosciutto-wrapped melon, and the feta-watermelon salad that was so trendy a few years back.

But they’re not the only game in town, at least not after chefs and food writers such as Angelo Sosa and Mindy Fox get their hands on the magnificent concept. The results include a nouvelle appetizer, a monochromatic melon-pepper salad and platters of other intriguing combinations.

Sosa, the two-time “Top Chef” competitor and author of the new “Flavor Exposed” (Kyle Books, $29.95, 208 pages), says the key is blending flavor trios. So when he works with melon, for example, he adds spicy and salty components to the sweetness of the fruit. Watermelon is cut in precise cubes, sprinkled with kosher salt and placed in the refrigerator to chill and cure for 30 minutes, before Sosa adds fresh thyme, a drizzle of good quality olive oil and a few grinds of cracked black pepper.

The result, he says is an appetizer or palate cleanser that looks “pristine, almost like tuna sashimi,” but with flavors blending into a harmonious sweet, salty and herbaceous whole. The cured watermelon crudo works equally well as an appetizer or a light finish to a sultry summer meal. Or, he says, “I would even add a little rum or vodka to make it a perfect cocktail.”

Fox, the food editor of La Cucina Italiana magazine, likes to play with those sweet and salty flavor combinations, too, but the visual appeal is just as important, she says. A design major who studied film and art in school, Fox brings an artistic sensibility to the table, especially when it comes to the dishes in her new cookbook, “Salads: Beyond the Bowl” (Kyle Books, $19.95, 176 pages).

“The classic melon and prosciutto and the one that everyone started doing a few years ago — watermelon and feta,” she says, “we’re still playing to that same idea, the sweet melon and the salty. That’s the base of all these salads.”

Fox adds spicy chiles to her version of the watermelon-feta classic and loves another version that combines honeydew, Galia or any pale green melon with cubanelle peppers, herb leaves and a mild cheese with a definite salt presence.

“It’s the monochromatic color palette,” she says. “I was so excited about the beauty of the different greens. … It’s such a beautiful palette, and I’m not venturing too far from that prosciutto and cantaloupe sense.”

You’ll find that salty presence in dishes—such as the Vietnamese shrimp salad, from Sunset’s new “Sunset Edible Garden Cookbook” (Oxmoor House, $24.95, 288 pages) — that use fish sauce as a flavoring. It provides the yin, the yang and the surprise.

And that, both Fox and Sosa say, is key. A simple wedge of melon is lovely, but adding chiles, salt and savory components takes it to new heights.

“It’s exciting on your palate,” Fox says, “and light and cool and crisp.”

Perfect for summer.

Green Melon, Cubanelle Peppers and Ricotta Salata

Serves 4

½ honeydew melon

2 small to medium cubanelle or banana peppers

Flaky coarse sea salt

1 cup loosely packed basil leaves, torn

¼ pound ricotta salata cheese, thinly sliced

Very good quality extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

Seed and peel the melon half. Cut in half lengthwise, then thinly slice crosswise on the diagonal.

Trim and seed the peppers. Thinly slice into rings.

On a large platter, arrange a layer of slightly overlapping melon slices. Generously season with salt. Add layers of peppers, basil and cheese. Crush several pinches of salt over the salad, then drizzle generously with oil. Serve immediately.

— Mindy Fox, “Salads: Beyond the Bowl”

Spicy Summer Melon Salad

Serves 6 as an appetizer

6 cups mixed melon, cut into chunks

Juice of 4 limes (¼ cup)

1½ teaspoons Sriracha

¼ cup peanut oil

1 teaspoon fish sauce

½ teaspoon salt

20 fresh basil leaves and 20 mint leaves, roughly torn

½ cup unsalted peanuts, chopped

Chill the melon chunks until they’re really cold.

Squeeze the lime juice into a small mixing bowl. Whisk in the Sriracha. Add the peanut oil slowly, whisking constantly until it’s completely blended. Whisk in the fish sauce and salt. Toss in the basil and mint leaves and mix everything together.

Just before you’re ready to serve, take the melon out of the fridge and pile it in a big serving bowl. Pour the dressing over the melon and mix it with your hands. Scatter with peanuts and serve.

— Andrew Carmellini, “American Flavor” (Ecco, $34.99, 324 pages)

Cured Watermelon Crudo with Thyme

Serves 4

2 cups watermelon, cut in pristine 1-inch cubes

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

3 tablespoons olive oil

¼ freshly ground black pepper

Put the watermelon on a sheet pan and sprinkle it with the salt. Place it in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.

Remove the watermelon from the fridge, add the thyme, olive oil and pepper and toss very gently to combine. Serve immediately.

— Angelo Sosa, “Flavors Exposed”

Watermelon Salad with Feta, Fresh Herbs and Two Chiles

Serves 4-6

4-pound piece seedless watermelon

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

½ cup cilantro leaves

1/3 cup mint leaves, torn into small pieces

1 fresh Scotch bonnet or similar hot chile, seeded and very thinly sliced

Ground Aleppo pepper or piment d’Espelette

Flaky coarse sea salt

1/3 cup roasted pepitas

¼ cup very good extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling

1 lime

Peel the watermelon. Cut the fruit into small pieces, about ¼-inch wide.

In a large shallow serving bowl, layer half the melon, sprinkle with half the feta and half the cilantro, mint and fresh chile. Season with a generous sprinkle of Aleppo pepper and crush several generous pinches of salt over the top. Sprinkle with half the pepitas, half the oil and half the lime juice. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Drizzle with a little extra oil, if desired.

— Mindy Fox, “Salads: Beyond the Bowl”

Vietnamese Shrimp and Green Melon Salad

Serves 6

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

1½ cups each loosely packed basil, mint and cilantro

¼ cup slivered red onion

½ serrano chile, thinly sliced

3 cups honeydew or Galia melon wedges

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)

½ cup roasted, salted cashews

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add shrimp and cook just until they turn opaque and curl up, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Toss shrimp, herbs, onion, chile and lemon together in a large bowl. Mix together the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce, then pour over salad. Toss salad gently, then top with cashews.

— “Sunset Edible Garden Cookbook”

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