Recently, we were brainstorming recipe ideas with my mom and 10-year-old son, Gio. She'd just provided the food for a bridge game and was raving about the perfectly ripe melons on her fresh fruit tray.
Melons are coming into their peak now, and we all agreed that this would be a good time to highlight this versatile fruit.
We tossed about different ideas, but none of them grabbed our interest until Gio suddenly stood and said, "Guys, I got it. Let's take a melon baller and make a melon salad with watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe. We can throw in a little feta, maybe some toasted walnuts, and a little balsamic, too."
Up until that moment I wasn't even aware that Gio liked balsamic vinegar, much less cantaloupes. When I mentioned this, he shrugged and said, "This is how I see it in my head. Doesn't it sound good?" We all agreed that it did, indeed, sound good, and this is how Gio's Melon Ball Salad was born.
We made his salad the next day, and it was delicious. The crunchy walnuts provided a perfect textural contrast to the soft, ripe fruit, whose sweetness was gently balanced by the savory tang from both the feta cheese and the balsamic reduction. We added the juice from one lime to bring additional brightness to the flavors (an orange would also work well), and a sprinkling of fresh mint gave the salad an extra boost of color and elegance.
Forget what you may have read about using an expensive balsamic vinegar to make a reduction - save your money and use whatever variety you find in your local supermarket. The reduction not only brings flavor to this salad, but it also enhances the presentation when added just before serving. For this recipe, you will need just a couple tablespoons of reduction, but this nontraditional condiment is great with many foods and can be refrigerated for at least a month, so it's worth the added effort.
When buying melons, you can check for ripeness by sniffing, shaking and squeezing the fruit. To sniff, simply hold the melon up to your nose - it should give off a pleasingly soft, fruity fragrance. Too much, and the fruit is overripe; no fragrance means the fruit isn't ready to eat. Next, shake the melon to feel if the seeds jostle around a bit, which is another indicator for ripeness. Finally, gently press your thumb into one end of the fruit, and if the flesh gives just a little, it's ready.
We looked for medium-sized melons for this recipe, and used just half of each type, saving the other half for a breakfast platter. If the melons aren't quite ready, you can advance the ripening process by placing the cantaloupe and honeydew melons in a paper bag the night before serving them, which should make them ready-to-eat by morning. This slick trick also works well with avocados, especially if you place a banana and/or an apple in the bag, too.
This is Gio's first original recipe, and when he tasted his salad he decided that he still didn't care for cantaloupe. He also recommended that the balsamic reduction could be served on the side, "in case it's too strong for some kids," and that the citrus juice could be omitted entirely if desired.
With its pretty colors and great taste, Gio's Melon Ball Salad would be perfect for a brunch or picnic lunch, or even just an afternoon snack. Thanks, Gio!
Gio's Melon Ball Salad
Serves 4 to 6
Half a watermelon
Half a cantaloupe
Half a honeydew melon
1 cup walnuts, toasted
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Juice of 1 lime or orange
10 mint leaves, cut chiffonade-style (into thin strips)
2 tablespoons balsamic reduction
Use a melon baller to remove the fruit from each melon half, yielding about 20 balls per melon. Place the balls in a medium or large serving bowl. Add the toasted walnuts, feta cheese and lime juice and gently toss to combine.
Just before serving, sprinkle the chopped mint over the top of the salad and drizzle with balsamic reduction.
To cut the mint "chiffonade" style, simply stack the leaves upon each other, roll lengthwise, and use a sharp knife to cut the mint into thin strips, moving from one end to the other. To prevent the mint from blackening, cut it just before serving.
Gio's favorite knife is "The Cheese Knife," which is made from plastic and can be found at kitchen supply stores.
For the best presentation, add the balsamic reduction just before serving or it will bleed into the other ingredients.
For the balsamic reduction
Makes: approximately ¾ cup
2 cups regular balsamic vinegar (not the high-end, aged variety)
Place the vinegar in a small sauce pot or sauté pan and cook over high heat until it reaches a boil. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook until the vinegar has been reduced by at least half and a thick, syrupy consistency is achieved, approximately 20 minutes.
To store: Refrigerate for up to one month. For best results, use a squeeze bottle to create elegant drizzles when serving.
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 10-year-old son, Giovanni.