The Fat of the Land

Month: July, 2015

Melon’s Savory Side

Proscuitto e melone

This summer delicacy is best when sliced and served unadorned at the height of ripeness. Perhaps because it is so perfect alone, the melon’s reputation as a desirable ingredient doesn’t reach much beyond fruit salad and sorbet. Melon also seems rife with limitations—loose (and in the case of watermelon, watery) flesh, nearly cloying sweetness, and delicate floral qualities that, added up, seem to repel the idea of any course but dessert. However, melons do have an ambitious and intriguing savory side and, given the right kind, will even take a little heat. Try one of these techniques to explore a world beyond the melon ball.

Add some salt to its sweet.  Melon’s pervasive sweetness seems made for salty accouterments.

  • Try tossing cubed watermelon with feta cheese and mint (link to recipe)
  • Combine honeydew with cucumber, feta, and dill (link to recipe)
  • Treat yourself to the classic Italian appetizer, prosciutto e melone, which is delightfully easy to make as long as you have some thinly sliced prosciutto lying around (link to recipe)
  • Don’t be afraid to substitute other cured meats for the prosciutto: crispy fried pancetta, strips of bacon, or even a slice of salty cheese all make delicious pairings

Give it some heat.  Melon’s juicy texture and ample sweetness are the perfect companion to capsicum heat.

  • Sub watermelon for tomatoes in a fresh salsa (link to recipe)
  • Marinate cubes of watermelon in sriracha vinaigrette for a spicy and satisfying snack (link to recipe)
  • Forego the stove on a hot summer evening with this refreshing—and picante—melon gazpacho (link to recipe)

Think inside the spice box.  Salt and pepper aren’t the only game in town when it comes to seasoning melons.

  • Make a refreshing cold soup, like this masala-spiced, Spanish-inspired gazpacho (link to recipe)
  • Treated more like a sweet potato than a dessert fruit, a quick caramelizing sear and toasted caraway seeds make cantaloupe seductively savory in this simple and delicious preparation—try subbing cumin seeds for a variation on the theme (link to recipe)
  • Melons make a great substitute for mango in this cantaloupe cardamom-spiced lassi (link to recipe)

Go green.  Sweet, juicy melon makes a accompaniment to spicy greens, such as arugula, cress, frisee, mizuna, or baby mustard.

Give it grill marks.  A brief spell on the grill adds smoky, caramelized depth to melon sweetness.

  • Make this smoked paprika dusted grilled cantaloupe (link to recipe)
  • Throw a few watermelon slices on the grill to eat plain as a smoky alternative to the picnic classic. Or, why not make it a cheeseburger? (link to recipe)
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Summer’s Sweetest Bite

Melon

If summer could be concentrated into one single dish, it would be a wedge of dripping red watermelon. The flavor equivalent of jumping into a lake—cool, refreshing, slightly vegetal—watermelon is an antidote for hot days. Blue whale of the fruit world, it takes a village to eat a full-size watermelon, so we gather around them at picnics, potlucks, and parties. I, for one, never tire of the show: the huge green fruit, the big knife, the rocking, the crack as it splits, the smell of cucumbers and sugar, the firecracker red.

Most of the year, I avoid melon—those ubiquitous fruit salads that adorn lunch and brunch plates year-round—because the fruits must be picked under-ripe in order to survive the journey from Central America and California. Melons get their sugar on the vine; while some of their flavor components continue to develop after they’ve been harvested, they don’t get any sweeter. Melons picked with shipping and storage in mind are soulless things—watery, rigid, and bland.

Member of the cucurbit family, melons are cousins to squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Although the exact location varies by species, melons are generally believed to have originated in Africa, where they were one of the first domesticated plant foods (they have been in cultivation for an estimated 7,000 years). From there, they spread by human dispersal to India, the Mediterranean rim, the Middle East, and Persia, and, slightly later, to China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Eastern Europe.

Ancient people dined on melons for some of the same reasons we still do today. Seventy- to ninety-percent water by weight, melons are like botanical pop cans, and those ancestral species had a knack for drawing water up from underground springs, imbuing it with flavor and (a few) calories, and storing it safely within an orb of thick waxy skin. Their presence signaled an invisible oasis, and their tart flesh offered desert people a much-needed source of hydration.

The first melons were not sweet, and thus were treated more like vegetables in the various culinary traditions that adopted them, cooked in stews or sliced and served raw as a salad, dressed with spices and vinegar. Over time, sweet-fleshed mutations appeared and growers began selecting for this appealing trait.

With sweetness also came fragrance. Italian orange-fleshed melons grown in the papal summer residence of Cantalupo were favored by generations of popes and their gardeners, a popularity that traveled to other outposts of the Catholic heirarchy. These cantaloupes, as they were called, reached their pinnacle in the Provencal village of Cavaillon, which became famous for melons that exuded fragrance as thick and floral as jasmine. These unique melons still stir feverish mania among Cavaillon locals and visitors alike. Known as Charentais melons, a name that clings to them from a stint in the slightly more northerly region of Charente where this particular melon strain was purportedly first developed, their heart will always belong to Cavaillon.

In our country, cantaloupes are a far cry from their European brethren. The variety we know as cantaloupe is not even in the same botanical group. An orange-fleshed muskmelon, American cantaloupes can also be sweet and fragrant, but they often aren’t, for reasons of distribution and storage. That makes the farmers market the best place to buy top quality melons—the sort that made generations of pharaohs, emperors and kings want more, and captivated the tastebuds of three continents long before the Old World bumped into the New.

Though most of us have gorged on countless melons without hesitation or thought, knowing how to shop for one is not as intuitive. Rough-skinned types are easier: since they “slip” from the vine once their sugars are fully developed, they should not have a stem (if so, they were picked to early). The stem end should be fragrant when sniffed, the skin below their bumpy reliefs a pale tan, not green. Watermelons and honeydew offer fewer clues, as they do not slip from the vine or exude fragrance outside their rind. Look first for the “ground spot,” the discolored area where the melon was in contact with the soil—it should be pale yellow, not green or white. Then, give the fruit a sturdy knock. If the sound seems to travel back to you from inside the fruit (implying hollowness) the flesh is ready; if the thud stays right where you’ve knocked it, pass that melon by.

All melons benefit from a day or two’s rest on the kitchen counter. Although they will not get any sweeter, other components of the melon’s flavor (and nutritional value) continue to develop at room temperature. Don’t store them in the refrigerator (it’s too cold to allow flavor components to synthesize) until you’ve sliced them open, at which point they’re ready to chill a bit before eating or to store for a few days, if they last that long.

Riding the Heat Wave

green tomato

We don’t want to, but we know the heat wave drill. After the last three weeks, we definitely know—shut in our houses with the curtains drawn, the box fan on high, dreading dinnertime and its fire-breathing stove—that all we can do is ride it out. Some people claim to love the heat, as if it were imbued with restorative properties in which they rarely get the chance to braise. But at a certain point, we all wilt, drooping and dripping through our day, finding excuses to go to the grocery store and stroll the freezer aisle.

Plants aren’t so different. Some, like my spring kale, start to go limp once the Fahrenheit reaches a sunny 76, perking up again each evening when the sun gets low. Others wait for the heat, sitting stubbornly in 65-degree cold until they see the kale wilting and know it’s safe to strut their stuff.

But plants have their limit, too, and for many it culminates at 115-degrees, the cell destroying temperature for the majority of species. We are familiar with a plant’s most visible response to heat stress: wilting. Just like we produce sweat, plants release water vapor through tiny holes in their leaves in an attempt to regulate the temperature around them. If a leaf releases too much water, it looses turgidity (wilts) and, if conditions don’t improve, eventually turns crispy-brown. Between perfect conditions and death-by-heatwave lies a whole spectrum of largely invisible reactions to rising temperatures, some of which may be of interest to hungry gardeners.

Take tomatoes, a common garden plant that we associate with hot summer days. It’s true that tomatoes largely shut down below 50-degrees, refusing to grow again until the weather begins to more closely resemble their native jungle habitat. However, anyone with a few plants out back may be wondering why, despite an unusually warm June, their tomatoes seem to have entered a holding pattern. Market shoppers may have noticed that even though the summer feels like it’s already deep into August, tomato selection remains limited.

This is due to a few temperature-sensitive quirks of tomato physiology. While tomato foliage remains sturdy in the heat, their flowers and fruits only thrive in the rather narrow range between 70- and 85-degrees. Tomatoes self-pollinate, meaning their male and female parts are located in the same flower. Wind, insects, and your fingertips are all sufficient pollinators, as it takes no more than a little jiggle to help the pollen hop from stamen to nearby pistil. Tomato pollen is usually available for hopping between the hours of 10am and 4pm, though temperatures above 85-degrees render it gummy and immobile. If, after two days, the pollen is unable to fertilize the ovary, the flower, admitting defeat, falls to the ground—a phenomenon known as blossom drop.

But let’s say that our heat wave sleeps in one morning and the pollen makes it. Now the ovary begins to swell into a fruit. Tomatoes require a specific foliage-to-fruit ratio to achieve proper ripening—drawing not only on the plant’s energy reserves to infuse the fruit with sweetness, but on leaf-synthesized flavor compounds that will add complexity and fragrance to the mix. Because leaves are essential to tomato development, the plants must continue growing more foliage to meet the demands of newly set fruit.

This puts our heat-wave tomatoes in a conundrum. In the best of scenarios, the foliage-fruit balance requires a certain amount of precision. In the heat, when a plant is sometimes faced with life-threatening conditions, it abandons nuance for subsistence. Above 85-degrees, a tomato uses most of its energy just to keep from drying to a crisp. At 94-degrees, photosynthesis becomes sluggish at best, cutting off a plant’s ability to replenish much needed energy reservess. Staying cool costs the plant all the energy it would have otherwise invested in ripening fruit.

Add to this equation one final limitation. Most tomato varieties rely on two pigments for their signature ruby-ripeness: carotene and lycopene. When exposed to temperatures above 85-degrees, these pigments stop synthesizing. Almost-ripe tomatoes entering a heat wave will hang on the vine with that I’m-nearly-there yellow-orange color, inspiring unrequited thoughts of caprese salads and gazpacho until the heat breaks.

With sufficient water and any but the most pitiful soils, tomatoes will whistle right along until the thermostat hits 85, at which point they’ll start putting the breaks on fruit production. At 95, they enter survival mode, a temperature at which I, too, have little else on my mind.

While gardeners have few tools at their disposal with which to convince tomatoes, and most other flowering and fruiting plants, to mature in the midst of a heat wave, they can prepare their plants to better cope with a week (or three) of heat, and recover more quickly once it’s over. Irrigation is key; water deeply before a heat wave, and use drip irrigation when possible to ensure the water is going straight to the root zone, where your plants need it most. A thick bed of mulch helps to moderate soil temperature and protect it from drying sunshine and winds. Resist fertilizing before or during a heatwave, which will promote tender new growth that is completely unprepared to withstand the harsh conditions.

And finally, summer is not a good time to prune. A healthy head of foliage helps a plant provide its own shade as well as photosynthesizing replacements if and when cell death does occur on the front lines. If you feel the compulsion to remove something, take a load off your tomato plants and cull a few green fruits. Those left behind will ripen that much faster.

Calabacitas

IMG_1693

For most gardeners, the story of Cucurbita pepo varieties grown for their immature fruits generally goes like this: as the plants’ lobed leaves quickly grow to jungle-proportions, you eagerly anticipate the first yellow-orange blossoms, watching for their green, finger-shaped fruits, delighting as they begin to appear in abundance. But after a few copious weeks, you start to wonder how you will keep up. You feel the panic of fruits, heavier now, piling up on the counter; the weariness of repetitive sautés. It is about this time, when your sarcastic remarks about ditching a bag on your neighbor’s doorstep begin to take on a tone of intention, that some well-meaning person suggests, “Time to make zucchini bread!”

While zucchini bread certainly makes zucchini taste more like cake, it is not the most efficient way to rid yourself of a bumper crop. Most recipes call for a mere cup or two of grated zucchini—amounting to one moderately sized fruit—along with which you must eat an entire loaf of sugary bread. No, zucchini and their entourage of summer squash, the most efficient of garden producers when measured at a rate of bulk to time, demand an equally efficient cook.

We are used to seeing zucchini, cocozelle, pattypan, summer squash, crookneck and the like through a European lens. Zucchini itself is an Italian word, and the Italians maintain a long-standing love affair with these tender, somewhat watery, mildly bitter summer fruits, one that has resulted in a litany of recipes whose scope and skill implies a culture familiar with zucchini’s infamous profusion. Italian recipes don’t skimp on the zucchini, putting its sometimes-challenging texture front and center more often than not. Indeed, zucchini are often billed as an Italian invention, a claim that is partially true.

Zucchini belongs to the colorful and diverse tribe known as Cucurbita pepo. Thicker-skinned ancestors of the modern day zucchini likely accompanied Columbus when he returned from his Caribbean voyages. The curious vining plants with gourd-shaped or pumpkin-like fruits passed through horticultural circles and were grown, along with tomatoes and eggplant, as ornamental curiosities by a population uncertain of their edibility.

Ethnobotanists theorize that C. pepo’s native range stretched from Central America along the Eastern Seaboard north to Quebec. Archeological evidence dates the domestication of C. pepo as far back as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The first cultivated squash were likely grown for their gourds—the fibrous, bitter flesh ignored for the watertight vessel it left behind. The next phase of selection probably focused on the gourd’s seeds—a calorie-dense, storable food—and eventually on the starchy flesh of mature fruits.

Finally, the indigenous people of Central America and Mexico (and those of the eastern U.S., where it is believed C. pepo was domesticated contemporaneously) began to breed, through careful selection, a squash whose immature fruits were fine-textured and mild. Enter: calabacita, the Mexican name for zucchini-like immature squash fruit. To say the Italians invented zucchini is true—Italian gardeners fervently selected for the smooth, dark-green-skinned fruits we mean when we use the term ‘zucchini,’ as well as striped, fluted fruits known as cocozelle—but only if you ignore the thousands of years of indigenous selection that occurred long before Christopher Columbus was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.

With a long history of cultivation inevitably comes generations of experimentation in the kitchen. Though they rarely make it onto the menu of a typical north-of-the-border restaurant, calabacitas are a mainstay of traditional Mexican cuisine. Ubiquitous in stews and sautéed in endless variation, calabacitas make easy companions to any of their Mesoamerican sisters—beans, corn, tomato, eggplant, peppers—many of the same vegetables we associate with Italian zucchini.

While the calabacita is, technically, a specific summer squash variety (it often appears by the name ‘gray zucchini’ in U.S. seed catalogs), it’s close enough to European-bred varietals like true zucchini, cocozelle, and crookneck that they make a fitting substitute. At heart, all summer squash are all calabacitas—Mexican zucchini. My favorite variety is Costata Romanesca, a firmer-fleshed, nutty cocozelle type that is a prolific producer, keeps some firmness when cooked, and is still tender enough to eat even when my neglected fruits have grown a foot long. I have one plant in my vegetable patch, enough to keep me busy for months.

This year, I’ll skip the zucchini bread in favor of dishes that embrace calabacitas’ abundance and heritage—holding onto Old World favorites like zucchini and ricotta pie, fritters, quick tomato and zucchini stews with Parmigiano cheese, ratatouille—while exploring their New World roots by pairing them with chiles, lime, cream, cilantro, avocado, cumin. No zucchini gardener should ignore a promising lead.

Zucchini, Mexican Style

Work your way through these recipes and you’ll soon have a feel for the humble zucchini’s agility in Mexican cuisine. When shopping for summer squash, choose medium-sized fruits (baby zucchini tend to be bitter and bland) with smooth, shiny skin that feel firm and heavy in your hand. Don’t limit yourself to the standard dark green zucchini—try striped cocozelle, frilled pattypan, warty crooknecks, yellow straightnecks, or even the delightful ‘Tromboncini’ (an immature gourd with delicate, nutty flavor whose firm, dry flesh needs light cooking to soften).

Zucchini and Corn with Cream: This classic southwestern side dish, also called Calabacitas, is deceptively simple: its straightforward ingredient list transforms into flavor big enough to be the main course. (Link)

Zucchini and Avocado Salsa: Capitalizing on raw zucchinis’ ability to draw fresh flavors into its crisp-textured flesh, this salsa makes for a refreshing side salad as much as a healthy dip. (Link)

Pork with Zucchini and Corn: Hearty and satisfying, this traditional stew is a perfect one pot meal. (Link)

Grilled Mexican Zucchini Boats: Inspired by elotes—Mexican grilled corn flavored with chili powder, lime, and mayonnaise—this easy preparation replaces the corncob with zucchini boats for a quick summer dinner. (Link)

Squash Flower Soup: Zucchini blossoms are a gardener’s delicacy, picked when their flavor is most potent—before the late morning sun begins to whither them but after pollinators have had a chance to visit. This soup highlights squash blossom fragrance in a quick-cooking, rustic vegetable stew. (Link)