Doing more with melons
Published in FSD Update
Operators struggle against seasonality and availability when satisfying high demand for melons.
Be it sweet watermelon, classic cantaloupe or humble honeydew, non-commercial operators know seasonality rules when menuing melons. Lucky operators like Eric Ernest, executive chef for USC Hospitality at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, can—and do—take advantage of local melons grown year-round. But it’s not just melons’ availability that makes them one of Ernest’s favorite fruits to work with.
“Melons are very versatile—from traditional fruit trays to compressing it—and the fruit’s flavor really lends itself to a wide range of dishes,” Ernest says. “Other fruits you can only do so much with, but with melons, the options are endless. Melons work well with sweet, salty, spicy and vinegary flavors. It’s not necessarily common to have something that’s so good on its own that also pairs so well with so many different flavors.”
Ernest’s department has done some innovative things with melons, such as using compressed versions in dishes for special events. To compress fruits such as watermelons, they are placed in a vacuum bag and all the air is removed. Ernest says the process essentially breaks the cell structure of the melon to create more flavor in less space.
“The watermelon comes out looking like a piece of raw tuna,” Ernest says. For one dish that featured this application, watermelon was infused with a bit of orange blossom honey, Thai basil vinegar and fresh basil and then compressed in a vacuum sealer. The compressed melon was served with marinated mozzarella, some shaved radish and a balsamic reduction.
Beyond compressing melons, USC Hospitality offers a number of items with melons, including melon and prosciutto plates and fruit soups.
“We make fruit stocks with puréed melons and melon trimmings,” Ernest says. “We add some simple syrup or citrus juices to make those into fruit soups, which are a really refreshing addition to a dessert buffet or as a part of a dessert duo.” USC also makes a gazpacho where watermelon is used in place of tomato. Cucumbers, beets, celery, coriander, cumin, olive oil and fresh bread, for thickening, join watermelon in the soup, which is served with a rice-crusted scallop. A spicy version is also made with serrano or habanero chilies.
Beyond watermelon, USC also offers compressed Tuscan melons, which are marinated in a light elderberry syrup and served with a lime pickle and citrus caviar. The department also used the same Tuscan melon to garnish a mushroom carpaccio.