By Dennis Linden
Here’s the perfect summer salad side dish submitted by John Dunham, Melissa’s Procurement Category Manager and resident foodie. This light and refreshing salad is easy to prepare and pairs with just about any meat, fish or poultry that would come off a grill. John is a three-peat contributor to this blog and each recipe he submits seems to be better than the last. This one is a unique combination of winning flavors that seems just made for a warm summer’s evening of outdoor dining with the smell of hot coals and smoke in the air.
Firstly, let’s be clear about one of John’s primary ingredients, fennel. Although they share a similar black licorice flavor, fennel and anise are two different plants. What often creates confusion among these two is that fennel is often mistakenly referred to as anise by grocers. In the kitchen there is really no confusion as the whole plant (bulb, stalks and fronds) of fennel can be used in cooking; while only the seeds from the anise plant are employed as a flavoring. So if you see a vegetable-like plant in a retail produce department being marketed as “anise” it is more probably fennel.
When first submitted, John’s pairing of fennel and watermelon sounded a bit odd. That is, until tasted -- this unusual salad really works flavor wise as well as being rather brightly dazzling in appearance! It seems that opposites do attract and the marriage is helped along by John’s simple yet very tasty dressing that has flavor elements that complement each of the salad’s two main componets. The lime accentuates the sweetness of the watermelon; while the distinctive flavor of minced shallots lends an extended and pleasant aftertaste to the fennel. Chef John does it again!
John Dunham has been a member of the Melissa’s family for almost 23 years and, as stated earlier, has been a frequent recipe contributor to this feature. Why a mugshot of a young moose in lieu of John’s well-known smile is best explained by the chef himself.
“Since this is my third appearance as a Guest Chef, I was asked to come up with something different over the usual headshot. It was suggested that maybe a more seasonal picture that depicted me enjoying the summer in some fashion would be fitting. So I was telling my wife, Janet, that in thinking about August and summertime all I keep flashing on is a fond memory of running through the backyard sprinkler as a kid. To which my dear partner pointed out that those youthful days have long passed and, for her, the very thought of me frolicking in a sprinkler brought a vision of a small moose to mind. So I decided to keep it real while also saving the reader from the real thing!”
While the produce industry may deal in crops that need sunlight, much of the buying and selling of those harvests are done in the dark hours of the early morning, long before the sun comes up. As the point man responsible for keeping the flow of fresh produce inventories at Melissa’s in sync with the current supply and demand of many different harvested products, John’s workday must begin early.
“My day starts at 3 a.m. As one of the first in the office I respond to inquiries from other produce companies looking for what might be in short supply or looking to order an exclusive Melissa's product, like our steamed line or baby Dutch Yellow® potatoes, which can only be sourced through us. Daily activities also include managing and updating the company’s availability sheet as well as double-checking the daily orders to be filled against current inventories. The most challenging and fun part of my job focuses on staying ahead of the demand for our products by making educated guesses as to what is going to be needed for the next few days. I then must coordinate with growers and/or their sales brokers so that the product can be harvested if necessary, packed and delivered by the next business day. It’s a very time sensitive business, which is why my day must start so early.”
The flip side of John’s work schedule also gives him the afternoons off to enjoy a home life. It’s a perk that allows many in our industry to take advantage of being able to enjoy doing things in the afternoons with less crowds to contend with because most people are on some variation of a 9-5 work schedule. John and Janet’s home has also gotten a lot quieter these days with all three daughters, ages 25-27-29, now out and about building their own lives that includes for their proud parents a one-year-old grandson, a deployed Air Force son-in-law, a boyfriend-almost-fiancé as well as two grandcats!
“With the girls out of the roost, we were able to downsize to a condo at the beach,” John explained, then added. “After work I love to throw on the iPod and take a long walk just watching waves crash on the beach. It’s a great way to decompress from the fast pace of the office. During the warm summer months I also enjoy getting out on the water to kayak. Of course, cooking on the weekends with Janet is a favorite time and a lot more fun than going to a restaurant. At home we can cook a meal exactly the way we like it and enjoy a good bottle of wine without having to worry about driving home after!”
Another unusual and tasty recipe, John. Thank you! And a second thanks for the alternative mugshot; we are all eternally grateful that you did not provide a self-portrait, though you definitely come through in spirit. Keep on cooking and never stop running through sprinklers!
Fennel & Watermelon Salad
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Melissa’s Blue Agave Syrup
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon finely minced shallots
3 1/4 cups thinly sliced fennel bulb
3 cups cubed seedless red watermelon
¼ cup fresh mint, chopped
½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
For the dressing: whisk the first 5 ingredients together and then stir in the shallots.
Slice the fennel and cube the watermelon.
Combine fennel and watermelon in a large bowl. Drizzle dressing over watermelon mixture and toss gently. Plate individual serving garnished with mint and feta cheese.