When I saw the Ferrous Chef: Watermelon contest I was perplexed. As a cook and baker I had to do something for the contest, but what can I do with watermelon that hasn't been done before? Also how in the heck do I use chervil with watermelon?
Since I had no idea what to do, I did what I usually do in this situation- I started playing with my food. My wife loves watermelon so there happened to be some cut up in the fridge. So what can I do with watermelon? I've heard that it gets really firm and takes on a meat-like appearance when put under vacuum. I thought about a sweet rice and vacuum-firmed watermelon dessert sushi with a dab of chervil infused cream cheese 'wasabi', but I don't have a vacuum pump anymore and I didn't want to buy one (If someone else wanted to make that for this contest I'd be totally cool with it- do it!). That got me thinking about other ways of changing the watermelon's texture. I've done my share of jerky making and veggie drying but I never tried watermelon. I sliced some thin and laid it on a foil lined baking sheet. I placed the baking sheet in the oven on warm, left the door cracked so the vapor could escape and left it alone. I use a terra cotta sheet in my oven to distribute the heat more evenly. After a few hours I had sweet watermelon 'leather'. It stuck to the foil a bit but I knew I was on the right track
One of my favorite uses for dried fruit is making chutney. Chutney is a culinary catch-all condiment with countless adaptations and local variations. In it's most basic form chutney is a condiment made from fruits, spices, vinegar and sugar. It can be chunky like a salsa or relish or a smooth and homogenous as ketchup. Originally, chutney came from India. It was adopted by the British colonial occupiers and passed on to the mariners of the British sea trade. These sailors took chutney to every corner of the British empire, where it mutated and adapted to the local diet and produce. The sun never sets on the chutney empire!
Chutney is the perfect geek food- it's open source, it spread virally, it can be hacked and adapted endlessly and there's lot's of fun tools and techniques. Chutney with dried watermelon sounded intriguing, but what about the chervil?
I decided to try making chervil infused rum to reconstitute the dried fruit. When infusing herbs directly into alcohol the herbs need to be dried well and the alcohol needs to be strong. When the alcohol has dissolved the aromatic oils from the herbs it is then poured over dried fruit. The fruit absorbs the alcohol and the flavorful oils. When the fruit is cooked in the final sauce the alcohol evaporates away leaving the herbal flavor as well as the rum flavor distributed throughout the fruit.
By combining the watermelon and chervil infused rum with some other ingredients I'll make a chutney. This requires several steps over three days, including preparing the herb infused rum, dehydrating the watermelon, preparing the other fruits and cooking the sauce. Although I can't actually share the final product with you, I will incorporate it into a meal and conduct a taste test with some of my friends and report the results here.
Step 1: Gathering the ingredients
I never plan chutney. It's always a matter of seeing some random ingredients in the fridge and deciding to make a batch. Watermelon is easy in the South this time of year. Chervil proved to be another story. My wife checked the local Publix where she got the melon but they had none. We checked a few other local markets with no luck. I decided to check Whole Foods, where after practically begging for service I was told that they were out and had no idea when they would have some. I was running out of options.
They recently opened a Trader Joe's in my town. While I've heard good things about them, they opened a store with very little parking and have been the cause of nasty traffic snarls ever since they opened, so I have not gone there yet. I decided to see if they had chervil. After waiting for 20 minutes just to get in the parking lot I finally found a space and went inside. While their staff was very helpful, they had no chervil. After fighting to get back out of the parking nightmare that was the Trader Joe's lot and vowing not to return until the parking situation improved, I decided to try one more place. I drove to the fancy Publix Greenwise Market and, lo and behold, I found chervil! It was a bit yellow and it had more packaging than I usually tolerate in a product, but it was the only game in town and I was determined to see this quest through. I bought the chervil, hit the liquor store for the rum and went home to start prepping my sauce.
The rest of the ingredients were things I had on hand- a mango, onion, dried cranberries, vinegars, honey and spices.
Step 2: Day 1- Preparing the chervil infused rum
The first step in making herb infused rum is drying the herb. If you have plenty of time, simply hang loose bunches of chervil up in a dry place and wait until they are properly dry. If you're in a hurry, remove the stems from the fresh chervil and dehydrate it. If you have a dehydrator use it, otherwise spread your herb on foil and place it in the oven on 'warm' (around 150 degrees f) until it is dry- about 30. The main difference is that the fast drying method has more chlorophyll in the final product than the slow dried herb. The chlorophyll adds a slightly bitter taste, but for chutney it's not too important as the orgy of flavors will make it right at home.
Place the dried and de-stemmed herb in a glass container and cover with over-proof rum. I used about 150 ml of Bacardi 151, which is 151 proof or 75% alcohol (most rum is 80 proof or 40% alcohol). The higher the alcohol content, the more efficiently the herb's flavors will be extracted. I'm using rum in this recipe because it adds a flavor profile of its own, but you could easily use high proof vodka or grain alcohol. Everclear comes in 175 proof and leaves very little flavor of its own behind when it evaporates. Be careful if you drink this stuff- it's almost twice as strong as 'normal' rum. I rarely drink and don't advocate the regular consumption of alcohol. Please drink responsibly.
Cover your container and put it somewhere it won't be disturbed for at least 24-48 hours. Be aware that over-proof rum is highly flammable. Do not store or handle it near open flames, sparks, extreme heat or smoke while handling it.
Step 3: Day 2- Preparing the watermelon
I used a fresh seedless watermelon. I cut it into 1" cubes, sprinkled them lightly with salt and placed them in a large Tupperware container.
Gather a package of bamboo skewers, some olive oil and a rectangular baking dish narrower than the length of your skewers. Give your skewers a good coat of olive oil and let them sit for a few minutes before tapping the excess oil off. This will make the dried watermelon stick less. Get your melon cubes and make melon kabobs on the oiled skewers. Place your skewers full of melon cubes across the baking dish placed close but not touching so the cubes can dry evenly. If you don't have enough room for them all you can add more skewers later as the melon shrinks. You should have some melon juice left over in the bottom of the container. Put this in an air tight container and put it in the fridge for later. Place the pan in the oven on warm- the target temperature is around 150 degrees. Check the melon every hour or so and rotate the pan and the skewers to insure even drying. You want firm, dry pieces of dry red watermelon with a similar texture to sun dried tomatoes. My 1" cubes took about 12 hours to dry. Smaller pieces would dry quicker, but they'd take more oven space and require two batches. When the melon is dried, let it cool and set it aside in an air tight container.
You may be wondering what the point of all this drying is. Well, dry fruit absorbs moisture. If that moisture has flavor, it will infuse the fruit with that flavor. Chutney is like culinary jazz. It is to condiments what curry is to spice- a complex mixture of flavors that creates something unique and greater than the sum of its parts. With a chutney sauce you want a blended, homogenous product. Re-hydrating dried fruit with a flavorful liquid results in a smoother blend of flavors in the final sauce.
Step 4: Day 2- Preparing the mango and onion
I love mango in chutney. Not only does it add a complex, earthier sweetness but it also has a lot of fiber that makes the sauce thick and 'sticky'. I used a whole medium sized mango and a half of a medium white onion. I cut the mango into fine cubes and minced the onion and gave them a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar- about 2-3 tablespoons. I added a dash of salt, ground ginger, ground clove, curry powder, a teaspoon of red pepper flakes and a couple of tablespoons of honey. I tossed everything lightly and refrigerated it over night. The spices are not hammered in stone- use what you like. Try some cinnamon or allspice. Use rice vinegar or replace the honey with brown sugar. Use whatever fruit or vegetables you have on hand. Chutney is all about experimenting. I have never written down a recipe and no two batches are ever the same, but they're always awesome.
Step 5: Day 3 Morning- Macerate the dry fruit with the chervil infused alcohol
Now we will rehydrate the fruit with the chervil infused rum. The rum has an interesting taste. After a couple of days of soaking, the chervil adds a botanical sharpness. It tastes like a really sassy gin- spicy and green. Carefully pour off the rum through a coffee filter in a strainer. Scoop the remaining plant material into the filter. Work carefully so you don't tear the filter- use slow, steady pressure to squeeze out the remaining rum. I put the dried watermelon in a large glass container and added the rum. Add enough dried cranberries until the fruit is just to the surface of the rum. Cover it and set it aside until all of the rum is absorbed by the fruit. Denser fruits may take longer to rehydrate. Placing the container with the rum and fruit in a hot water bath will help the alcohol absorb into the fruit quicker. If you combine the fruit and alcohol in the morning it will by ready by the afternoon.
Step 6: Day 3 Afternoon- Cooking the sauce
Now I put the alcohol infused melon and the mango and onion pickle in a saucepan in a simple double boiler set up to prevent scorching. I added a dash of rice vinegar. I brought the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring constantly. I let it boil gently uncovered for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent sticking. Keep in mind that in the early stages of the boiling it will be giving off a high percentage of alcohol in the steam. While it won't be a high enough concentration to burn, it may be a respiratory irritant. Use proper ventilation.
I reduced the heat to a very light simmer and covered the pot. I checked it every 15 minutes or so to stir it. If it begins to stick turn down the heat. As the fruit absorbs more liquid and the alcohol evaporates you may have to add more liquid. Use the leftover melon juice from earlier to replace the moisture as this adds a little more sweetness to the sauce. I continued to simmer the sauce until all the fruit was soft and mushy, at least 30 minutes. When the mixture was nice and soft I started mashing it with a fork. The goal now is to create a semi smooth mixture with the consistency of thin oatmeal. If it's too thick add some more liquid; if it's too thin let it simmer uncovered a little longer until it's thicker. Making sauces requires patience- overheating will ruin everything. Make small adjustments until it's just right.
Now I set the sauce aside to cool and then pureed it in a blender. Once it's well blended it should be a bit thinner- closer to the consistency of Sriracha sauce. add a little more juice or water if necessary. I put it back in the saucepan and slowly heated it to a gentle simmer. I stirred it until it reached the desired thickness of thick ketchup and then removed it from the heat. Ta Da- watermelon-chervil chutney!
This recipe is a good candidate for traditional canning as it's high in sugar and vinegar. It could be scaled up to make a larger batch. If you're not into canning it can also be stored in the fridge for quite a long time. The vinegar and sugar preserves the chutney by preventing the growth of harmful microbes.Honey is one of the best natural preservatives there is- honey never goes bad.
Step 7: Taste testing the watermelon-chervil chutney
So that was some fancy process but how does it taste? It has a clear sweetness from the melon and other fruit as well as a tang from the vinegars. The spices blend well for a savory note and the red pepper gives a nice, subtle bite. Although the alcohol almost entirely evaporates it leaves a spicy rum flavor and the chervil adds a nice herbal crispness. This is just my first impression fresh from the stove. Now I'll pack it in an airtight container and store it in the fridge for a few days before serving it. Whether it's spaghetti sauce, stew or chutney sauces always taste better after a day or two of rest in the fridge.
I'm planning a simple dinner with a few friends on Sunday night where I'll serve the chutney and get my guest's impressions of the watermelon chervil chutney. Check back next week for an update!
The Taste Test
So I wanted to taste test the chutney with a few friends, but you can't just hand out spoons and pass the jar around. I needed to come up with a meal that would showcase the chutney without overpowering it. A quick pantry raid yielded lentils, elephant garlic, green curry, Greek yoghurt, broccoli, cauliflower, a red onion, cashews, a can of coconut milk, some sweet Thai rice and some chicken breasts. I can work with that.
I roasted the garlic until it was as soft as butter. I added the roasted garlic and some spices to the lentils and cooked them. I used the yoghurt to make a spicy green curry sauce. I sauteed the red onion, broccoli and cauliflower in sesame oil and finished it with honey and a handful of cashews. I cooked the sweet rice with coconut milk and a few cardamom seeds. I cubed the chicken breasts and rubbed them with the chutney and let it marinade in the fridge for a few hours and then stir fried it in sesame and olive oil.
The wife and I invited two other couples over for dinner. Sam and Kimmy are vegetarians so I plated them up everything but the chicken. I put the curry sauce and chutney out and let them take what they wanted. Opinions were generally good about the meal. One guest remarked that the chutney's flavor was sweet first with an herby aftertaste with subtle notes of licorice. Another said that it had a concentrated flavor and a little went a long way. Everyone agreed that the sweetness was a good complement to the earthiness of the lentils and the spice of the curry.
The chicken was awesome. The sugars caramelized nicely in the skillet and made a savory glaze. While it was a decent chutney, and with a few changes it could be a great chutney, I think it was even better as a marinade/rub. I'm saving the last bit of it to try with salmon this weekend. I may have to add a follow-up to this follow-up.
While it worked good in combination with other bold flavors, I think the chutney was a little too sweet. It almost seems like it got sweeter after a few days in the fridge. If I made this again I would drain the watermelon better and not use the juice to reduce the sugar level a little. This would also make it dehydrate quicker, saving time. I'd also probably add a savory element and more pepper to balance it out a bit. It was interesting that the watermelon's seemingly delicate flavor was still familiar through the dehydrating, macerating and cooking. I want to try a batch with watermelon, apples and pears. Maybe for the next food contest...