Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cooking Floyd: Carving Melons

Recently a friend who was catering a wedding rehearsal dinner asked me if I could carve watermelon baskets.  I went one better and carved her a couple of swans.
Simple carved melons like this are very easy to do and I'll walk you through this one.

The tools you'll need are a very sharp paring knife, an ice cream scoop or melon baller (optional), a Sharpie-type pen, a pencil, a large bowl, and a thick pad of newspaper.  I use an Exacto blade with a pen handle for detail work.  If you get into carving melons and other fruits you can pick up a nice little carver's kit of basic blades at art and craft supply stores for a reasonable price.  Or you can invest a lot more and pick up a set of garnishing tools.  I also like to watch Chef Chang's fruit carving videos on YouTube for inspiration.

For these swans I chose two seedless watermelons that were as uniform an oblong shape as I could find.  The broadest ends became the bases.

Next I drew on paper what I wanted the finished swans to look like:
When drawing your design try to attach small weak parts to the larger design to give them added strength.  Here, the bill stays attached to the first wing feather.

I have to apologize.  I was having so much fun carving the swans that I forgot to take pictures of the initial drawing steps.  My bad.  So hopefully I can talk you through that.

Cover your work surface with a thick pad of newspaper to absorb the juice.  Using a large sharp knife, slice a bit of the bottom off the melon so it stands securely and doesn't rock.  Wipe the melon clean with a damp cloth and dry it well.

Next, draw your design on the melon with the pencil.  The pencil will leave a line that appears more like a bruise than a sharp line but will allow you to tweak without leaving permanent marker all over.  I find it's easier to draw the curve from the bottom of the neck to the first feather initially and work the neck and head from there.  Next I draw the "V" of the beak attached to the first feather and then add the head.  Then I draw in the inner curve of the neck from the head to meet with the first curved line I drew at the bottom.  I use this line as a guide when drawing the outer curve of the neck.  When you draw the outer part of the neck, make sure the bottom curve into the first feather on that side is even with the curve on the inner side of the neck.  Draw your neck and head a little larger than you're comfortable with.  It's easier to carve and you can always whittle it down later.  This is the hardest part of the process.  Drawing the rest is easy.

Next, from the top arch of the neck behind the head, draw an imaginary line across the top of the melon to the back and make a dot.  This is the top point of the tail feather.
The above photo shows the simple shape arch shape I used to represent the tail.  I then drew 4 wave-shaped feathers, each increasing in size, to meet the tail.  I made the feathers on one side a little lower to accommodate filling the bowl and spooning out the fruit salad.

Once you're satisfied with your design, go over it with the felt tip pen to make the lines easier to see while carving.

Your first plunge with the paring knife is straight in through the rind and into the meat.  Don't go in at an angle.  Follow your drawn lines using a short sawing motion.  If you've carved Halloween pumpkins, it's a lot like that.  I follow the top lines around the melon and remove the top of the fruit in quarter-melon size pieces or smaller.  Once the top of the melon is removed, I go back and carve out the smaller details, saving the inner part of the neck for last.  Remove chunks of the meat to a bowl and save for later.  I carefully cut the neck shape and ease it out when I can handle it from both sides.

So this is what it looks like all around after removal of the top:
Next, scoop out all the meat you see in the above photo.  You can do this in chunks using a paring knife.  You can use the melon baller and make nice balls as you go, but I find this time consuming and it makes my hand ache.  I like to use an ice cream scoop.  Not because it makes giant melon balls (which it doesn't, really) but because it follows the curve of the melon nicely.  Whatever tool you use, the goal is to leave a pretty, smooth layer of pink inside.

When you're finished scooping the interior will look like this:

At this point go back with your paring knife or exacto blade and on a slight angle, bevel away any permanent marker that's left and smooth out any rough edges.  Use the tip of the exacto blade to add details like an eye or to emphasize where the beak lays on the feather.

The swans can be carved a day in advance of your event.  Wrap them tightly with plastic wrap and store in the fridge.  Wait to fill them until just before setting them out on the table.

Summer feasts and melons go together and it's a great time to get carving!  The National Watermelon Promotion Board offers lots of ideas and directions for carving melons into all kinds of imaginative presentations.  Tap into your inner sculptor!

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