Watermelon Lime Granita

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August 3rd is National Watermelon Day. At least this one make sense, you know? Sometimes the national food days are completely off.

When it comes to melon, I’m partial to cantaloupe, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of the sweet and juicy watermelon in the summer. “When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat,” as Mark Twain put it.

I looked into the history of the watermelon, which I knew nothing about. Watermelon, it turns out, has a long story.

Watermelon originated in Africa more than 5,000 years ago, possibly in the Kalahari Dessert. During these times, before the fruit was cultivated into the sweet treat we think of today, the watermelon was used predominately as a water source when traveling long distances, as the pulp is about 90% water. Researchers have found hieroglyphs on the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, and even remnants of watermelons buried alongside the mummies to keep them hydrated on their journey to the Underworld.

The use of the watermelon as a canteen of sorts may also have been responsible for its spread across the world. Watermelon was introduced to the New World in some measure by European colonists, but predominately by African slaves, as early as the 1600’s. The history of its cultivation in the States is intertwined with the ugly history of race, and it has served as a reminder of the injustice of slavery and as a sign of the independent success of former slaves after Emancipation. Unfortunately, as former slaves used the watermelon to assert their freedom, by growing and selling the fruit, the watermelon also became a racist symbol with a nasty connotation.

New immigrants to the States claimed it for their story too, growing watermelon as a treat unto itself on their small farms. Farmers in the Plains states, particularly Nebraska and Oklahoma–where it is the state vegetable (that’s a whole separate controversy)–a good watermelon crop became the symbol of prosperity.

Like so many foods that we eat in the United States today, if it had not been for the intercontinental voyages of the human race, just and unjust, willing and unwilling, out of curiosity, or need, or coercion, our diet in North America would be very different than it is today.

The watermelon recipe I made is much simpler than the millennia-old history of the watermelon: Granita! Granita was created in Sicily (where watermelon was brought during the Middle Ages by the Arabs.)

If you had asked me a few days ago if I had any interest at all in granita, not to mention if I even technically considered it a dessert, my answer would have been a resounding, “No.” To be honest, when starting this recipe, my main goal was to find a way to use up some of the 9,000 lb watermelon that we bought. My focus was on procuring the rind to make some watermelon rind preserves and pickles after being inspired by the watermelon episode of my favorite show A Chef’s Life. (Fun fact: The first cookbook published in the U.S. in 1776 contained a recipe for watermelon rind pickles.) But I wanted to make something easy and refreshing, and a big jug of watermelon rind pickles just wasn’t piquing my interest.

My second inspiration came in the form of a cocktail. One of my favorite bars/restaurants in the city, Little Bad Wolf, makes a delicious drink featuring a scoop of basil and Peychaud’s granita slowly melting in a tequila cocktail bath. So, to celebrate the humble watermelon, I thought I would make a watermelon granita and, instead of splashing it in a cocktail, just eat it all at once.

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Watermelon Lime Granita
Makes about 6 servings.

Ingredients:
4 rounded cups (seedless, or seeded) watermelon, cubed
Juice of one small lime (About 1 tbsp)
1/3-1/2 cup sugar (depending on how sweet your watermelon is)
1/2 cup heavy cream, optional

Instructions:

Combine watermelon, lime juice, and sugar in a food processor or blender. Blend until mostly liquefied. If there are still bits of pulp, that’s fine.

Pour into an 8 x 8 x 2-in pan. Refrigerate for about 2 hours, scraping the sides of the pan into the center of the mixture every half hour.

Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and enjoy!

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A simple, no-cook recipe for the dog days of summer. Pro tip: I list the whipped cream as “optional” in the recipe, but it shouldn’t be. Don’t question it. I’ll admit I was skeptical, but something about the combination of crunchy ice and silky cream together is magical. Also, maybe you could scoop this granita into a tequila cocktail. It won’t be the worst decision you make this summer.

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Beer Cheddar Soup with Pretzel Croutons

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For our anniversary a few weekends ago, Alex and I spent a long weekend in Door County, Wisconsin. Have you been? It’s absolutely gorgeous. We kept trying to take pictures, and our biggest problem was literally not knowing where to point the camera. Do you take a picture of the tops of the trees that are a stunning electric yellow, orange, red, and purple? Or do you capture the white bark of the trunks of the birches? Even discounting the fall colors, the area is an embarrassment of riches. Let me summarize: We visited a county famous for cherries in one of the most beautiful little corners of a state famous for cheese. Let that sink in. It’s my own version of heaven. I’m shocked that we left willingly. We had big plans to ride horses, go on ghost tours, and drink cherry wine. We didn’t do any of those things. We just kept getting side-tracked by how pretty everything was and stopping on the side of the road to take pictures like true tourists, and then stopping at little farm shops to buy hot sausage links like true sausage lovers. Also, I very nearly reached my goal of eating 7,000 cheese curds over the course of our stay. I came in just shy.

The temperatures here in Chicago are bobbing up and down, refusing to decide between summer and fall. I can’t complain, though. A 75 degree day in the middle of October is fine by me. It’s such a beautiful time of year! But on the chilly days, which I hear will be here soon, you can warm up by making soup! Specifically soup that is full of cheese and beer. In honor of our little trip, I decided to try a recipe for a dish that I saw on a few menus throughout Door County–Beer Cheese Soup!

If you search for Beer Cheese Soup, you’ll find that it’s often labeled a “Midwestern Classic.” Well, I’ve lived in the Midwest almost my whole life and had never heard of this. Not surprisingly, I found, through a bit more research, that in this case “Midwestern” meant mostly the areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin. (In Indiana and Illinois, I’m sure beer cheese soup is around, but we mostly still just *drink* beer.)

Beer and cheese are clearly two things that Wisconsin knows how to do. Beer soup, it turns out, has been around since Medieval times in Europe. (Tell me, will I ever learn how to spell Medieval correctly? I’m a student of history for heaven’s sake!) In Wisconsin, many settlers arriving in the 1800’s were German and Swiss, and they brought the skill of cheese-making with them. Likewise, the German settlers in Wisconsin have been brewing beer since at least the 1830’s.

I actually can’t really drink much beer anymore, because of my oldladyness. I have one and get a headache, and then I get cranky, and I just want a nap. Beer in soup, though, that I can drink. Or, eat…? Soup is such a silly gray area. For this recipe, Wisconsin Sharp Cheddar meets Chicago Blonde Ale for an indulgent, but surprisingly not too heavy, soup. And, I’ve included a recipe for making your own pretzel croutons to sprinkle on top!

Look, this soup is very easy to throw together. And, you certainly don’t have to make your own pretzels. If you don’t mind baking, though, they’re not difficult to make. Like most delicious things, they just take a little time.

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Beer Cheddar Soup with Pretzel Croutons

Beer Cheddar Soup Ingredients:
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 tbsp butter
1 stalk of celery, chopped finely
½ medium onion, chopped finely
2 small/medium carrots, chopped finely
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 cup whole milk
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 tsp paprika, optional
3 1/2 cups sharp cheddar
5 oz. blonde ale
1 egg yolk, optional
salt, to taste,
white pepper, to taste

Beer Cheddar Soup Instructions:

Melt 1 tbsp butter in a large pan. Add the chopped onion, carrots, and celery. Sprinkle with tsp salt. Cook on medium heat until translucent, about 8-10 minutes.

Add garlic and continue cooking for about 2 minutes.

Add in 3 more tbsp butter, plus 4 tbsp flour. Mix until the flour seems to fully absorb the butter. Add in milk and continue to stir until the mixture becomes thick. Add in the chicken stock, one cup at a time, stirring in between additions, allowing the mixture to come to a slight boil and thicken again each time. It will not become as thick as it was before you added the broth.

Stir in the Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and the paprika. Allow to come to a slight boil again.

Turn heat to medium-low and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes. Strain the vegetables out of the mixture, and then return the liquid to the large pan. Add in the beer and allow to come to a slight boil again.

Turn the heat down again. Allow the mixture to stop boiling completely. Then begin adding in the shredded cheddar in small handfuls, stirring in completely after each handful. Do not allow the soup to come to a boil, as this will cause the cheese to clump together.

Once all the cheese has been added, remove the soup from heat and allow to sit for about 1-2 minutes. Whisk one egg yolk into the still-warm soup. (You want the soup to be hot enough to kill salmonella, but not hot enough to immediately scramble the egg. This step is optional, but it does make the soup a bit more full, colorful, and rich. Also, I’m an egg yolk fiend.)

Salt and pepper soup to taste and serve with pretzel croutons loaded up on top!

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Pretzel Crouton Ingredients:
3 1/2 cups bread flour
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water
2 1/4 tsp yeast (1 package)
1 tbsp butter
1 egg, beaten (for egg wash, before baking)
For bath before baking:
1 cup baked baking soda (only 2/3 will be used, but it shrinks a bit as it bakes)
14 cups of water

Pretzel Crouton Instructions:
For bath: Spread baking soda on a baking sheet and bake for 2 hours at 250 degrees. Store in an airtight container. Note: Though it’s not dangerous, be careful when handling as it might irritate sensitive skin.

For bread: Combine yeast, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add warm water and allow to sit for five minutes, until the mixture becomes foamy and bubbly.

Add in the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes a shaggy dough.
Turn out dough onto a very lightly floured surface and knead for 5-7 minutes, until it becomes smoother and begins to form a ball.

Wash out large bowl that you used and coat with 1 tbsp vegetable oil (or less, depending on the size of your bowl).

Put dough back into oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise for an hour, or until it doubles in size.

Cover two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Brush on remaining vegetable oil.

When dough is ready, pour it out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut it into 8-10 equal pieces.

Roll each piece into a ball (for pretzel buns) and put onto the oiled baking sheets. Cover each baking sheet with a dishtowel and allow to rise for about 10 more minutes.

In a large pot, add 10 cups of water and 2/3 cup baked baking soda. Bring to a boil, stirring until the baking soda is dissolved. Reduce heat slightly to a simmer.

Fill a large bowl with 4 cups of water, with a few ice cubes and place next to your cooking area.

Using a slotted spatula, carefully drop two to three pretzels into the simmering water-baking soda solution, allowing them to cook for about 45 seconds on each side. Flip them only once.

Remove each pretzel from the hot bath and then dip it into the second water bath, making sure to rinse each side, before returning it to the parchment paper-lined baking sheet.

The pretzels will look slightly puckered and the outside will develop a a bit of a soft shell. (This will bake into that beautiful brown crust of the pretzel).

Bake at 425 degrees for 18-20 minutes. Allow to cool to warm before serving.

Cut 3 or 4 of the roles into 1/2-in. cubes. Melt 1 tbsp butter in a frying pan and saute until browned. Season with salt and toss them onto your soup!

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This soup is so creamy and silky (no big globs of cheese in this soup!) and the flavors of beer and cheese go together so well. I saw that some folks like putting popcorn on top of their beer cheddar soup, which sounds like a super idea to me, especially if it’s handy and you don’t want to make your own pretzels.