Saturday, July 19, 2008

Talkin' Bout My Cucamelon

(to the tune of  "Talkin' Bout My Generation" with apologies to the Who - and ok to you as well if you are that easily offended..sheesh!.)

In our CSA baskets this summer we have gotten a wonderful array of cucumber melons, dubbed "cucamelons" by David Pitre of Tecolote Farms. These are Italian precursors to the more familiar and readily available hybridized cucumbers you'll see everywhere, but size and a few treatment considerations aside, they are just about identical in taste and texture to the garden variety cuke. Grown since Roman times, they have become popular again as many gardeners and farmers are turning to the heirloom varieties for their proven endurance.I like them for two reasons. First, they are Italian! What's not to like about that? I am discovering, via the newsletter reporting of the Pitres as an adjunct to our weekly baskets, that a lot of the Italian heirloom fruits and veggies do pretty well in our hot Texas summers.

Secondly, they are HUGE. I wish I could carefully avoid any potentially tasteless "would you get a look at the size of those melons" type riffs, but seriously, these cucamelons are in Dolly Parton territory easily. Gotta love larger when it comes to delicious summertime treats.

With a preponderence of cucamelon on hand, I have been keeping a watchful eye out for potential ways to enlarge my cucumber repertoire. I've already covered how much I like cucumber sandwiches. I've already waxed poetic over the delights of gazpacho. I've shared my favorite cucumber salad with you and yet I STILL had more cucumbers to use. What do to?

Enter Avocado-Cucumber Soup, a recipe I stumbled across recently on the Serious Eats website. This recipe intrigued my interest for several reasons. First, sure, because it would help me use up my cucamelon stash. But the simplicity of the recipe, and the inclusion of several ingredients I have growing my back garden already (although many of them stubbornly unready for harvest yet), pushed this over the top. Even though my sweet husband has declared his steadfast dislike of chilled soups, I took the note off the SE site seriously that as well as a chilled appy for two, this recipe would make a perfectly acceptable meal for one person. Off I went.

Here is the recipe and to follow it I offer a little primer on handling cucamelons and jalapeños for the uninitiated: 

AVOCADO-CUCUMBER SOUP
- Serves 2 as an appetizer or 1 as an entrée -
Adapted from Serves One by Toni Lydecker.
Ingredients
1 Hass avocado
1 cup peeled, seeded, chopped cucumber
2 tomatillos, quartered
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 small serrano or jalapeño chile, halved lengthwise, stemmed, and seeded, membranes removed
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons chopped cilantro (optional)

Procedure:Run a knife lengthwise around the avocado and twist to separate the halves. Lightly strike the pit with a knife blade and twist to remove. Score the flesh with a knife and scoop it out with a spoon.In a blender or food processor, combine the avocado, cucumber, tomatillos, onion, chile, and salt. Add 1 cup water. Blend until the mixture is pureed, adding more water if necessary for a soupy consistency.

Chill well. Sprinkle with the cilantro, if using.

So how do you handle this ginormous melon of a cucumber differently? Easy as this...you cut the melon in half.Then you scoop out the seeds. After that, you peel and slice as you would any other cucumber.

You'll note the recipe calls for a small serrano or jalapeño chile, halved, stemmed, and seeded. If you have never tried this on your own, let me share with you the need for a little respect when it comes to capsaicin and peppers.Capsaicin is what puts the varying degrees of "pep" into peppers and not only renders peppers as inedible to most predators, but has an array of healing properties as well. You can spend all the time you wish learning more about capsaicin, but centrally what you need to know when cooking with peppers is that you want the capsaicin to stay on your knife and/or cutting board and OFF your hands.

The very best way to do this and avoid a chemical burn story all your own is to wear gloves. Seriously. You can try to not get any on your hands and you can try to wash it off your hands but you can still burn your eyes or your nose by touching them even hours later. Using gloves while handling peppers allows you to skip the painful lesson.

The capsaicin mostly resides in the seeds and membranes of any pepper which is why you will see a similar instruction to "halve, stem, and remove seeds and membranes" in most recipes calling for hot peppers in the mix. The pepper half on the right is a little capsaicin bomb, ready to burn anybody careless enough to get close. The pepper half on the left is still plenty much heat bearing, but used that way in a recipe it will not actually burn your mouth in the soup the way touching it will chemically burn your eyes. Even after the seeds and membranes are out, I don't touch the peppers while I am chopping them. I've already proven to myself that my eyes are not magically immune to the horrors of a capsaicin exposure just because I have a high tolerance for eating hot peppers.

One other note. You may be saying to yourself, "well, hmmmm, I haven't seen a red jalapeño before- maybe she is confused about what kind of pepper she's got and I can ignore the other things she is saying about caution and peppers?". I feel you there. These were the first red jalapeño peppers I had ever seen either and I know they are jalapeños because they have come off the plants in my garden.

Apparently, when you leave a plant on it's own indefinitely they will not only grow peppers but those peppers will eventually turn red, just like a bell pepper will if it is left on the plant long enough. It does not seem to have affected the heat or taste at all, they are not especially sweet I don't think, but maybe a little less testy than a green pepper might be? It is my experience that different plants in different soils under different growing conditions produce different peppers in terms of their heat, so there you go.

Here is the soup - beautifully green despite the little red pepper I used.It is amazingly rich and delicious and maybe I am crazy but it has this salty lively taste that makes it an almost meaty experience in your mouth.  This little soup is a powerhouse of flavor that is ready in under 15 minutes, glove time included.Even if you don't have tomatillos, jalapeño and onion in your back garden, or cucamelons lurking in your vegetable bin, this deliciously fresh recipe is well worth a run. In terms of summery goodness, this soup hits an awful lot of high notes. Try it and see- soon you'll be singing it's praises on your own.

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