Adam Erace Adam Erace battles adult on-set diabetes and cankles as the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia City Paper. He also writes about food and travel for publications like Details, Fodor's and Southern Living. He lives in South Philly with his wife, Charlotte, and two rescue mutts, Lupo and Marco.
Each month, Adam Erace picks a crop that’s in season locally right this very minute and asks some of the city’s best chefs how they’re preparing it.
As the 2013 cucumber crop comes to a close, there’s a small consolation prize. Meet the cucamelon, or mouse melon, or Mexican sour gherkin, depending on which chef you ask.
“They’re all different names for the same thing, Melothria scabra,” explains Will’s Christopher Kearse. While its Latin taxonomy makes it sound like a nefarious mummy enchantment, the cucamelon is much less sinister, and has a refreshing crunch and lip-puckering tang.
“I first saw them at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago back in ’06 and then rarely saw them in Philly,” says Kearse. Happy Cat Farms was the first place he bought sour gherkins locally, for super cheap at the Headhouse Square farmers’ market. “From what I gathered from the farmers, they were not something that sold very well. Fast forward a couple years and they’re much more popular.”
“They look like grape-sized watermelons with a taste and texture similar to a cucumber,” says chef Josh Lawler. At Lawler’s The Farm and Fisher-man, thin-sliced gherkins have garnished grilled Spanish mackerel with caramelized plums, almonds and Sungold tomatoes, while pickled ones have lent acid to his take on a Greek salad, with heirloom tomatoes, feta, grilled peaches, basil and husk cherries. “It has an interesting texture and not many people are familiar with it, so it’s fun to serve to guests.”
Kearse compresses cucamelons in tomato water and seasons them with caramelized honey and saffron, the respective garnishes for his summer oysters and octopus. “They’re pretty interesting to see on a plate. Many guests think they’re watermelons.”
If you’re dining at Fork in the next few weeks, you might catch some sour gherkins on Eli Kulp’s menu. “They’re a cuke, so they pickle well. I just pulled them off the lacto ferment,” he says, a process in which naturally occurring lactobacillus converts sugars like sucrose and glucose in the melons into lactic acid. “I treat them just like dill pickles [and] use them on the vitello tonnato dish.”
Kulp calls his lacto-ed cucamelons “nice little pops of acid.”
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