My last post was on the gift of a citron melon. I had cut into it to determine exactly what it was, so the clock was ticking in terms of me figuring out exactly what I was going to do with it. Uncut, the melon would have lasted months properly stored – similar to winter squash – but because I had cut into it, I needed to use it up and quickly.
I had mentioned in my last post there was a reference to the melon in the influential 1824 cookbook “The Virginia Housewife” by Mary Randolph. Leni, who happens to be cooking her way though that tome, quickly went through her library and discovered even more references to the melon in 1839’s “The Kentucky Housewife” by Lettice Bryan, which she lent me. This inspired me to look through my collection of cookbooks, although admittedly, the oldest ones I own are still from the early twentieth century. Interestingly enough, I discovered a few mentions of the citron melon in some of my older cookbooks, atlhough only one mention in all my cookbooks published AFTER 1953. That would be “Joy of Pickling” (otherwise known around here as my bible) which mentioned the citron melon was said to make fabulous pickles, but lacked any recipe. As it turns out, when I had googled citron melon recipes the day before, Linda Ziedrich’s blog popped up near the top of the list. If she had pickled this melon, she hadn’t written about it on her blog.
I began imagining this blog post as a rant on how the current food system has become this boring wasteland of the same small variety of foods, that this interesting and versatile melon has been practically dropped by the side of the road in favor of I don’t even know what. I was going to join a small group of foodie/gardener pioneers in bringing this particular heirloom back. My friend Elizabeth asked for seeds, as she suspected this is the melon her grandmother had been searching for to make watermelon rind pickles, dismissing every melon in her path as ‘not the right one’. Oh, I had plans.
And then I spent four plus hours just prepping that melon. When I say it was a beast to cut into, I was being kind. That melon as about as solid as they get. At one point, I thought I had irretrievably gotten my chef’s knife stuck. The flesh around the seeds is soft, but the remainder of it is quite firm. Think the flesh in the neck of a butternut squash. That kind of firm. And it’s slightly slick, like an aloe plant (as described by Linda). And those seeds? Chopping around the seeds is uhm, slightly tedious. But you don’t want to toss that part out because as it turns out, it’s a good portion of the melon, though it doesn’t seem like when you first cut into it. And I’d promised at least some of those seeds to various friends who would like to try growing this melon for further experiments with it which meant dealing with them. However, those seeds fly everywhere while you are trying to remove them – and I can firmly attest to that by the seeds that I keep finding in every last room of the house. Those red seeds just might be the new glitter around here – in every nook and cranny. All in all, I’d put this melon at the top of the ‘difficult to deal with’ list of produce, bumping those asshole peaches to second. (With props to Patience, who first deemed peaches assholes and well, if the shoe fits…) Suddenly, I understood exactly why this melon had fallen out of favor, if it was even that popular to begin with. The blisters and scratches I have on my hands from dealing with it are proof postive it’s a bitch to deal with.
But here I was, with ten pounds of it to play with. Two quarts became candied citron, said to resemble candied lemon peel, which apparently need days on end to dry and probably not in a week that’s been so wet that Noah set sail three days ago. Despite the fact they’ve had two fans on them to help circulate air, they spent the first 36 hours they were ‘drying’ looking like they were going to stay small puddles of ooze. I read somewhere on the interwebs as I was figuring out what to do with this melon that it could take days on end, so I didn’t get too worried. And besides, I’ve got more where that came from.
I tell you people, sometimes this heirloom food preservation business is not for the weak of heart at all. Nor the patient.
So, two quarts were not quite a quarter of the melon. What to do with the rest?
I didn’t intend to pickle this because I’m fairly well stocked with pickled watermelon rind at this point in the season. But it was purchased for me because of the superior pickling rumor…and have you met me? I pickle everything in sight. Unlike those pesky jams that need to set, pickles rarely fail. It’s why I pickle everything in sight, because as much as I’ve had jam fail, I have never, ever had pickle fail. How could I not pickle at least part of this melon? And to top it all off, there was Edie girl, in utter disbelief that I was going to pass up the chance to pickle supposedly the best melon for pickling. How could I live with myself if I didn’t pickle it? I mean, really. Why bother with any of it if I wasn’t going to pickle it?
Y’all, I had pickle fail.
I set out to make watermelon rind pickles the way I know how – I soak my rinds in pickling lime overnight to keep the finished product crisp, then simmer the drained and rinsed rinds in brine until they are translucent (usually a few hours). Only as these were simmering, I couldn’t help but notice they appeared to be getting tough – I tasted one and holy cow that sucker was HARD. Watermelon Rind Jerky.
I did my classic, turn off the stove, walk away and paid attention to something else in the meantime rather than face my own pickle failure. And there was plenty of something else to pay attention to – I had a batch of citron jam simmering away on another burner and I was still chopping the remainder of the melon, which was scattered about the kitchen and dining room in two quart portions in various bowls and containers because every recipe I found seemed to use the melon in two quart portions.
I realized I had an entire quarter of that melon left with no plan. I decided at least part of it would be another batch of pickled, minus the pickling lime solution. Being unable to bring myself to throw out the pickle fail, I threw it in a bowl and started a fresh batch of watermelon rind pickle.
Meanwhile, I had decided to follow the citron jam recipe from my 1949 “The Good Housekeeping Cookbook“. It was almost identical to the citron jam recipe in my 1943 “Joy of Cooking”, minus cloves. Both called for 1 quart of water to 5 cups of sugar to 2 quarts of fruit. The yield on both recipes was about 2 pints, so I decided I’d make a double batch. That way, I’d definitely have something I could share with my foodie friends, because let’s face it, what’s the point in making a bunch of stuff with a good sized heirloom melon no one’s heard of if you can’t share it?
And that’s when I had jam fail.
In case you’re wondering, at this point I was still chopping that damn melon, with those freaking seeds flying all over the house. I thought long & hard about opening a bottle of wine, but it was only 2 pm and I was terrified I’d cut off a finger in dealing with that melon.
I suppose if I had spent a few more hours cooking the jam down, it would have set. Citron melon is high in pectin, which I discovered when I went back to my cooled failed pickles. The brine had not turned into a syrup, but rather was hardening into a caramel like substance and the once hard ‘pickles’ had slightly softened. The end result was interesting and Edie, now home from school, agreed with me. Think similar to something you’d use in a fruitcake. So I jarred it up and along with the other batch of pickled rind (which she also deemed ‘interesting’) canned it. Meanwhile this morning, the jars of the pickles (both the limed & unlimed) had set firmer than any of the jam. Go figure. It’s definitely not like my usual pickled watermelon rind, but as I was unsuccessful in finding a recipe specific in dealing with this melon, I shall have to put it on my list for next season.
Where was I? Oh, that’s right, jam fail. It seems the added water in my vintage recipes was not necessary, so instead of yielding 2 pints (or 4 half pints as I was expecting) of jam, I yielded 5 1/4 pints of thin, sweet sauce. Despite the fact that it passed the spoon test, the jam did not set overnight. However, thanks to some of the reading I’d done over the last few days, I found quite a bit of older recipes for citron cream. I poured a jar of the still warm sauce over vanilla ice cream for dessert for Edie & myself last night and it was declared a winner. So all is not lost.
The newer recipe I found for citron jam did not call for added water, but instead tossed the fruit with sugar and let it macerate overnight. Because of my predisposition to jam fail, I chose to make one batch of jam at a time, leaving my frustration and chance to fail rate slightly lower than had I attempted a double batch first time out of the gate. It’s one lesson I have learned the very hard way over the years that I absolutely preach to my canning students about – small batch is the very best way to approach jams.
Suddenly, the real reason this melon fell out of favor hit me straight between the eyes – the lack of good recipes in which to deal with it. I had decided to try the newer method of letting the fruit macerate in sugar overnight in my second batch, in part because I didn’t know how the chopped melon would fare overnight in the fridge. This morning when I got up, I dumped that bowl in a pot and turned on the stove. About three and a half hours later, that jam was ready. I yielded 3 pints rather than two, but that yield is far closer to the original than the first batch of jam.
Wait, I’m still not done with all that melon. That’s how big it was. I also got a batch of vegetarian mincemeat out of it (it’s titled vegan mincemeat there, but if I use the word vegan around here, no one will eat just on principle, despite the fact that my formerly self described meatetarian has recently declared herself a vegetarian.). That recipe went off without a hitch, although I did realize after I had jarred it up I had forgotten the brandy but since I had no brandy on hand, I just poured some bourbon directly into each jar, then stirred it in as I was bubbling the jars. That works, right? I yielded slightly more than the 4 pints stated in the recipe I followed, but that’s okay, as I still have a few pint jars left in my stash and I definitely want to share this with a few of my mincemeat loving friends.
I still have some diced citron melon in a bag in the fridge, but I’m out of lids, I’m running low on jars and I’ve used 10 pounds of sugar if not more in dealing with this melon over the last few days. I’ve decided I’m going to experiment with freezing it, aka, taking the lazy way out and shoving that shit in the freezer to deal with at a later date. I might try this recipe or see if I can’t track down the Australian pie recipe I’ve read about.
I realize this is an overly long post, but like my approach to the melon, I chose to just sit down and write about it in one fell swoop. The photos are definitely not outstanding, in part because of the six days of rain we’ve had, my small dark house and in part because my DSLR died, leaving me to use my trusty old point & shoot, which is nice, but definitely not the quality of my now deceased Canon. It works for the time being though.
And that friends and readers, is my adventure in dealing with a previously unknown heirloom melon. I suppose there are some life lessons you can apply to this, like when life hands you mystery melons, you make everything you can out of it and see what’s good. Everything is edible if you add enough sugar & spice.
Despite the fact that I had pickle AND jam fail with a small case of worrying about candying fail, despite the fact that I named the citron melon the least amenable produce to deal with, I definitely want to get my hands on another one of these melons to play with. It can wait until next year, but I am determined to come up with the best pickle out of it.
Because that’s why I was given the thing to begin with. And I will pickle that.