Watermelon's prime time extends into fall
Watermelon, adorned only with flaky sea salt, can be had for dessert at Woodberry Kitchen. Simple slices of fruit aren't typical high-end restaurant fare, but the dish is noteworthy for another reason: It will be on the menu through fall.

Cold and juicy, watermelon is the quintessential summer fruit, one that many people forget about once the weather turns cool. But the melons are in season in Maryland through September and, if conditions are right, early October.

"We'll keep it on [the menu] for as long as it's around," said Spike Gjerde, chef-owner of Woodberry Kitchen. "We'll keep getting it reliably for another month or so. … As long as it's great, you should have it on there."

As chefs and ordinary consumers focus more on local foods, watermelon is finding more late-season fans. That trend is helped along by non-traditional recipes that incorporate the fruit into hearty, cool-weather dishes like pulled pork. The watermelon industry is even hoping the big, green-skinned spheres could sub for orange gourds at Halloween.

"Save a pumpkin, carve a watermelon," say stickers plastered on supermarket watermelons.

Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art will be serving a watermelon cocktail called Summer Harvest even after the leaves turn. The drink combines the sweet flesh and spicy pickled rind of sugar baby watermelons (from Schillinger's Farm in Severn) with mint from the restaurant's garden.

"The spiciness of the pickled rind and the tequila make it a nice transitional drink from summer to fall," Jon Carroll, farm manager for Gertrude's, said in an email. "Vodka (well, people always like vodka) and rum are a little more summer-oriented, while whiskeys and cognacs are a little more fall and winter. Tequila falls into a nice middle."

Not everyone thinks watermelon deserves a spot with apples and grapes in the autumnal cornucopia.

Chef Bryan Voltaggio of Volt is hardly a traditionalist, specializing as he does in molecular gastronomy. And he has certainly made creative use of watermelon inside his Frederick kitchen. He subjects the watery flesh to a vacuum machine, causing juice to squeeze out and cell walls to compact. The juice is reduced to a syrup; the compacted flesh diced. Then both are tossed with peppers to create a relish for topping a $33 poached halibut entree. Yellow doll watermelon shows up in a $16 fluke sashimi starter.

But watermelon in autumn? That's somewhere even Voltaggio wouldn't go. Not because it's too out-there. It's just that in the fall, this young chef's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of apples, root vegetables and all the other new arrivals at the farmers' market.

"I think the season sort of adjusts your palate," he said. "That's why I love this area. ... I want to transition into a new season, because I'm excited about the next thing, the next season."

He also thinks watermelons aren't at their best in fall.

"I like to get them when they're the peak of ripeness and on the minds of my guests," he said. For Voltaggio, that means through Labor Day weekend. Then that's it until next summer, with one exception: house-pickled watermelon rind, which he serves year-round alongside charcuterie.

Woodberry also makes watermelon rind pickles. And it serves a popular summer cocktail, called the Farmer's Daughter, which combines juiced watermelon with cucumber-infused vodka. It will not be available much longer this year, but only because local cucumbers fade away before watermelons.

Regardless of whether it remains on fall menus, watermelon has come a long way since its days as simple picnic fare.

It stars in a $10 Pazo appetizer: Local Yellow Watermelon & Nectarine Salad with Jalapeno-Goat Cheese Sauce and Wood-Grilled Pork Belly. Restaurateur Tony Foreman also suggests serving watermelon wrapped in Iberico ham and drizzled with 50-year-old Spanish vinegar. (If you're wondering, he'd pair that with Champagne or cava or Ribolla Gialla Spumante.) He also likes a spicy gazpacho made with watermelon, chiles, yellow heirloom tomatoes, cilantro and Marcona almonds. (Wash that one down with a dry Oloroso sherry.)

Woodberry offers Buttermilk-Watermelon Swirl Sherbet that Gjerde says is "second to none." He'll keep it on the menu as long as he has the watermelons, and the freezer capacity (he has room for six flavors), and the pastry chef's attention. If the pastry chef is itching to try something new, the sherbet "might get bumped by something else," Gjerde said.

These new takes on watermelon all sound good to Charles Wright IV, who every year raises about 2.5 million pounds of the fruit on Cornerstone Farms, a 45-acre spread on sandy, melon-friendly Eastern Shore soil in Mardela Springs. He harvests most of his melons between July and September, and knows some farmers who grow them into October.

He appreciates efforts to drum up interest in watermelon past summer, whether by inventive chefs or the Orlando-based National Watermelon Promotion Board. The board came up the idea to put watermelon-carving stickers on the fruit around Halloween, and has cooked up new watermelon recipes and posted them at its website (www.watermelon.org). They include watermelon pulled pork and a flatbread pizza that incorporates watermelon juice in the dough.