PORTLANDERS HAVE turned recycling into an art form. We repurpose jelly jars as darling candleholders, turn old work memos into scratch paper, and transform frightening pig parts into delectable artisan sausages. But when it comes to produce, we usually toss our seeds and peels onto the compost pile without hesitation. And no fruit comes with as many of both as the watermelon: for every drippy slice we enjoy, we waste a nearly equal amount of thick green rind. That’s why, when attempting to wring every bit of life out of the quintessential summer treat, it pays to listen to a Southerner like Tricia Butler, who sets the undervalued castoffs in a spicy-sweet brine, transforming the outside into a classic, no-rind-left-behind, down-home staple: watermelon pickles.
Butler, a South Carolina native, is the proprietor of Sassafras Catering, a local outfit that puts a Dixieland spin on Northwest ingredients. In addition to her jambalaya, tomato pies, and flaky biscuits, Butler has developed a line of artisan condiments inspired by her culinary upbringing. “I grew up in a house with apple chutney and sunchoke relish in the pantry,” she remembers. With the help of executive chef Erin Meeker, Butler updated the traditional Southern recipe for watermelon pickles, balancing their sweetness by boosting the heat, and now employs the spunky spears to garnish deviled eggs, spark up a feta salad, and round out plates of cheese and charcuterie.
Sassafras bathes its Oregon-grown watermelon rinds in a snappy mix of vinegar, sugar, and spices, and then allows them to sit and cure for a month as the seasoning permeates, the rinds soften, and the flavors bloom. According to Butler, taking the time to let flavors develop is a true hallmark of Southern cooking. “It’s the real slow food,” she says. Meeker agrees: “Whether it’s a 45-minute roux or pickles that have steeped for a month—you know you’re eating a lot of time and care when you’re eating Southern food.”
1 large watermelon
2 cups rice wine vinegar
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
2 cups cane sugar
2 star anise flowers
2 bay leaves
4 tsp black or tricolor peppercorns
1 ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
(1) WASH the melon thoroughly.
(2) QUARTER the melon and scoop out the flesh to enjoy on its own, leaving about a quarter-inch of pink on the rind.
(3) PEEL the skin off, leaving as much of the rind as you can.
(4) CUT the peeled rind into pickle-size strips and place in a large, nonreactive (glass, ceramic, stainless steel, or plastic) bowl.
(5) COMBINE remaining ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil for at least 5 minutes.
(6) POUR the hot brine over the watermelon rind.
(7) COOL brine to room temperature, cover, and place in the refrigerator.
(8) ALLOW the rinds to brine for at least a week, and enjoy. (Rinds will keep in the fridge for at least one month.)