One of the most common ways that Italians show their pride is by wearing or displaying the national colors (red, white and green). National pride might also explain why the similarly colored watermelon is so popular in Italy and why it’s not uncommon to see street vendors selling wedges of watermelon during summer festivals and other celebrations.
Watermelon also plays a key role in many Italian holidays. During the Assumption Day celebrations – a major religious holiday observed throughout Italy – a watermelon feast is held in Venice to help “keep community ties.” In the Italian city of Villa Lagarina, legend has it that when a truckload of watermelon arrived in the 1920s, the townsfolk were astonished by the look of the fruit and placed the bounty in the fountain at the center of town. The tradition continues to this day with the “watermelon fountain” being filled each year during the three-day celebration.
Watermelons are about 93% water, the highest water content of all fruits. They are also rich in potassium, one of the elements the body loses through sweating, as well as vitamins A and C. Watermelon’s sweetness is due in large part to some of the aromatic compounds it contains, yet they are low in calories. Watermelons originated in Tropical Africa and are in the same family that also includes cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash and zucchini. They were first cultivated by the Egyptians thousands of years ago and arrived in Europe in the 1200s with the returning Crusaders.
People quickly realized the value of this fruit during the summer months and, as they became known amongst the country folk, they picked up local names: Anguria in much of Northern Italy, Cocomero in Tuscany and Melone D’Acqua (water melon) in parts of the south, especially around Naples. Their popularity continues and the annual Italian watermelon crop is between 550 and 600,000 metric tons, which translates to about 100 million watermelons. They first appear in the Italian markets in May and the season lasts until the beginning of September.
Growing watermelons can be complicated. Not only because there are three basic types: normal, hybrid and seedless but each type needs a different culture. Watermelons need healthy, warm soil. Once the seeds are pollinated and there is sufficient heat, a watermelon will mature in about four months. Another important consideration is the fact that watermelon vines appreciate sufficient water, but overwatering can be a problem if the vines are not grown on fast draining sandy soils. Probably the single most common modern cultural practice in watermelon culture is the use of black plastic to cover the raised beds on which the melon plants are planted. The black plastic heats up the soil and this is quite beneficial. Watermelon fruits produced on black plastic will usually produce earlier and more quickly and with sweeter fruits.
In Italy, many growers now grow watermelons in polytunnels – a tunnel made of polyethylene, usually semi-circular, square or elongated in shape. The tunnels significantly improve the speed of growth and sweetness of the fruits, as well as protecting the fruits from physical damage. Growers who use polytunnels are almost obligated to hand-pollinate, just because attracting enough bees inside the tunnels is a difficult task.
Italian Watermelon Ice
Makes about 5 cups
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3-pound piece chilled watermelon
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
In a small saucepan simmer the water with the sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Transfer the syrup to a bowl set in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and stir occasionally until the syrup until cold.
Discard the rind from watermelon and cut the fruit into 1-inch chunks. In a blender purée the watermelon chunks, syrup and lemon juice. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a 9-inch square metal baking pan, pressing hard on the solids in the sieve. Freeze the mixture, covered, until frozen, about 6 to 8 hours. The mixture can be left in the freezer for 2 days. Just before serving, scrape the watermelon ice with a fork to lighten texture and break up ice crystals. Serve in the traditional paper cups.
- 2 cups watermelon cubes
- 1 cup vanilla frozen yogurt
- 2 pinches ground cardamom
Combine the ingredients in a blender and purée. Serve immediately.
Watermelon Salad with Hot Pepper and Basil
Makes 4 cups
- 2 cups watermelon chunks
- 3/4 cup minced red onion
- 1/2 cup seedless grapes, quartered
- 1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons minced hot chili peppers
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and toss well. Allow the flavors to blend before serving.
Grilled Chicken Topped with Watermelon Salad
- 4 medium-sized chicken breasts
- 1/2 small watermelon, cut into large cubes
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 1 small onion, diced fine
- 1 pinch paprika
- 1 pinch cumin
- 1 Lemon, zested
- 4 tomatoes, diced into large pieces
- 1/2 cup olives, pitted and chopped
- 4 roasted red peppers, thinly sliced
- Half of a small eggplant, peeled and sliced
- 10 sun-dried tomatoes, sliced in half
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for the grill
- 1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped
- 1 cup feta cheese, broken into bite-sized pieces
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat an outdoor or indoor grill. Brush with olive oil. Brush the chicken and eggplant slices with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cook chicken on each side for 5-6 minutes, or until cooked to 165 degrees F. Remove chicken to a clean plate to cool. Cook the eggplant about 2 minutes on each side, remove to a cutting board and cut into small dice.
Heat a small skillet over medium heat and add the 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic and onion. Sauté for 1-2 minutes, then add the diced eggplant, paprika, cumin and lemon zest. Cook for another minute.
Remove to a large bowl and add the fresh tomatoes, olives, roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes and mix gently. Stir in the parsley leaves, watermelon and feta.
Cut chicken breast into thin slices and place on individual plates. Evenly divide the tomato watermelon salad between the plates.
Grilled Tuna with Watermelon Salsa
- Two 5 ounce fresh or frozen tuna steaks, cut 3/4- to 1-inch thick
- 1/4 teaspoon ground oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon finely shredded lime peel
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup chopped seeded watermelon
- 1/2 cup chopped yellow or orange sweet bell pepper
- 1 green onion, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons snipped fresh mint
- Lime wedges (optional)
Rinse fish; pat dry with paper towels. Place fish in a large resealable plastic bag set in a shallow dish. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the ground oregano, the lime peel, lime juice, olive oil, 1/8 teaspoon of the crushed red pepper and the salt. Pour over the fish in the bag; turn to coat fish. Seal bag. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 to 60 minutes, turning bag occasionally.
For the salsa:
In a small bowl, combine the chopped watermelon, bell pepper, green onion, mint and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper. Set aside.
Drain fish, discarding marinade.
For a charcoal grill, grill fish on the greased rack of an uncovered grill directly over medium coals for 6 to 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork, gently turning once halfway through grilling. (For a gas grill, preheat grill. Reduce heat to medium. Place fish on the greased grill rack over direct heat. Cover and grill as above.)
Serve fish topped with watermelon mixture. If desired, serve with lime wedges.
- 2 Stellar Watermelon Recipes to Get Your Taste Buds Ready for Summer (organicauthority.com)
- Grilled Watermelon and Goat Cheese Salad (whipadish.com)
- Marinated Watermelon And Tomato-Cucumber Salad (watchhatchfly.com)
- Why Watermelon Water is the New Biggest Thing (shebudgets.com)
You can enjoy foods at a picnic and still walk away with your shorts buttoned. It just means making the right choices—and no, you don’t have to limit yourself to corn on the cob and watermelon. Just skip (most of) the worst choices; the best ones are often just as satisfying.
Choose: Veggies with hummus. Fill up on vegetables first. You can have a full cup of sugar snap peas for 60 calories (0 grams of fat). Add 2 tablespoons of hummus (50 calories, 3 grams of fat) and you have a fiber-rich snack for just a little more than 100 calories.
Choose: A hot dog is a lower calorie meat choice. Enjoy one on a roll with your favorite toppings (with lower-cal toppings like mustard, relish or just a little ketchup) and you’ll come out around 300 calories, 17 g fat.
Choose: Coleslaw can satisfy a craving for something creamy for far fewer calories (83, with 3 grams of fat per cup). Low-cal cabbage is also a rich source of isothiocyanates, compounds that amp up the body’s natural detoxifying enzymes.
Choose: A frozen fruit bar (100 calories, 0 grams of fat) or even a scoop of vanilla ice cream: 140 calories, about 5 grams of fat.
Choose: Light beer. A 12-ounce bottle generally has a little less than 100 calories. Or go for the best choice of all: zero-calorie flavored seltzer or water.
How To Plan a Healthy Picnic:
Take Advantage of Seasonal Fruits & Vegetables
The more colorful produce you add to your menu, the healthier the meal. Choose brightly colored summer fruit such as peaches, berries, cherries and watermelon. Bring some simply grilled vegetables (use a low-fat salad dressing for a marinade) such as corn, zucchini, Portobello mushrooms and red peppers.
Crunchy Appetizers & Low Fat Dips
Pack your cooler with a variety of crisp, raw veggies like cucumbers, carrots, celery, asparagus tips, cherry tomatoes and radishes. Take along a nutritious dip such as hummus, salsa, fat-free bean dip, or low-fat yogurt with herbs and spices.
Take a Second Look at Salads
Potato salad, pasta salad, tuna or egg salad… although they carry the word salad in their name, it does not mean they are calorie controlled, or heart healthy choices! Instead of mayonnaise, use dressings made with less oil and more vinegar to save lots of calories. Using salad dressings that contain acidic ingredients such as vinegar or citrus instead of mayonnaise not only cuts fat but helps keep foods safer at room temperature. When making salads use whole grain pasta; try a brown rice salad or whole-wheat couscous salad. Combine cherry tomatoes with green beans and whole-grain pasta and add a little pesto for a nutritious salad that travels well. Your best bet – use lots of salad greens, cooked beans and raw veggies to make a true salad that will fill you up with fiber without the extra calories.
Add Some Whole-Grains to Add Some Fiber
Breads, rolls, and starchy salads can pile on lots of calories. So always check the food labels to make sure you are making reduced calorie choices when selecting your starches. In addition, make them whole grain for added nutritional value, as whole grains have additional nutrients and fiber.
Main Dishes can be Healthy & Light (and not necessarily fried)
Skip the fried chicken, and make a variety of wrap sandwiches. They’re easy, portable, and fun for the whole family. Start with whole grain wraps and fill them with healthy stuffings such as grilled vegetables, lean cold cuts (turkey, ham, roast beef or chicken with low-fat cheese), grilled chicken, hummus and cucumbers. Be sure to add lettuce, tomato and other veggies to your wraps for added fiber. And use mustard, low-fat mayo, or other light condiments to save calories.
Lighten Up the Grill
Buy 93% lean ground beef for burgers (ground turkey breast and veggie burgers are great options too). Choose from a variety of reduced fat, nitrate-free or turkey hot dogs. Top off your selections with low-fat cheese. You can also grill skinless chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, or any type of fish for a light and nutritious meal. You will save lots of calories with these heart healthier choices.
Beat the heat with plenty of ice water, sparkling water, unsweetened iced tea, and an assortment of low-calorie beverages. Save your calories for the food, and rely on calorie free drinks to hydrate you and quench that summer thirst. You can mix seltzer with a splash of cranberry juice or any fruit juice for just a touch of flavor without too many calories.
A colorful fruit platter or fruit salad is sure to satisfy even the most discerning sweet tooth. Don’t forget watermelon. If you must have cake. cookies, brownies, or cupcakes, keep the portions small.
Here are some ideas for your next picnic menu.
Lemon-Garlic Marinated Shrimp
- 3 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 1/4 pounds cooked shrimp
Place garlic and oil in a small skillet and cook over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper. Toss with shrimp in a large bowl. Chill until ready to serve. Transport in a container with an ice pack.
Lighter and Leaner Pimento Cheese
- 1 cup finely grated Cheddar
- 1/2 cup finely grated low-fat mozzarella
- 2/3 cup plain nonfat Greek-style yogurt
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 green pepper, finely chopped
- 1/2 red pepper, finely chopped
- 1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
- 6 celery ribs, cut into 4-inch pieces
- Garnish: paprika
In a medium bowl, add the Cheddar, mozzarella, yogurt, chives, salt and pepper, green and red peppers and jalapeno. Stir well to combine. Spread 1 tablespoon cheese mixture into each celery rib. Garnish with paprika.
Note: Store remaining pimiento cheese mixture in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 1 week.
Garden Fresh Tortellini Salad
- 1 pound fresh or frozen spinach tortellini
- 1 pound fresh or frozen cheese tortellini
- 1 head broccoli (1 pound), broken into florets and tender stems sliced
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut diagonally into ¼-inch slices
- 3 leeks (white part and 2 inches green), well rinsed, dried, and cut into thin julienne
- 1 large sweet red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into julienne
- 1 large sweet yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into julienne
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- Finely grated zest of 1 orange
- 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
1. Cook the tortellini in boiling salted water according to package instructions. Remove from boiling water with a large strainer. Drain thoroughly and place in a large mixing bowl.
2. Keep water boiling and add the broccoli florets, stems, and carrots. Cook just until tender. Remove vegetables with a large strainer. Drain and combine with the tortellini.
3. Blanch the julienned leeks 1 minute in the boiling water; drain. Add the leeks, red and yellow peppers, and fresh basil to the bowl with the pasta and vegetables; toss to combine.
4.Combine the dressing ingredients and add the thyme, orange zest, and salt and pepper.
5. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to coat thoroughly. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Serve slightly chilled.
Sweet Potato Muffins
- 1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into cubes
- 1 1/2 cups King Arthur whole-wheat pastry flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray.
2. Add the sweet potato chunks to a pot of boiling water and boil for about 15 minutes. Drain and puree in a blender or food processor or mash well with a fork.
3. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.
4. In another bowl, whisk together the egg, applesauce, sugar, canola oil, and vanilla. Add in the mashed sweet potato and mix again. Add to the flour mixture and mix until just combined.
5. Pour the batter evenly into the prepared muffin cups. Bake for about 15 to 17 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the muffin comes out clean.
6. Remove the muffins from the oven. Let the muffins cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then turn out onto a cooling rack.
Watermelon Squares in Campari
Campari is a bitter, red, aperitif from Italy. It compliments the sweet taste of the watermelon.
One 5- to 6-pound watermelon, halved lengthwise
1/2 cup Campari (or any Aperitifs of choice)
- Using a very sharp knife, slice the rind from the bottom of each watermelon half. The halves will now lay flat on a cutting board.
- Working from top to bottom, trim the rind from the watermelon flesh in 4 cuts, creating 2 large squares. Cut each square in half to make 4 smaller squares. Cut the squares vertically into thirds. Rotate counterclockwise and repeat the cut. Rotate once more counterclockwise and cut into thirds again.
- Serve in large paper cups with 2 tablespoons of Campari drizzled over the top
- Picnic Perfect Recipes (fitnessandfeta.com)
- Healthy Salads: Creamy Buttermilk-Herb Potato Salad (thismamacooks.com)
- Your Best and Worst Food Choices At A Barbecue (wdok.radio.com)
- 17 Nutritionist-Rated Salads in Washington (washingtonian.com)
- Save Over 700 Calories at Your Cookout with These Easy Swaps (self.com)