Of course, I have heard of watermelon rind pickles, although I've never had one. I looked at a bunch of recipes online and decided they weren't really up my alley. They all seemed excessively sweet and soft, when I was looking for something crunchy and sour. Watermelon rind has a lot of melony-ness, but it isn't sweet at all, so there's no reason it should be made into a really sweet pickle. My first attempt was not very successful. I just cut the raw rind into 1-inch cubes, salted and then rinsed it, and put it in vinegar with some dill and mustard seeds. (We use a similar method for making refrigerator cucumber pickles.) They were way too hard and aggressively sour. I also tried a modified version of a recipe I had found online where the rind is cooked in vinegar and sugar with some spices for about 45 minutes. It worked better, although now I'd like it crunchier. I am still working on a good watermelon rind pickle recipe. Stay tuned.
While I was lamenting the too-crunchiness of my original pickles and thought about how really hard vegetables, like carrots, are sometimes much easier to eat when shredded. Thus began the quest for a watermelon rind slaw. My first attempt was by no means a failure. It was very simple: watermelon rind, apple cider vinegar, just a touch of sugar, a little shredded carrot, and some mint. Not bad, not stunning. The shredded watermelon rind was very easy to eat, and it was pleasantly crunchy and mild. I can definitely see it standing in as a substitute for cabbage or even celery or cucumber. (When I experimented with adding celery seeds to the slaw, it tasted eerily like actual celery.) I was unsatisfied, however, with the slaw. It was kind of boring. It would have worked at a picnic as a side to barbecued things, but only because it was crunchy and cold.
This afternoon I was browsing through Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian looking for inventive slaw recipes that might be easily adapted to watermelon rind. I came across his Korean chive and lettuce salad. Basically, it's a bunch of chives with a soy sauce and sesame oil dressing mixed in with lettuce. In the variations, he suggests using shiso instead of the chives. I have never seen or tasted shiso, but apparently it's a Japanese herb that is a little basil-y, a little minty, and a little cinnamony. I decided to try the recipe with watermelon rind and assorted herbs from my garden.
Friends, I was not disappointed. I used some purple globe basil, which has very small leaves and has gone to flower already. I used the flowers as well as the leaves and stems. I also threw in some Thai basil, which has a pleasant anise flavor, and some chives. It was good. Really good. Jon, who has been very patient with me for keeping over six pounds (there was a second watermelon) of rind in the fridge even though it was already full, has been pretty skeptical of the whole project. He was underwhelmed by the original watermelon-carrot slaw, but he recognized the genius of this one immediately. It is crunchy, floral, and complex. While we were eating it and marveling at how awesome it was, I had the brilliant idea of making it into spring rolls. So we did. The sauce is quite strong, so it's like you have already put the dipping sauce in the spring roll. We loved it. We spent dozens of minutes talking about how great it was, and by extension how awesome I am.
I know that is a very long buildup to a recipe. And I feel a little bad because really, the watermelon rind is completely replaceable. Cabbage would be perfectly acceptable here. Probably carrots would too. Or celery or cucumber or any other crunchy vegetable. The herbs and dressing are what make this such a good dish, not the watermelon rind. The melony-ness is definitely overwhelmed by the other flavors, but darn it, it's free! Assuming you like watermelon (and I don't see how you couldn't), the rind is completely a bonus vegetable. I am still working on other good ways to use it, but I am very, very happy with this recipe. It's extremely likely that the dinner guests we are having tomorrow night will be eating it. Without further ado, here it is.
Asian-inspired watermelon rind slaw (based loosely on Bittman's recipe for Korean chive and lettuce salad):
About 1/2 pound watermelon rind, peel removed, grated with a food processor, about 2 cups
About 1/2 cup assorted fresh herbs, minced (I used purple globe basil and its flowers, Thai basil, and chives)
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
juice of 1/4 lime
1 tsp sugar
A tiny, tiny bit of Srirachi sauce, or more if you have a higher tolerance for heat than I do (trust me, you do)
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced or grated
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
Wring out the watermelon rind with your hands over the sink. It's wetter than it lets on. Put it in a bowl. Add the herbs and toss. Mix together the oil, soy sauce, vinegar, lime juice, sugar, Srirachi, ginger, and sesame seeds. Pour over the rind and herbs. Marvel at your (or my) inventiveness. If you want to make it into spring rolls, just get a spring roll wrapper ready and put some filling in. You don't need a dipping sauce or any other ingredients.