Unexpected and Good: Cool Melon Salad w/Fried Olives & Goat Cheese

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My father used to call me "melon head" (rather its Korean equivalent). To this day, I'm not sure if it's because of the sheer size of my noggin or my intense love of the ripe juicy fruit. One of the few photos of me as a kid shows me in a cotton summer dress, fat rolls bulging out the bodice seam, with my hair pulled back after a day playing with the hose. I'm sitting atop the small dark wood dining table, my feet facing my paternal grandmother who under normal circumstances I was dreadfully afraid of. But I called a truce on my fear because we were both feasting on fat slices of juicy watermleon.

My family has always been one to end a meal with fruit. Desserts and pastries were reserved for celebrations and sometimes morning coffee. Come summer, my dad would always pick out the ripest of watermelons. He swears by a certain technique, like other people who have a supernatural gift for picking out ripe examples -- bee stings, a large yellow patch where the fat fruit rested on the cool earth, the give around the navel stem, etc.

This skill just might be hereditary as I've been able to harvest fragrant varieties from farmers' market stands, road side fruit vendors, and even Costco. I would slice them up for dessert. But lately, I've broadened by melon horizons to include them into my summer recipes. First, it was a watermleon feta salad. Then melon and prosciutto. And now, this variation of a Mediterranean cucumber and cheese salad.

Israeli-Melon-Collage

Melons and cucumbers hail from the same botanical family. Looking at the two growing in a garden or on a farm, it's an easy point to understand. And however deficient you perceive yourself to be when it comes to choosing melons, there's one variety I've come across that's idiot-proof:  Israeli melons.

The folks at the Green River melon booth (Utah, by way of Green River has a famous history as a source of incredible fruit, so much so that they were shipped cross country in iced train compartment) turned me on to them two years ago. I thought at first it was the honeydew making me and the bees drunk with the sweet fragrance. But the mustachioed guy explained these are melons cultivated by farmers in the dry Levantine areas. I haven't seen them in the markets, but I suspect soon enough larger growers will catch on.

For now, I enjoy the rarity of these seasonal treats. Virtually everyone I've picked out has been at an optimal stage for eating. The flavor is sweet like honey, with strong notes of vanilla and cream, but with a refreshing finish characteristic of all melons.

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Like many of my kitchen experiments, this recipe's provenance has to do with necessity than planning. I was out of cucumbers but flush with melon. I wanted a refreshing light salad and figured I would interchange the cousins. The sweetness was a boon to the dish.

First, there was the herbed goat cheese -- one of the few souvenirs from an adventure in Kauai, it came from several happy goats that grazed on lush fields on the Garden Island. They lived next to chickens in a banana grove, an organic garden, and tropical fruit trees.

Kunana Dairy infused this version with their own rosemary, grown from the high acid, volcanic soil. Dot this or any other goat's or sheep's milk cheese over sliced melons. Add olive oil and that's enough. But to embellish it further and to sate my craving for something salty (savory makes sweet even sweeter) I thought of adding dark olives -- kalamata, Nicoise, Taggiasche -- pitted then and there with the flat end of my knife and then fried in their own oil in a saute pan.

They would've been just fine on their own, but the I figured a bit of crunch would be ideal. Fried olives are an underappreciated treat and with this fragrant melon and refreshing cheese, it's the keystone of the whole dish.

Anyone who enjoys the cucumber feta salad idea will easily understand the logic and joy behind this. It is ideal for days you don't really feel like cooking but need a hydrating bit of nourishment. It is good served to friends or even people you're not exactly fond of since the odd pairing gives you reason for conversation. It is perfectly suitable as a main meal for yourself, paired with some bread. Or, if need be, as a side dish to chicken, fish or lamb.

From melon head to another, feel free to experiment with watermleon as well, honeydew and cataloupe or any other exotic/new melon you've yet to bring into the kitchen.

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Melon Salad with Herbed Goat Cheese and Fried Olives

1/2 ripe Israeli melon (honeydew, cantaloupe or watermleon are all fine - just enough to cover a platter's worth) * 1 chunk of goat cheese or feta * 1 cup dark olives, recently pitted * sea salt * extra-virgin olive oil

Slice and peel the melon into uniform size and shingle on a serving platter. Dot the cheese over the slices. Keep cold until ready to serve. Heat the olives in a small saute pan over medium heat and fry/toast until burnished and slightly crisped (about six minutes). Drain onto a paper napkin. When ready to serve, strew the fried olives over the prepared melon and cheese. Drizzle over some salt and olive oil to make the dish glisten. Serve immediately to get the contrast of the warm olives and cold cold melon.

For something more substantial serve with seafood of all kinds - grilled whole fish, scallops, shrimp (shell on if you're lucky enough to find them), lobster, dungeness crab ...