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Pure Summer: Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad with Arugula, Mint and Chaat Masala-Lemon Vinaigrette

An easy summer salad: Red and yellow watermelon wedges and sliced heirloom tomatoes, topped with feta and arugula in a spicy chaat masala vinaigrette. No fried chicken required...

An easy summer salad: Red and yellow watermelon wedges and sliced heirloom tomatoes, topped with feta and arugula in a spicy chaat masala vinaigrette. No fried chicken required…

Another deadly 99 degree day that feels like 110. Is there anyone who still doesn’t get global warming?

Much more of this—did I mention drenching afternoon monsoon rains?—and we’ll have a real tropical jungle outside the back door.

On the bright side, there were two plump little watermelons in our double CSA box this week. One pale green one with squiggly darker green stripes—we used to call them rattlesnake watermelons—was as yellow as sunshine when I cut it open. The other one, medium green on the outside, was bright red on the inside. Both met the criteria for being fully ripe: a yellow patch where they lay on the ground, ripening on the vine, and heavier than you expect when you pick them up.

And yes, they were sweet as sugar to the taste.

The box also offered up six pounds of heirloom tomatoes, both red and pink, and two pints of Sungold cherry tomatoes that tasted like tomato candy.

Ripe watermelon and tomatoes are, along with fresh corn, tangible signs that summer is truly here. This year everyone seems to be pairing the two in salads. I was just reading about one in The Local Palate, a new Southern food magazine, which included not only the tomatoes and melon, but also goat cheese, arugula and—wait for it—fried chicken.

Yesterday, though, I made a simpler salad based on one that I had at Asana in Boston last week. It’s a salad that could be utterly delicious or awfully blah: The secret? Use only sun-ripened watermelon and tomatoes. The melons must be very sweet and the tomatoes should be juicy, with a rich, full taste and, for balance, a bit of acidity (the amount will depend on the variety).

Soft crumbly feta cheese—I used a goat and sheep’s milk feta—adds a little creaminess and the requisite salt to bring out both the sweetness and flavor of the main ingredients. Other tantalizing notes come from the peppery arugula and the refreshing mint.

But the real surprise is the chaat masala vinaigrette. In The Indian Grocery Store Demystified, Linda Bladholm writes that in Hindi chaat means “to lick”—so by extension, “chaats are snacks or finger licking foods and light salads made from seasonal ingredients.”

The masala, or spice mixture, usually includes black Indian salt which has a sulphurous taste and aroma, as well as tangy mango powder, garlicky asafetida, and earthy, aromatic cumin. These and other flavor-boosting spices are sprinkled over chunks of fresh fruit or dishes like aloo chaat (potatoes, tomatoes and green chilies), making them positively addictive—sort of like salt and vinegar potato chips.

If you want to make your own chaat masala, you might try Laxmi Hiremath’s recipe in The Dance of Spices. Her blend omits the asafetida and adds strong-tasting ajwain seeds (related to cumin), black peppercorns, dried mint, nutmeg, cayenne and white salt to the other spices listed above. But recipes for the spice mix, much like those for Moroccan ras el hanout or Indian curry, vary depending on who’s doing the blending.

Being a lazy girl—it is summer, after all—I spiked a simple lemon vinaigrette with MDH’s Chunky Chaat, a ready-made masala which includes the asafetida, cumin seed, mango powder and black salt as well as musk melon, ground pomegranate, coriander and caraway seeds, mint leaves, dry ginger, nutmeg, chilli, cloves, white salt and Bishop’s weed (another name for ajwain).

In its “raw” form, Chunky Chaat is quite pungent, but when it’s whisked with lemon juice and canola oil, and sprinkled over the tomato and watermelon salad, the seasoning undergoes a subtle transformation, adding just a touch of spice—and a whiff of the exotic—to an All-American summer dish.
Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad with Arugula, Mint and Chaat Masala-Lemon Vinaigrette

This recipe is based on a salad I ate at Asana in the Boston Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

To serve 2

Ingredients:
2 to 3 cups ripe watermelon, cut into wedges less than ½-inch thick, rind removed; I used both red and yellow-fleshed melons
3 ripe, medium-small, heirloom tomatoes, red, yellow and green, sliced ¼-inch thick
Small handful cherry tomatoes in various colors, cut into halves
12 or more fresh mint leaves, cut into fine slivers
3 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese, made from sheep and goat’s milk, if available
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon chaat masala, or to taste
2-1/2 tablespoons canola oil
2 cups loosely packed baby arugula leaves, stems removed
¼-cup cilantro leaves, stems removed
Method:
1. On a large platter, or two salad plates if you prefer, arrange the watermelon slices in alternating colors. Sprinkle with finely slivered mint.
2. Add the tomato slices, arranging them on top and around the watermelon. Add the cherry tomato halves. Sprinkle the feta cheese over the melon and tomatoes.
3. Whisk the lemon juice and chaat masala together in a small bowl and let the mixture sit for about 5 minutes.
4. Wash and dry the baby arugula. Combine it with the cilantro leaves in a medium bowl.
5. Whisk the canola oil into the chaat masala mixture. Drizzle the tomatoes and watermelon with 2 tablespoons of the lemon vinaigrette.
6. Drizzle the arugula and cilantro with the remainder of the dressing and toss quickly. Place the greens on top of the watermelon and tomatoes. Serve immediately.

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