- photo courtesy of AP

Summer star

Perhaps more so than the tomato, watermelon is the icon of American summers.

From Fourth of July until Labor Day, there's hardly an outdoor dining occasion absent the gargantuan green fruit cracked open to reveal bright-pink flesh. Dripping watermelon juices and strewing seeds has the power to transport eaters of all ages back to long, warm, carefree days of childhood.

And like so many pieces of produce that just don't taste as good as they used to, watermelon has become a year-round commodity: the tasteless, inexpensive filler of restaurant fruit cups. So when melon is ripe, sweet and locally grown this month and next, don't pass up the chance to sink your teeth into a wedge.

This advice comes, no less, from someone who lavishes little love on melons. Blame my upbringing on the cool Oregon coast, inhospitable to heat-loving crops. Despite my dad's reminiscences of Colorado cantaloupe, I struggled to choke down a single chunk.

So I've never lamented my home garden's lack of melon, requiring too much space and too many nutrients, in the opinion of my mother-in-law, to whom I defer where gardening is concerned. Melons, however, are among the Rogue Valley's traditional crops, particularly suited to sandy loam near river bottoms.

Home gardeners can try numerous small-fruited varieties and trellis the vines to squeeze them into smaller plots. But because the region's growing season isn't quite as long as melons like, start them indoors and transplant them when the soil warms to 70 degrees, or purchase seedlings.

For us, forgoing melons it isn't such a sacrifice because Seven Oaks Farm in Central Point offers with its sweet corn and winter squash numerous specialty melons that aren't stocked at grocery stores. As I perfect techniques for mitigating melon's mealy texture and adding other flavors to cut the cloying sweetness, I'm realizing its potential beyond picnic side dish.

Quick pickling is one of my favorites and also extends the window for eating watermelon. In a resealable, plastic bag, combine a small, seedless watermelon — peeled and cubed — with the juice of four limes, 1/2 cup rice-wine vinegar, a sliced jalapeno and handful of bruised basil leaves. Marinated overnight, it's a sweet-sour addition to a salad of blanched or slightly sauteed snow peas, Asian greens or shredded cabbage, avocado, spring onions and fresh mint with a bottled or homemade sesame-soy dressing.

Grilling watermelon also boosts its appeal in summer salads. Lightly oil some slices and grill them over medium-high heat for about a minute on each side. This method renders watermelon warm on the outside but and cool and crisp on the inside. Slice or chop it and serve over arugula with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and feta or goat cheese.

Resist the temptation, however, to heat watermelon if you're going to drink its juice. I made the mistake last summer of simmering watermelon chunks — just as I would other fruits — in a simple syrup to make a cocktail base, little suspecting it would develop a distinctly musty flavor, unmasked by mixing with freshly squeezed lime juice, fresh mint leaves and tonic and seltzer waters.

A better bet is freezing chunks of melon to act as ice cubes in aguas frescas with citrus juice and sparkling water, or in sangria made with red or white wine diluted with sparkling water or fruit juices and topped off with citrus slices. Pureed and strained watermelon can be added to smoothies, lemonade, iced tea or fresh fruit punch.

Pureed watermelon flavors this unusual and visually stunning recipe courtesy of The Associated Press. It elevates that sweet slice of summer to delicious dessert.

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