Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Gourd news: In summer, cold supper can still be sign of a warm heart

Renee Studebaker
Combined with serrano chiles and cilantro, honeydew or a blend of melons makes a refreshing, tangy summer soup.

By the end of August, even diehard Austinites are sick to death of summer. Some even make threatening noises about moving to Portland. But then inertia takes over (or is that heat exhaustion?) and they retreat a little deeper into their air-conditioned caves where they daydream about early cool fronts and ice-cold melon plates.

Or is that just me?

Well, even if you don't dream about melon plates, I'm sure I'm not the only cook who wants nothing to do with a kitchen stove when it's 98 degrees outside at dinner time. My significant other (Joe) graciously accepted my aversion to cooking on hot summer nights early in our relationship. He and his daughter, Annie, even gave my impromptu cold dinners a name — Renee Plates.

Lately, I've been making a lot of Renee Plates, partly because it's so dang hot and partly because I have a lot of melons to eat. A few are from my backyard garden, and a few more are from the downtown farmers market, which is swimming in sweet summer melons. And then there's the organic Pecos melon I just had to buy when I stopped by Central Market the other day. Pecos melons (a sweet, sweet cantaloupe grown in the melon fields of West Texas for almost 100 years) aren't as plentiful as they used to be, so I wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to try an organic one.

If you were to show up at my house for dinner this week (a purely hypothetical example, of course — not a dinner invitation), you'd probably get a cold plate of sliced Israeli melon, sliced cucumber, leftover purple hull peas and a small hunk of leftover pork roast, all drizzled with homemade basil oil (a purée of basil leaves, olive oil and salt). Oh, and I'd probably throw on a few "Sungold" salad tomatoes from the garden, the only tomatoes still producing during this most recent hot spell.

Or I might keep it simple and cut a cold Pecos cantaloupe in half, scrape out the seeds, place a dollop of creamy herbed goat cheese in the seed cavity and hand it over with a spoon and a salt shaker. (For even more flavor and texture, top melon halves with a few slivers of frizzled prosciutto or good quality smoked ham.) Voilà! Instant cold summer dinner that comes in its own bowl. A bowl that can be tossed into the compost pile instead of the sink when you're through eating.

To paraphrase a well-worn expression, I bet a hot August night in Austin has been the mother of many cold dinner plate inventions.

For more ideas for adding melon to your summer menu, check the below.

rstudebaker@statesman.com; 445-3946

___

If you find yourself with a bounty of melons, put on your inventor's cap in the kitchen. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Instead of tomato, add melon cubes to your next panzanella salad.

Brush slices of melon with olive oil and grill briefly on both sides. Serve with smoked pork tenderloin or grilled chicken.

For a quick breakfast, top melon slices with a tablespoon of plain yogurt, a squeeze of fresh lemon and a drizzle of honey. Add toasted pecans for extra protein and crunch.

Combine melon balls with mozzarella balls, olive oil, lemon juice, fresh basil and salt and pepper for a refreshing twist on Caprese salad.

Blend puréed cantaloupe with cream (or half and half), simple syrup, rum and ice for a dreamy daiquiri.

Make a cantaloupe cream pie. Top the pie with toasted melon seeds.

Toss a handful of cantaloupe cubes into your next pot of white bean soup.

Sprinkle chopped crystallized ginger on a chilled melon quarter.

___

You say cantaloupe; I say muskmelon

The orange-fleshed, beige-netted round melons you're used to seeing in grocery stores have been called cantaloupes practically forever, so this is perhaps a picky point, but according to most botanical and horticultural sources, they're actually muskmelons. True cantaloupes also have orange flesh, but they're rarely available in the United States unless you grow them in your own garden. European cantaloupes have little or no netting and are sometimes covered in warty bumps.

__

Keeping it all in the family

Botanically speaking, all melons (including muskmelons, cantaloupes, honeydews, and watermelons), as well as squash, gourds, loofahs and cucumbers, are in the same plant family — they're cucurbits. That would seem to suggest, culinarily speaking, that a cook could have some fun mixing up cucurbits in the kitchen. Butternut squash tastes good with pasta, so why not try cantaloupe with pasta? A cold cucumber soup recipe could easily morph into cold honeydew melon soup. And instead of zucchini bread, how about Armenian cucumber bread? And just in case you don't already know this: The gourds of the loofah vine are edible when they're immature. When they get big and tough, harvest, peel, shake out the seeds and soak in a pan of water for about a day. Then place in a sunny warm spot so they can dry out. When dry, cut into squares and use as kitchen sponges.

___

MELON RECIPES

Cold Melon Soup With Serranos and Cilantro

2 cups honeydew melon, or mix of honeydew and galia, peeled, seeded and cubed

2 Tbsp. lime juice

1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

1 tsp. serrano pepper, chopped, or more to taste

1/2 tsp. salt

4 Tbsp. cream or half-and-half

2 Tbsp. plain yogurt

2-3 Tbsp. fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

Water if needed to thin soup

Place all ingredients except cilantro and water in processor and purée until smooth. Add cilantro and pulse briefly until it is chopped fine. Taste, and if soup seems too thick, add a couple tablespoons of water. Chill for two hours before serving. Garnish with sprig of cilantro or basil. Serves 4.

— Renee Studebaker

Shredded Pork Roast Tacos With Roasted Red Pepper and Melon Salsa

Shredded Pork Filling

2 Tbsp. canola or peanut oil

2-3 tsp. chili powder

2 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. cayenne powder, or to taste

11/4 cups roasted pork shoulder, coarsely shredded (see recipe below; or use leftover pork chops or tenderloin)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. lime juice

1 medium tomato, chopped

1/2 cup sweet melon, peeled, seeded and chopped (if your melon isn't very sweet, add ?1/2 tsp. of honey or maple syrup)

1 Tbsp. cider vinegar

1-2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Corn tortillas

Add oil and powdered seasonings to a hot skillet and then stir in pork. Cook uncovered over medium heat until meat is lightly caramelized. Stir in tomatoes, lime juice, melon and vinegar and scrape any brown bits from bottom of pan. Add a little water if more liquid is needed to deglaze pan.

Add garlic, cilantro, salt and pepper; simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes, or until melons are tender and falling apart and pork mixture is moist but not drippy.

Stovetop-roasted pork shoulder:Heat a heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat. While pan is heating, salt and pepper both sides of meat. Place meat in hot pan and let it sizzle and brown for about 5-7 minutes. Then flip it over and sear the other side. When the second side is brown, place a tight-fitting lid on the pot and reduce heat to low. Cook for about 1 hour, or until roast is fork tender.

Keep lid on tight for about 20 minutes before checking roast to make sure it is creating its own broth. If you see 1/4 inch or so of liquid in the bottom of the pan, all is well. If not, add a cup of water or broth, cover with lid and continue cooking until tender.

Salsa:

1 cup sweet melon, cubed (I used a mix of Pecos cantaloupe and honeydew)

1/2 cup sweet onion, chopped

1/2 cup pan roasted sweet red Italian peppers or other red pepper, chopped (see note)

1 or 2 serrano peppers, seeded and finely chopped (more or less to taste)

1/4 cup small salad tomatoes, halved (home garden varieties such as ‘Sungold' or ‘Sweet 100' would be good)

2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped, or more to taste

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Salt to taste

Combine all ingredients, and chill while preparing shredded pork filling.

To serve tacos: Lightly crisp both sides of corn tortillas on hot, dry skillet. Keep tortillas warm until all are heated. Spoon warm pork filling onto tortillas, top with salsa and serve. Serves 4-6.

Note: In the summer, I like to roast peppers in a dry cast-iron skillet so I don't have to turn on the oven. Remove pepper stems, seeds and ribs and slice in strips about 1 inch wide. Lay pepper strips flat on a hot skillet and cook over medium-high heat for a few minutes or until skin is lightly browned. Then turn strips and brown other side.

If pepper strips won't lie flat, weight them down with another heavy skillet. Remove from heat and allow to cool before chopping.

— Renee Studebaker

Pasta With Cantaloupe Cream Sauce and Spicy Italian Sausage

This sounds a little strange, but you must try it. Cooking with cantaloupe is a little bit like cooking with butternut squash, one of its cucurbit cousins — you just have to make allowances for the extra water content in the melon. The dish was inspired by Emeril Lagasse's cantaloupe pasta recipe in "Farm to Fork" (HarperStudio, $24.99).

About 1/4 pound of spicy Italian sausage

2 Tbsp. butter

1/4 cup shallots, minced

3 cups ripe cantaloupe, diced

1/2 cup whole milk (or ?half-and-half)

1/2 tsp. salt or more to taste

Black pepper, freshly ground, to taste

8-10 oz. of pasta, linguini or fettuccine

2/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Meanwhile, heat a large heavy stainless skillet or sauté pan. Remove sausage casing and crumble sausage in pan. Stir and cook over medium heat until meat is lightly browned. Using a slotted spoon, remove sausage to a bowl and set aside. Pour out all but about 2 tablespoons of sausage drippings. Return pan to medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon butter and shallots to pan. Cook for about a minute, stirring often. Stir in remaining butter and melon cubes, and continue cooking until melon softens and breaks down into a sauce, about 10 minutes.

If some of the melon seems slow to break down, mash it into the bottom of the pan with a potato masher or fork.

Return sausage to pan, add milk, salt and pepper and continue cooking for a few more minutes until sauce has reduced to a thick and creamy consistency. Remove the cream sauce from the heat.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain well, and reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water. Add the pasta to the sauce along with half of the cheese. Return pan to medium heat and toss gently until pasta is well coated with sauce. If sauce seems too thick to toss, add reserved pasta water. Serve topped with remaining cheese. Serves 4.

Variation: Use good-quality thick-cut bacon instead of sausage, and season with pepper flakes and fresh marjoram (or oregano). Another good addition? Sautéed sweet red pepper.

For more seasonal recipes and garden tips, visit Renee's blog at statesman.com/go/reneesroots