When I was a kid, everyone loved watermelon. On summer’s best days, we rinsed our pink, sticky arms with a hose at home, in a creek at a picnic, or in the ocean when camping. We held seed spitting contests. We had long discussions about whether that whole “growing a watermelon in your stomach” thing was true if you swallowed the seeds. On picnics a whole cooler loaded with ice was devoted to a gigantic specimen that seemed to come out at the hottest part of the day. The enormous thing somehow always got eaten, no matter how huge. For many years I assumed that there was no such thing as a person who didn’t like watermelon. Something shifted, though. Years passed, I moved, college happened. The first time I met someone who didn’t care for watermelon, I was stunned and sympathetic. This poor, odd person. Surely he must have been the only person on the planet with this affliction. In what seemed like a matter of weeks, I started to discover that so many people near and dear to me either don’t care for watermelon or even have an active aversion to it. Wait—what happened here? Was watermelon just a treat that all Texans like because of the hot weather? Was it because when I was a kid, “everyone” meant other kids? Or was it because everyone actually did love it in the 70’s but it fell by the wayside, the way quiche did in the 80’s, and pesto did in the 90’s?
Well, if the latter is true (and it probably isn’t), watermelon did seem to make a comeback some years ago—in the form of the Unlikely Ingredient. I was confused but intrigued the first time I heard of watermelon and feta together, or watermelon and a balsamic vinegar reduction. My imagination was piqued by this introduction of watermelon into elegant, savory selections. It made me want to experiment, too. For this reason, watermelon has been on my mental backburner for awhile now.
Meanwhile, this summer I had been looking for fun things to make with cucumbers from my garden. Thai spring rolls, wrapped in rice paper and filled with freshness, seemed a nice place to highlight a cucumber-clean flavor. Thinking about summer rolls triggered my memory of a picture I saw of Chef Ferran Adria’s wacky concoction: spring rolls wrapped in spun sugar (as in, white cotton candy). These rolls were fluffy, ethereal, angelic. I remember uttering, “Really?” in a thrilled voice when I saw the picture. It did seem improbable and kind of magic. However, it dawned on me that many Thai dishes do have sweet flavors, so I could see how this would work in a pretty reasonable way. I will not lie. I’ve fantasized about renting a cotton candy machine to make these spring rolls at home. There could be so many uses for a cotton candy machine!
Anyway, I was in this thinking-outside-box frame of mind when the whole watermelon-cucumber connection came back to me. I have always pondered the striking similarities between the two, and yet one is considered a fruit and the other, a vegetable (though they are both technically fruits). Couldn’t they be interchangeable in some recipes where both sweetness and cucumber-like freshness are key? You probably see where I was going before I did.
So, I’ve been daydreaming about watermelon spring rolls for a couple of weeks now, and yesterday this dream became a reality. Glory be, we have watermelon spring rolls—and they are fresh and perfectly delicious! Really! Unless, of course, you don’t like watermelon.
Spicy Watermelon Summer Rolls
- 2 T vegetable oil
- 1 garlic clove, finely minced
- ½ tsp dried hot chili flakes, or to taste
- ½ cup coconut milk
- 2 T watermelon juice(pulp squeezed between two spoons into small bowl makes this juice)
- 2 tsp tamari sauce (other varieties of soy sauce would also work)
- 2 oz rice vermicelli (cellophane noodles also works)
- 1 tsp rice vinegar
- 4 large green lettuce leaves, split in half, rib removed
- About half a pound of watermelon, cut into long, slender strips, about 1/2” by 1/2” by 5”. You need 16 strips total.
- 2 scallions, trimmed and quartered lengthwise into 8 separate parts
- ½ cup coarsely shredded carrot
- ½ cup cilantro
- ½ cup mint
- ½ cup basil
- 8 spring roll skins/wrappers
- First, make the sauce: Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, then add the garlic and peppers. Let them cook at a lively sizzle for 2 or 3 minutes. Do not cook garlic enough to turn golden or brown. Add coconut milk, watermelon juice, and tamari sauce. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until sauce reduces and thickens, about 5 minutes. Set sauce aside to cool.
- Cook rice vermicelli according to the package directions. Drain thoroughly and toss with the rice vinegar and set aside.
- Set up your work station. You will need a flat surface with a clean towel, a wide shallow pan filled with warm water for dipping the wrappers, and all of your filling ingredients nearby, including the sauce.
- Immerse a spring roll wrapper in the shallow pan of water for 30-60 seconds, just until it is pliable and soft. Remove wrapper and place it on the toweled surface (I have tried paper towels, and the towels stick to the wrapper when rolling. Not recommended).
- Arrange a half-lettuce leaf on the bottom half of the wrapper, tearing away parts of the leaf to leave a one-inch border between the leaf and the edge of the wrapper. Maintain this empty border when adding the other ingredients, too. This will help to keep the filling contained.
- On the lettuce, near the midline of the wrapper, arrange about a tablespoon of carrot in a line from long end of the lettuce to the other, so that each bite will contain some carrot. Add a few noodles in the same manner. Dab about 2 teaspoons of the sauce along the noodles and carrots, and then place a watermelon strip atop this. Add a couple more noodles and a scallion strip. Add one more piece of watermelon, then sprinkle one tablespoon each of all the herbs on top of it all.
- Gently separating the wrapper from the towel as you go, fold the bottom edge of the wrapper over the filling, tucking the end under the inside edge of the filling to hold it in place. Snugly fold in both ends, and roll up the rest of the way. Place this roll on a large serving plate. Repeat this process until you have used all of your wrappers, and hopefully, all of your filling ingredients. As you place the rolls on your serving plate, you might not want to stack them, because the wrappers sometimes stick together. Serve rolls cut at a diagonal with a sharp knife.
Makes 8 rolls.