At long last, our Indian summer has arrived. July, August, even September plodded through dankly chilly, cottony fog, but now, October’s pumpkin-and-apple splendor is bursting forth with hot days and mild, even balmy nights. At midday, you might think you’re still ankle-deep in August, ice-chunked agua fresca in your hand, shorts cresting your thighs and flip-flops on your feet.
Stroll a few hours closer to sunset, though, and you can feel it: the days are shorter, the nights drawing in. A long wet spring and a lingering cold summer meant everything was slow to arrive this year. Which means we’ve got the bounty of both summer and fall happening all at once, the vivid reds and oranges of winter squash making a brilliant splash against the sun-painted golds of the Autumn Flame peaches and Emerald Beaut plums.
Normally, my East Coast-bred internal clock is turning towards the deeper, richer foods of autumn by now, the pears and apples, figs and kabocha squash and multi-hued carrots. But this year, there’s still a little more precious summer to bask in, a few more strappy sundresses to take out for a spin.
Not to mention more watermelon to enjoy. Seeing huge bins of watermelons sharing curb space with jack o’ lanterns is just one of the quirkier joys of our California calendar. Watermelon, zucchini, cucumbers of all shapes, and sweet-fleshed melons are still piled high at Berkeley Bowl and the Temescal and Lakeshore Farmer’s Markets. Some are sugary and dripping-luscious, others cool and crisp, but all share a botanical family, the Curcurbitacea, which also includes the vast array of hard-shelled winter squashes, from lumpy-bumpy gourds to acorn squash to Halloween pumpkins. Watermelons and pumpkins, seedy sisters under the skin.
There will be dark months ahead to welcome the comforting starch of the hard squashes. Right now, these last hot days demand something piquant and refreshing, rolling like a breeze over your tongue. Ceviche, gazpacho, lemonade, the tangy brine of seafood. Waiting for the bus on a hot Oakland sidewalk, I think longingly of a salad I had at the now-closed Chickenbone Cafe in Brooklyn on a hot July night. The chef, Zak Pelaccio, who’d trained at the French Laundry, built a crisscross stack of watermelon batons topped with whorls of grilled squid, interspersed with frilled shreds of mint and cilantro, salty bits of feta, and down at the bottom, tiny, tiny sweet-sour cubes of pickled watermelon rind. It was delicious, and also witty: watermelon two ways, both of them unexpected.
And then there was Bangkok melon salad created by John Beardsley when he was the chef at Ponzu in the Tenderloin a decade or so ago, an irresistible mix of honeydew and cantaloupe tossed with fresh ginger, lemongrass, lime, Thai basil and fresh chiles. (Yes, when it comes to deliciousness in all its forms, my palate’s memory is a long one, its recall effortless.)
Yes, as cooks in hot climates know, melon goes better with salt and savory than you might think. Think of the Greeks’ watermelon-and-feta salads, or the Italians’ classic, unbeatable combination of ripe cantaloupe veiled in sheer slices of prosciutto.
What you want with melon is something salty and a little sweet–that proscuitto, for example, or seafood that lies somewhere between silky and bouncy, like shrimp, octopus, scallops, or squid.
Squid is a particularly fine choice here. The locally caught stocks around Monterey Bay replenish themselves easily. Squid is cheap and adapts easily to a host of flavorings and ethnic bents, equally at home in a soy-saucy stir-fry as in a garlicky tomato sauce.
Like I said, squid is inexpensive. Whole, it can run as little as $2/lb; cleaned, $4 or $5/lb. Which kind you buy depends quite frankly on your tolerance for squid eyes, guts, and goo. I vowed, after cleaning my first bowlful of squid sometime back in 1991, that my first time would also be my last. But somehow I came home with a pound of complete squids last night, eyes and all. It’s still, shall we say, a visceral process, but possible, if you’re really committed to having a hands-on, tentacle-to-tail relationship with your squid. A sharp knife, some loud music, and someone ready to take out the garbage immediately afterwards all helps. Start with about 1 1/2 lbs if you’re buying whole squid, to account for all the innards you’ll be discarding.
So, here goes: Rinse squid well. If desired, trim off the tentacles (the bits on the top of the head that look like crazy hair) and set aside. There’s no real neck to go by, but cut off what passes for a head below the eyes and discard. Reach into the body and pull out the hard, spine-like quill. Starting from the tip, squeeze downward toward the open end like you’re squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Squeeze out whatever’s inside, rinsing frequently. Peel off the thin speckled membrane from the body. Trim off the triangular-shaped wings.
Once the body is reduced to a clean, translucent tube, slice it into thin rings. Repeat as needed. Pile rings and tentacles into a colander and rinse thoroughly one more time. (Children with a high gross-out tolerance may find this whole process amusing, and should be put to work immediately.) Pat dry.
If you have a mandoline, use it to make pretty, translucent ribbons of cucumber and radish, and see-through slices of red onion. As for cucumbers, the thin-skinned Armenian or Persian ones are particularly nice, since they tend to be less watery and seedy than your typical waxed-up supermarket cuke. You could also use a few small pickling or Kirby cukes instead.
End of Summer Squid Salad
You can mix and match melons to your taste and visual sensibility. I like some combination of watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe, but experiment with whatever you find the most pleasing. You can chill this salad for a few hours before serving, but it’s best the day it’s made. A mix of lime and lemon juice is fine, if that’s what you’ve got on hand, but don’t, under any circumstances, use bottled lemon or lime juice. Not even the organic kind! They all taste like bitter battery acid and will wreck your beautiful salad.
1 small red onion, peeled and sliced very thin
6 cups mixed melon chunks
1 large or two small cucumbers, peeled if waxed, thinly sliced
a handful of radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 lb cleaned squid, including tentacles if desired, bodies cut into thin rings
2 tsp Thai fish sauce, or to taste
a small handful of chopped roasted, salted peanuts or cashews
1 jalapeno or serrano chile, green or red, sliced very thinly
2 tsp peanut or canola oil
2 or 3 limes
1 tbsp honey, if needed
generous handful of Thai basil, mint, and/or cilantro, or a combination, roughly chopped
1. In a small bowl, cover onion slices with ice water, and set aside.
2. Toss melon, cucumbers, and radish together with juice of 1 lime. Refrigerate.
3. Toss squid with fish sauce, nuts, and chiles.
4. In a wok or saucepan over medium-high heat, heat oil until very hot. Add squid mixture and cook, stirring, until just opaque, firm but not rubbery. This should take less than a minute. Remove from heat and add juice of 1 lime.
6. Drain onions, rinse, and add to melon mixture. Add squid and chopped herbs. Toss and taste for seasoning, adding more lime juice or fish sauce to taste. If it seems too tart, add honey to taste. Divide between plates and serve.
Want to know more about local melons? The Crane family farm, longtime Sonoma melon growers, is offering a tour and tasting on Saturday, Oct. 9th, 2pm-4pm.