Who could have imagined that watermelons would be compressed to impress?
It’s visions of simple, unadorned ice-cold watermelons that cavort in my memory. They seemed behemoth on childhood family picnics. Dad always built a little drama into carrying them, groaning as he lifted them onto a picnic table. The thunderous cracking sound made as my father’s rust-marked carbon steel knife severed the rind, made me dance.
Chefs have taken a fancy to seedless watermelons. More restaurant menus feature them in everything from soup to salad, beverages to desserts.
Greg Daniels, Executive Chef-Partner at Haven Gastropub in Orange, uses modern cuisine techniques to compress watermelon by vacuum sealing peeled slices; the device removes air from the thick plastic bag prior to sealing. The video shows how he and Sous Chef Mike Wegrzyn make the magic happen.
The process intensifies the watermelon’s flavor, makes the texture denser and the color more jewel-like. Compressed watermelon shimmers like raw ahi tuna.
Chef Daniels pairs cubes of compressed watermelon with heirloom tomatoes, goat-milk feta, tiny leaves of shiso, and a smidgen of extra-virgin Arbequina olive oil (he uses California Olive Ranch’s Arbequina). And for just-right acidity, tiny pearls of Banyuls vinegar are spooned on top of the colorful mix.
The small beads of vinegar “caviar” are made by dissolving gelatin in warm Banyuls vinegar, then gently squeezing droplets into chilled oil.
They are gorgeous, but Daniels says that home cooks prefer they can nap the salad with vinaigrette made with Banyuls vinegar and a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil.
Here’s a look at Haven Gastropub’s professional vacuum sealer. It’s a big old mama, and it does a great job.
BUT, not to worry. Daniels says that you can make the salad without compressing the watermelon. Cut the watermelon into cubes and pat them with paper towels.
I tested my FoodSaver “home vacuum packaging system” to see how its performance compared to the real-deal professional vacuum sealer. I cut the watermelon into 4-by-4-by-1-inch pieces before vacuum sealing. (I used the “high” and “moist food” settings.) The results weren’t the same as when using a professional-style machine, but they were acceptable. The melon was a deeper color than before, and slightly less watery. I still felt the need to pat it dry, just as you would if you were using un-tampered-with melon.
Haven Gastropub’s Compressed Watermelon Salad
Yield: 4 servings
1 mini seedless watermelon
8 ounces goat-milk feta cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes, see cook’s notes
2 heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup Banyuls wine vinegar, see cook’s notes
3 cups grape seed oil
2 gelatin sheets, see cook’s notes
1 cup micro shiso or julienned shiso leaf, or assorted microgreens, see cook’s notes
2 tablespoon extra-virgin Arbequina olive oil, or any high grade olive oil, see cook’s notes
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 pinch finely ground black pepper
Cook’s notes: Daniels like to use mini watermelons such as the Pureheart variety. He Bella Capra, a goat-milk feta produced by Sierra Nevada Cheese Company. Banyuls wine vinegar is made from sweet French wine. Aged for six years in oak casks, it is made from Grenache grapes that grow in and around Banyuls-Sur-Mer. Gelatin sheets (also called leaf gelatin) are sold at amazon.com. Assorted microgreens are sold at Trader Joe’s. Arbequina olives are richly aromatic and make delicious olive oil.
1. Peel watermelon; the easiest way to do this is to cut off a small slice at top and bottom (blossom and root ends), then cut the melon in half through the equator. Place cut-side (equator) down on cutting board and cut off rind in strips from top to bottom, following the contour of the melon. Cut peeled melon into 1-inch wide crosswise slices. Place watermelon slices in vacuum bag ( one per bag) and compress using a vacuum sealer. Reserve in bag for at least 30 minutes. OR, if you don’t have a vacuum sealer, you can omit this step and simply pat the slices dry.
2. To make the Banyuls vinegar “caviar,” place gelatin in cold water to cover until fully hydrated (about 5 to 10 minutes). Meanwhile, heat vinegar in saucepan over medium heat to warm it (warm, not hot). Remove gelatin from water and gently wring out water. Add it to warm vinegar and dissolve it; cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, place oil in long narrow container(s), such as a water glass(es). Place container(s) in a bowl of ice with a bit of salt. When oil is cold, place the cooled vinegar mixture in a squeeze bottle. Hold the nozzle of the squeeze bottle over the glass and gently squeeze a droplet of the vinegar mixture into cold oil to form “caviar;” repeat making sure it’s not dropped in the same spot. Create enough caviar to cover the bottom of your glass with caviar and no more. Drain caviar from oil pouring it through a fine sieve and reserve oil. Repeat the process until all vinegar is used. Keep caviar cold as it will melt if left out in a warm kitchen. OR, instead of making caviar, use a simple vinaigrette made by whisking 3 cups of high grade olive oil into the vinegar (using a wire whip or stand mixer. If this is done you will not need the grape seed oil or the 2 tablespoons of arbequina olive oil.
3. Open bags of reserved melon slices and pat dry with cloth. Dice into 1 inch cubes.
4. To assemble, using a mixing bowl, add melon, cheese, arbequina oil, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Toss gently with hands as to not break up the cheese. If you are using the vinaigrette in place of the caviar, omit the olive oil and gently toss with some of the vinaigrette. Start with a bit and add more to taste if needed. Divide salad onto 4 chilled plates. Top with micro shiso. If you made the caviar, with a spoon, scatter on top of salad and surrounding plate.
Nutrition information (per serving, figuring only a portion of the vinegar caviar is used, and little or none of the oil it is temporarily suspended in is used): 170 calories, 48 percent of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 19 g carbohydrates, 2.2 g protein, 580 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Source: Executive Chef Greg Daniels and Sous Chef Mike Wegrzyn, Haven Gastropub, Orange
Haven Gastropub is at located at: 190 South Glassell Street, Old Towne Orange, CA 92866
714 221 0680
Other O.C. chefs using compressed melon? You bet.
Chef de Cuisine Ryan Carson at AnQi in Costa Mesa uses compressed melon cubes in a delectable dessert, teaming the dense fruit with mango sorbet and yuzu-spiked salt. This photo really shows how cool compressed melons look. See the jelly-like shimmer?
Jason Petrie, Executive Chef at Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa, twists sushi-grade hamachi (yellowtail) into tight spirals and serves it atop small disks of compressed melon. Delicious.