Several years ago while dining at Portland's Le Pigeon in late summer, I asked the straight-out-of-Portlandia server for her menu recommendations. "You must try the Tomato, Watermelon and Feta Salad," she enthused. As if on cue, my daughter said, "Oh, we have that every night." Our server looked at us askance as I inquired about her second favorite appetizer.
My daughter wasn't practicing her deadpan. We live in Los Angeles and I worked for a national food magazine. It was in that magazine's test kitchen that I first tasted the seductive combo of acid, sweet, cool and salty. When first presented with the cubes of tomato and watermelon topped with feta cheese crumbles, I was as incredulous as our Pigeon waitress, but on further consideration, there's nothing odd about the mix at all.
Tomatoes served with cucumber are commonplace, and watermelon can be likened to a big, pink, juicy cucumber--they're both members of the Cucurbitaceae family. The neutral sweetness of the watermelon brings out the acidic complexity of the tomato and the feta is the perfect salty-creamy counterpoint to both. I adapted the salad to my tastes, with slices of vine-ripe heirloom tomatoes from the garden, thin, succulent triangles of farmers market watermelon, thick white slabs of feta, a drizzle of good olive oil and lots of fresh mint and oregano leaves. It quickly became the summertime house salad.
No offence to talented chef Gabriel Rucker, but we should have gone with our servers original suggestion as the beef lip croquettes we ordered tasted like meaty, greasy mashed potato balls. You can't miss with a sure thing.
Tomato, Watermelon and Feta Salad
From: Jeanne Kelley
Note: Use chilled watermelon and room temperature tomatoes for this dish.
Serves: 4 to 6
6 pounds (about ½ small) chilled watermelon
2 pounds (about 4 large) best-quality tomatoes, sliced
4 to 6 ounces feta cheese, sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle
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Fresh mint and oregano leaves to sprinkle (about 2 tablespoons)
1. Using a large, sharp knife, trim away the rind from the watermelon. Slice the watermelon into 3-inch triangles, each about ½-inch thick. Divide the watermelon slices among 4 or 6 plates.
2. Top the watermelon with tomato and feta slices, dividing evenly. Drizzle the salads lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with mint and oregano leaves and serve.