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Sweet summer fruit pairs well with savory foods

It's hard to resist picking up a few of the perfectly ripe, juicy watermelons piled up at the grocery stores and farmers' markets these days. I personally prefer to cut the melon into chunks and eat it the minute I get home from the store.

But be sure to save some melon for later recipes - watermelon's tangy sweet flavor is actually enhanced by savory and salty foods. Watermelon pairs naturally with many seafood, chicken and pork dishes, and is also complemented by salty cheeses such as feta.

Celebrity chef Harry Schwartz developed several savory watermelon recipes for the National Watermelon Promotion Board, including the fun-to-make Watermelon Crab Cups, which are perfect for brunches. He also pairs watermelon with minced pork in elegant Asian inspired lettuce wraps.

Another fun idea from the watermelon board is to create a game of watermelon checkers for a children's birthday party: Cut equal size 1⁄2-inch-thick squares of watermelon and a favorite cheese (cheddar or colby would probably work well). Arrange the squares into a checkerboard on a serving tray. Cut small circles of the watermelon and cheese to use as the checkers, and use toothpicks to play the game.

TV journalist Tom Brokaw's wife, Meredith, writes about her own favorite savory watermelon dish in her new cookbook "Big Sky Cooking" (Artisan, $35). The book is full of stories and recipes from the Brokaws' ranch in Montana. Her recipe combines the natural sweetness of watermelon with crumbled feta cheese and ground black pepper.

Brokaw often makes the sweet and salty feta and watermelon salad when she picnics with her group of friends, the Whistle Creek Women, who have bonded over numerous hiking, riding, canoeing and camping trips. She suggests serving it with a lunch feast of bison burgers, potato salad, cilantro stew and fudgy brownies.

"Who would have thought that feta cheese and black pepper together would enhance the taste of watermelon?" asks Brokaw in the book.

Minced Pork and Watermelon Lettuce Wraps

1 pound lean ground pork

1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic

1 tablespoon fresh minced ginger

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 cup fresh chopped scallions

1 cup Hoisin sauce

1 cup toasted pine nuts

1 cup minced seedless watermelon

8 large Bibb (or iceberg) lettuce leaves

In a heavy, non-stick skillet over high heat, brown the pork until well done. Reduce heat to medium and add the garlic, ginger and soy sauce to the pan. Stir for a few minutes and then add the scallions. Remove from heat and add the Hoisin sauce and pine nuts. Stir to mix well. Fold in the watermelon. Divide among the lettuce leaves, wrap and serve immediately.

Source: Recipe developed by chef Harry Schwartz for the National Watermelon Promotion Board.

Watermelon Crab Cups

6 to 8 watermelon cups

1⁄2 cup mayonnaise

1⁄2 cup sweet pickle relish

1 teaspoon minced fresh dill

1⁄2 cup chopped celery

1⁄2 cup chopped scallions

2 hard boiled eggs, chopped or grated

1 pound cooked crab meat, rinsed and picked over for shells

Make the watermelon cups by cutting 3-inch tall and 3-inch wide cylinders of seedless watermelon. Hollow out the cylinders to form "cups," reserving the watermelon from the center for another use or a snack. Keep the cups on a paper towel until ready to fill and serve. The cups can be made ahead of time, covered on a tray and refrigerated until ready.

Make the filling by mixing together the mayonnaise, relish, dill, celery, scallions and hard-boiled eggs. Fold in the crab, then fill the watermelon cups. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Watermelon and Feta Salad

3 cups watermelon, seeded and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Coarsely ground black pepper to taste

1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

In a large bowl, combine the watermelon, feta and a few generous grindings of the black pepper. For a little more zing, add the red pepper flakes, if you like. Serve immediately.

Source: "Big Sky Cooking" (Artisan, $35) by Meredith Brokaw and Ellen Wright.

Melon with Feta and Pine Nuts

6 cups watermelon chunks

1⁄2 small red onion, minced

1⁄4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, plus leaves for garnish

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1⁄2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1⁄4 cup toasted pine nuts

Put melon, onion, mint, lime juice and pepper in a bowl and toss to mix well. Top with feta cheese and pine nuts. Chill until time to serve. Garnish with mint leaves.

Source: "Wedding Showers" (Gibbs Smith, $9.95) by Jennifer Adams.