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Published July 25, 2013, 11:30 PM

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When I think of hot summer months, the refreshing flavor of ripe, juicy watermelon comes to mind. While growing up, watermelon usually was served outdoors for a good reason. My friends and I usually ended up with trails of bright red watermelon juice on the front of our clothes.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service, INFORUM

When I think of hot summer months, the refreshing flavor of ripe, juicy watermelon comes to mind. While growing up, watermelon usually was served outdoors for a good reason. My friends and I usually ended up with trails of bright red watermelon juice on the front of our clothes.

I recall having a large paper towel tucked under my chin as a makeshift “bib.” Eventually I figured out the choreography involved in eating watermelon without staining my clothes, so I got to shed my paper bib.

Sometimes my mother would make “old-fashioned watermelon rind pickles” from the white inner rind of the melon. I recently learned that these pickles were featured in the first cookbook published in the U.S. in 1796.

You can find a research-tested version of watermelon pickles at the National Center for Home Food Preservation available at http://nchfp.uga.

edu/how/can_06/watermelon_rind.html.

Watermelon has a long history, dating back at least 5,000 years to Africa. Watermelons were so prized that they were placed in the tombs of mummies to provide fluid and food that early Egyptians believed would sustain their rulers and relatives in the afterlife.

Today, more than 100 varieties of watermelon are available throughout the world. The flesh varies from the familiar red or pink color to orange or yellow. Most have black or dark brown seeds, but seedless varieties have some white seeds.

Although some people swear by “sniffing” and “thumping” to determine ripeness, horticulture experts say those methods are not reliable. As consumers, we depend on the ones who picked the watermelon to do it right. Watermelons should be picked at peak ripeness, when their underbelly is yellow or cream-colored.

At the grocery store, choose watermelons that are heavy in relation to their size, with a hard rind and no visible bruises or other damage.

Watermelon is a portable dessert. Whole watermelons can be stored at room temperature. You can rinse and scrub the outside of the watermelon with a produce brush and then cut into slices or wedges. You can scoop the flesh into balls with the aid of a melon baller tool.

Be cautious to avoid cross-contamination. After rinsing and washing the melon, be sure to use a clean knife and cutting board to prepare it. Keep melon away from raw meat or juices. Cantaloupe and watermelon contaminated during preparation have been linked to foodborne illness outbreaks.

After you cut a watermelon, treat it as a perishable food. Wrap the leftover melon with plastic wrap or place it in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator and use within three days.

If you want to be very creative, watermelons can be carved to serve as their own serving containers. Depending on your patience and carving skills, your watermelon can become a basket, frog or shark filled with watermelon balls. You can find instructions on the National Watermelon Promotion Board website at www.watermelon.org.

Watermelon is true to its name. It is more than 90 percent water by weight, so it is quite low in calories. For less than 100 calories, you can have a hearty snack of 1 2/3 cups of watermelon chunks.

Besides having a palate-pleasing sweet taste and possessing hydrating properties, watermelon packs a nutrition punch. Watermelon is high in natural antioxidants that may protect our bodies. Watermelon is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, which promote healthy skin and a strong immune system.

Watermelon is one of the best sources of lycopene, which is a natural pigment usually associated with tomatoes. Lycopene provides the rosy red hue to watermelons. Eating foods that are good sources of lycopene may help prevent diseases including cancer and heart disease.

Nutrition scientists also have been studying the citrulline in watermelon. This natural compound is converted by our body to arginine, which is an amino acid (protein building block). Arginine may play a role in promoting heart health.

Enjoy some ripe, juicy watermelon while it is in season. Here’s a refreshing summer beverage from Illinois Extension.

Watermelon Smoothie

1 (8-ounce) container of lemon-flavored, fat-free yogurt

3 cups cubed, seeded watermelon

1 pint fresh strawberries, cleaned and hulled*

1 tablespoon honey or strawberry jam

3 ice cubes

(*)You can use frozen strawberries without thawing.

In a blender or food processor, combine all the ingredients. Process until smooth and frothy. Serve in tall glasses with a straw.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 130 calories, 0 grams (g) of fat, 3 g of protein, 35 g of carbohydrate, 2 g of fiber and 40 milligrams of sodium.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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