Cool, Hot Watermelon From Geeta Bansal of Irvine's Clay Oven

The cucurbit's a natural for curry

For a restaurant open 27 years, Irvine’s Clay Oven feels remarkably fresh. Owners Geeta and Praveen Bansal project the enthusiasm we associate with fledgling restaurateurs—the good ones, anyway. They travel frequently, bringing home ideas and influences from some of the world’s best chefs. Recently in France they met Paul Bocuse, and, closer to home, Michael Voltaggio at Ink in Los Angeles.

But Geeta, the restaurant’s executive chef, is no stranger to innovation. Her holiday tandoori turkey, a 17-year tradition, is locally famous. You might want to keep in mind what I just discovered: The turkey can be special ordered throughout the year.

Geeta cooks traditional Indian dishes as well, but always with personal twists. She believes that what’s on the plate tells a story—the chef’s story. Part of her own story is reflected in the unusual recipe for watermelon curry, which she shares with Taste of Orange County. Watermelon, cooked? Slightly—not so unusual when you consider melons are part of the cucurbit family, along with squash and cucumbers. This is one of those happens-to-be-vegan dishes that could come in handy at a dinner party..

Watermelon Curry from Geeta Bansal

This dish is common in northern India in summer, when not too many vegetables are available. According to ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine) it’s a cooling dish, and also lighter to digest in hot weather.—Geeta Bansal

Seedless watermelon

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1-inch square fresh ginger, finely minced

½ teaspoon roughly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon cayenne

½ teaspoon turmeric

1 serrano chili, seeded and julienned

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Remove and discard watermelon rind. Cut enough flesh into 1-inch cubes to make 3 cups, saving trimmings and remaining flesh. Set cubes aside.

Put watermelon trimmings (not cubes) and any juice from cutting board in blender container and blend to rough purée, adding more watermelon flesh as necessary to make 2 to 2 1//2 cups liquid. Reserve.

Heat oil in wide sauté pan, add cumin seeds and sauté until browned. Add garlic and ginger and cook briefly, but do not brown. Add watermelon liquid, coriander, cayenne, turmeric, and salt to taste. Lower heat and simmer until sauce reduces by roughly half. Add watermelon cubes, serrano chili, and lemon juice. When watermelon is heated through, add chopped cilantro. Serve hot, over basmati rice tossed with green peas, quinoa, or couscous.