Pistachio green in color with a powder-like coating that dusts the fingers when touched, tung gwa, sufed kaddu, togan and fak—the names of this squash vary depending upon what Asian country you’re in— aren’t typically found at American farm markets.
But winter or ash melons, as they’re called in the U.S., are also available at the St. Joseph Farmers Market. Grown by Vedette Cordis and her mother Virginia Palis at the family orchard and farm on Tabor Road in Sodus, Michigan and sold along with their large assortment of produce, the large globes which vary in size and can weigh up to 70 or so pounds, are great for soup and stir-fry.
Cordes planted winter melon after being contacted by Ron Goldy, Michigan State University Extension Senior Educator who works with the vegetable industry and is stationed at the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center.
“A couple of years ago Ron called and asked if we would plant winter melons to see if they could grow around here,” says Cordes, noting that the third generation family farm, founded by her grandparents Adelia and Anthony Vilutis in 1929, is near the extension office.
“Part of my responsibility is to look at what is growing here and isn’t being grown here,” says Goldy, noting that with the increasing Asian population in the U.S. it’s important to grow produce for that segment of the market. “I work with Vedette as a test marketer because she’s into growing different things.”
Goldy says that the quality of winter melon, so named because they have a long life and can last through most of the winter, harvested in Southwest Michigan is much better what’s imported from other produce areas in the country.
“I like to make winter melon soup in the winter,” says Virginia Palis who can be found at the St. Joseph Farmers Market along with her daughter.
“They’re like noodles,” says Goldy. “They don’t have any flavor and take on the taste of what you cook them with.”
Palis likes to add chopped red peppers chicken or ham and either cilantro or parsley. It’s important, she says, not to overcook the squash because then they get mushy.
“The idea is to cook them quickly,” says Goldy. “If you’re stir frying, add them at the end after you’ve cooked the meat.”
The fine dust on the winter melon is a wax, says Goldy, and indicates that squash has ripened. It’s ashen-like look is one reason why the squash is also known as ash melon. Cordes notes that many people think of it as a winter squash because of its thick skin but it’s more like summer squash—think zucchini.
The winter melon seeds Cordes planted prospered and she is currently harvesting what she calls “monsters” including one that weighs 70 pounds.
With a cooler filled with over-sized winter melons, Cordes says she’s expanding her markets. Reasoning that because it’s used frequently in ethnic restaurants, she and her mom loaded up their truck and drove to Chicago’s Chinatown.
Carrying several winter melons, they walked down the streets, stopping in at Chinese markets and restaurants. But there was a problem with that sales method. None of the chefs and storekeepers they approached spoke English and their Mandarin is nil.
Exhausted but unwilling to give up, Cordes hailed down an UPS driver making deliveries and shared her story. He suggested she talk to someone at the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce which she did. They were able to help explain to the Asian shopkeepers and restaurateurs why two ladies from Southwest Michigan were coming into their businesses carrying winter melons. Now Cordes makes regular deliveries to the city when time permits.
But winter melons aren’t the only ethnic crop mother and daughter raise. Ordering cucuzza seeds, Cordes had also had success growing these long snake shaped squash, also known by the less than appetizing name as snake gourds.
“We had an Italian woman get so excited that we had them,” says Palis.
“A few weeks ago a man bought one—he and his wife were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary–and he walked around the market with it wrapped around his neck,” says Cordes, leaving us to wonder if the man was making a non-verbal statement about marriage choking the life out of him or the much more positive one of being linked happily together for half century. But then he might have just been having fun.
Sidebar: Making Winter Melon Soup
“It’s simple to make,” Virginia Palis told me, giving instructions on how to peel, slice and de-seed it in the way you would a watermelon. They’re actually quite pretty, I thought as I carried it in my house, if a little prickly in spots (“we have to wear gloves to pick them,” Pallas told me) and though the ash rubs off, it just feels a little dusty and easily washes off.
Heaving it on the counter, I got out my largest, sharpest knife and started cutting. It was easy, just as Pallas said, and no more difficult than slicing a watermelon. If a 20 pound melon sounds like a lot for soup, I found that once the seeds and rind are discarded there was a lot less than I’d expected.
Cordes had told me that before winter melons ripen, they taste sweet but since this one was definitely ripe, the taste was bland, like a raw potato only less firm. Once I’d chopped it up, I placed it in a large pot, added enough chicken stock to cover, tossed in some diced roasted chicken and celery along with chopped red and orange sweet peppers. I simmered the concoction for about 30 minutes and voila, winter melon soup. The squash, when cooked, has an almost sweet delicate flavor—very tasty I thought.
Because it was compared to watermelon and since I had some fresh feta cheese made by Kelsey Cleary of Niles, who raises goats and makes a variety of cheeses from their milk, I’d set aside about a cup of the chopped uncooked squash to experiment–making a salad that typically calls for watermelon using feta, Kalamata olives, mint, sweet onion, olive oil and lemon juice. Since this was spur of the moment, I didn’t have any Kalamatas and didn’t want to run out to the store, so I substituted green Cerignola olives which I’d earlier this fall I’d packed into an old Mason Jar and covered with olive oil so they’d keep. For a little more color, I chopped up a tomato and tossed that in as well. The recipe called for Tabasco, which I didn’t have but a dash of Siracha for heat worked. The result is an adaptation of Jacques Pepin’s Watermelon Salad which I unimaginably renamed.
Winter Melon Salad
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon or less Siracha, depending on how hot you want it
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
One 8-pound winter melon, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (10 cups), chilled
1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled (2 cups)
1 1/4 cups pitted Kalamata or other type of premium olives, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 small sweet onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 cup coarsely chopped mint leaves
In a large bowl, whisk the oil, lemon juice, salt, Tabasco and pepper.
Add the watermelon, feta, olives and onion and toss gently.
Garnish with the mint and serve.
Virginia Pallas’s Winter Melon Soup Recipe
Winter melon, cut and peeled
Chicken stock to cover
1 sweet red pepper, diced
Ham or chicken breast, diced
Stalk of celery, diced
Parsley or cilantro, about two tablespoons, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot, places winter melon and cover with chicken stock. Bring to a simmer. Add other ingredients and cook until ingredients are tender.
Vedette Cordes’s Fried Cucuzza
½ cup vegetable oil or extra virgin olive oil
1 cucuzza, peeled
1tablespoon corn meal
4 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons water
Pour vegetable oil or extra virgin olive oil into a skillet and heat to medium high.
Slice cucuzza into thin rounds. Mix remaining ingredients into a batter (adding more water if needed). Dip cucuzza rounds into batter, coating on both sides. Place in hot oil and cook until golden brown on both sides.
Stir-Fried Winter Melon
Adapted from Melissaproduce.com
1 pound winter melon
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ginger root – minced
1 small organic carrot – cut into 1/2 cubes
1/4 cup vegetable broth
1 can straw mushrooms (15 ounces) drained
1/4 pound mushrooms cut into quarters
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 organic green onions including tops, cut into 1/2 pieces
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons water
Remove skin and seeds from the winter melon. Cut flesh into 1/2 cubes. Place a wok or wide frying pan over high heat until hot.
Add vegetable oil, swirling to coat sides. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring until fragrant, about 5 seconds.
Add winter melon and carrot and cook for 30 seconds. Add broth. Cover and cook for 2 minutes.
Add straw mushrooms and fresh mushrooms and cook for 4 minutes or until carrot is crisp-tender.
Add soy sauces, sesame oil, and green onions, and cook for 30 seconds.
Mix cornstarch with water Add cornstarch solution and cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens.
I used both regular and dark soy sauce for the balance of flavors.