A salad short of a picnic
Between Labor Day, Shakespeare in Ramsey Park, friends' birthdays, and the Fourth of July, it's starting to seem like I've spent most of my life at picnics. And I'm running out of new things to bring. Any ideas?
Ah, picnics. In theory, they're a bucolic exercise in civic pride and camaraderie, a chance to explore your local parks and enjoy the sunshine with a few good friends. In practice, though, picnics often disappoint. There are too many strangers with screaming children, inevitably someone gets a sunburn, a hike-jostled soda explodes on someone's shirt, the grass prickles your legs, and you sweat so much you start to look like you're running a very sad amateur wet T-shirt contest. And since this is Texas, there are bugs (lots and lots and lots of bugs), in direct competition with you for the last scoop of sun-wilted, mayonnaise-slathered pasta salad.
But it doesn't have to be this way. With the correct combination of location choice (somewhere swimmable), company (close), and food (non-mayonnaise slathered), picnics can be the best part of an Austin summer. You need something simple, uncooked, featuring the freshest, best ingredients our fair city has to offer. You need something that won't collapse in the considerable heat. You need watermelon feta salad.
It's the perfect thing to eat on muggy afternoons when you don't want to eat anything at all, sharp spikes of flavor against a balmy sweet background of cold watermelon, a little spicy, a little salty, hydrating, cool and sweet. It only improves as it sits, so you can throw it in a plastic container, toss it in the trunk, and take it with you wherever you're going. The best part is that it only takes about five minutes to throw together.
Find a watermelon at your neighborhood farmers' market, something small that gives a satisfying thump when you tap it. If there's a yellow spot on the bottom, that's a good sign that it's been left on the vine to ripen long enough for the sugars to develop. If there's a little hollow around the stem, that's even better; it means that your melon probably fell off the vine rather than being picked. Carry it home in your arms, embodying the spirit of Baby from Dirty Dancing, and cut it up into large chunks.
Next, buy a big block of solid feta. No, not one of those sad little pre-crumbled packets; they're a total rip-off and of uniformly subpar quality besides, with a strange chalky grittiness to them. They'll disintegrate and coat your melon like library paste. You can pick up a chunk from local favorite Pure Luck Dairy, which makes an exemplary goat cheese feta, grassy sharp, salty, and assertive enough to stand up to the sweetness of the watermelon. Or, if you want more options, Phoenicia Bakery and Deli has at least five varieties of sheep's milk feta in stock: Bulgarian, French, Greek, domestic, and even Danish. My favorite is the French, which has a mineral tang, and a full, creamy mouthfeel. While you're there you can pick up a gasoline-can-sized tank of young olive oil, sharp, green, so delicious it'll make you look upon ordinary grocery store EVOO with patronizing disdain. Crumble into large chunks and toss with the sliced melon.
Sprinkle the bowl with large handfuls of fresh mint and basil, about half a cup each, torn up coarsely in your hands. Thai basil is best here; it's a little less sweet than the Italian variety, and has an interesting, almost medicinal bite to it. Besides, the purple leaves look outrageously beautiful against the pink melon, like the platonic ideal of a sunset. But if you can't find any Thai, Italian basil is more than fine. Mix everything up with your hands, drizzle a few tablespoons of that good olive oil you got at Phoenicia over the top, and finish with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt. Throw it in the backseat of your car, and get thee to the Greenbelt!