Even though fruit and cheese tend to go together like soup and sandwich, the first time I saw watermelon and feta cheese paired up on a menu it struck me as very odd.
Apples and cheddar? Sure. Pears and Stilton? You know it. But I was sure that watermelon was much too watery to stand up to the bold flavor of feta, no matter that everyone tends to love the interplay of sweet and salt in general, and that the combo is hugely popular in Egypt, Israel and throughout the Balkans.
Well, those folks are right and I was dead wrong. Watermelon and feta are a great match — and they are at the center of this salad.
I must confess that I've only recently come to love watermelon. Part of the problem is that it always seemed kind of monstrous. You brought one home from the supermarket, chopped it into hunks, and still had to empty out your whole refrigerator to store it. These days there are options. First, of course, we can buy it in pieces and sometimes by the slice. Secondly, there are now littler guys — seedless watermelons — so called because they contain only tender little edible seeds, much like the seeds in a "seedless" cucumber.
The user-friendly new packaging aside, I also appreciate watermelon's healthfulness. The aptly-named edible is in fact 92 percent water by weight, which is at the core of its unique ability to hydrate us. Finally — and duh! — it's delicious, and particularly refreshing when accented with a spritz of citrus.
With the watermelon, feta and cucumber in place, I filled out the salad with some dark bitter greens — namely arugula — and fresh herbs. You're welcome to substitute watercress for the arugula, and any one of your favorite herbs for the mint and cilantro.
As for the onion, there's a way — if you have a little extra time — to abbreviate the lingering smell of it on your breath. Just soak the slices in a strainer set in a bowl of ice water for 15 minutes. Then drain and dry it and add it to the salad. The whole process not only tamps down onion breath, it also makes the little rascals crispier and crunchier, too.
The grilled pork tenderloin here plays the same role as the chicken or shrimp added to a Caesar salad — it turns a side dish into a meal. By the way, the tenderloin is one of the leanest cuts of pork. And so long as you don't overcook it — and give it a bit of a rest before slicing — it will be tender and juicy.
Now to the dressing, which teams up feta and buttermilk. Given its ability to provide creaminess (and tang) to a recipe without adding a ton of fat, buttermilk is one of my favorite cheating ingredients. And the feta is so flavorful — and its texture so pleasurable — that I crumbled some extra onto the finished salad.
At the end, you'll add some crunch in the form of homemade baked whole-wheat pita croutons. These are so easy to make, I never bother with the packaged varieties, which are usually deep-fried and loaded with fat.
Voila, the perfect summer meal in a bowl. Refreshing and filling.
GRILLED PORK TENDERLOIN WITH WATERMELON-ARUGULA SALAD
Start to finish: 50 minutes (25 minutes active)
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled, divided
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Ground black pepper
Two 6-inch whole-wheat pita pockets
Olive oil cooking spray
1-pound pork tenderloin, trimmed
3 cups arugula
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 cups cubed and seeded watermelon
1 cup cubed seedless cucumber
Heat the grill to medium. Heat the oven to 400 F.
While the grill and oven are heating, in a blender combine half of the feta, the lemon juice, buttermilk and olive oil. Blend until smooth. Season with pepper, then stir in the remaining feta. Set aside.
Split each pita pocket into 2 rounds. Spray the rough sides of each round lightly with the cooking spray, then sprinkle lightly with salt. Cut each round into 8 triangles. On a rimmed baking sheet arrange the triangles in a single layer. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven until golden and crisp, about 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Spray the pork with the olive oil spray, then season it lightly with salt and pepper. Grill it directly over the heat, turning it a quarter turn at a time, until a thermometer inserted at the thickest part registers 140 F to 145 F for medium, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer the pork to a plate, cover it loosely with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the arugula, onion, mint, cilantro, watermelon and cucumber. Add the pork juices from the resting pork to the feta dressing, whisking to incorporate.
Place a mound of the salad on each of 4 plates. Slice the pork crosswise into rounds 1/2 inch thick and arrange a quarter of the slices on top of each mound of salad. Drizzle the dressing on top of the pork, then divide the pita croutons between the plates. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 370 calories; 120 calories from fat (32 percent of total calories); 13 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 31 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 10 g sugar; 33 g protein; 820 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."