Okay, so it’s not the Caprese salad you would get in a restaurant or make with your garden tomatoes in the summer. But, Caprese was definitely one of the two inspirations for this salad. I love the raw simplicity of the classic Italian salad. The few ingredients demand you use quality tomatoes, mozzarella and olive oil. There’s really no hiding if you skimp on good ingredients. Everything in the salad gets to equally shine on it’s own while also complementing the other flavors on the plate. Caprese reminds me that a few seasonal ingredients, with the right technique and a loving sprinkle of salt can be something divine.
My memories of dining al fresco in the summer time didn’t involve mozzarella or basil. Many sticky Chicago summer nights were spent in a backyard, sitting on plastic stools or whatever could be converted into outdoor furniture. My mother and her friend (and neighbor) gently, yet confidently, prepared an entire platter of fruit using only their hands and small paring knives. The other kids and I hovered around and grabbed at the grapes as an appetizer, since they needed nothing more than a good wash. We slapped our ankles from the mosquito bites as we impatiently waited for stone fruit, oranges and melons to be ready to consume. A pot of mint tea or coffee would be waiting, steaming, until our mothers fed us so they could chat over a warm beverage and bizr*. Some nights the small backyard spread was upgraded with mixed nuts, dessert or the addition of cheese, often eaten alongside watermelon. It was sometimes a homemade, brined white cheese or salty feta bought from a local dukkan**. A savory, salty flavor to offset the sweetness of summer melon. I’ll admit, it wasn’t a pairing I appreciated until later in my life.
I took flavor inspiration from the well-loved combination of watermelon and cheese of my cultural background, those summer nights of fruit and salty snacks of my childhood, and presented it in the way I’ve enjoyed Caprese salad. Rather than keeping the cheese raw, I prepared it as my mother often did for Sunday brunch-shallow fried in olive oil, giving it a light crispy exterior and slightly melted interior that squeaks when you chew it. The addition of fresh basil, pomegranate molasses, and almonds add in extra layers of flavor and texture. As summer departs, this recipe honors the fruit and herbs of the season before we bid her adieu.
For this recipe, I used Akkawi cheese-a white, slightly salty brine cheese originating from the city of Akka in Palestine. The texture is firm and it doesn’t melt easily, which helps it retain its shape during the frying process. If you can’t find Akkawi, you can easily substitute with Queso Blanco or Halloumi. A light dusting of cornstarch helps with reducing moisture so the cheese doesn’t react and pop in the oil, and creates a light crust while frying, but is completely optional.
*Bizr (Arabic) is a variety of seeds, like sunflower, pumpkin or watermelon seeds, that are roasted and salted for snacking.
**Dukkan (Arabic) is a small shop or store that sells basic grocery items and a small selection of fresh foods, comparable to a corner store or bodega.
Watermelon Caprese Salad
Prep Time: 15 minutes Cook Time: 5 minutes Yields: 2-4 servings
- 1 pound of watermelon (about 4 large slices or 1/4-1/2 of a mini watermelon), cut into large cubes
- 4-6 ounces of Akkawi, Queso Blanco or Halloumi cheese, cut into 1/2-3/4 inch squares
- 2-3 sprigs of fresh basil
- 2 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses
- 3 tablespoons of chopped almonds
- olive oil for pan frying
- cornstarch for dusting chese (optional)
On a large, flat plate, arrange the watermelon pieces leaving spaces to distribute cheese in between after preparing. Prepare the basil leaves, pomegranate molasses and almonds. Set aside.
In a small, nonstick pan, warm a few tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. While the oil warms up, lightly coat the pieces cheese in cornstarch and dust off any access. Gently place the cheese into the oil and allow it to fry until it forms a golden brown crust. This will take about 30 seconds to a minute. Flip the cheese and allow the other side to brown. When complete, place the cheese on a paper towel to absorb any excess oil.
Arrange the cheese with the watermelon. Gently tear off basil leaves and scatter them on top. Finish the salad with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and sprinkle of chopped almonds. Enjoy immediately!