Published on October 7th, 2015 | by TLV News0
Some Food Stories from a Curious Observer: Part 5: Life of Melons
Watermelons, honeydews, and cantaloupes do not grow well in Central Russia—summers are not hot enough for them. They are brought in in the fall from Uzbekistan (where cotton also grows, just like in Mississippi), Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan by the big trucks, and usually are sold from those very trucks at the parking lots.
Since I was a kid, I remember lines of people with big bags, patiently waiting for their turn to load up. I still can’t understand that urge to eat tons of watermelons at once! People are buying as many as they can carry and eating as much as they can—with honey, salt, French bread, or just plain! Yes, it is good for you, cleanses your kidneys and works like a natural Gatorade, with the exactly right amount of minerals and sugars to hydrate you properly. But back home consuming melons turns into some kind of a happy cult! Maybe just because the season for them is so short and they are not available at any other time of the year.
I have to admit that it was always nice to bring home a huge stripey monster: green, fresh, so red and sugary inside, smelling so grassy and squeaking under the sharp knife—almost like some alive creature. I remember being already a student, back home for a weekend, I decided to please my dear Grandma, who quietly and almost shyly said that she was craving some honeydew so bad. I didn’t remember her ever asking for something, so I was very touched, grabbed a bag, and ran outside. I was very bored waiting in a long line. Grandma asked just for one honeydew. After half an hour I decided to buy two. Finally, when an hour or so passed, I proudly lugged home four sweetest monstrosities—at least it was worth the wait! They were of that particular sort called “Old Maid.” “You know why? Because it is all wrinkled outside, but so sweet inside,” a handsome, tan, dark-eyed Uzbek vendor explained to me with a bashful wink.
As for belonging to the same Cucurbitaceae family, squash, zucchini, and eggplant can be grown near Moscow very well. We have a very easy and sustainable dish which can be prepared out of them and is popular, tasty, and a little bit different all the time, depending on ingredients which can widely vary.
I think everyone heard about famous Russian caviar—the expensive salty fish eggs. That vegetable dish I am talking about is called “vegetable caviar.” Maybe since it resembles caviar by the orange color—it has some carrots in it—or maybe one just wanted to feel like he was eating caviar, too, even if the real one was not affordable. They also make it in the food factories and sell in glass jars or cans. It is called zucchini spread or eggplant spread Russian style and can be purchased here in US online or in Russian stores. Believe me, it doesn’t taste fishy at all!
The recipe is simple You take any kind of gourd vegetable, let’s say two big eggplants, or four palm-size squashes. Peel, slice, put on the skillet, add half a cup or a cup of pure sunflower oil (canola works too), add two big peeled shredded carrots, one big sliced tomato, and one chopped onion. Simmer until soft (I would do an hour). Veggies usually give some juice, but may be you would need to add half a cup of water at the beginning. When soft, mash, add two tablespoons of tomato paste, salt, pepper, any kind of herbs and spices. I like curry seasoning, but it is new for me, and we don’t usually do it in Russia.
Enjoy hot or chilled. It stays in refrigerator for about five days. Sometimes I add a couple of tablespoons of quinoa half an hour before the end—it makes the dish more filling. Goes well as a dip or just a side dish with meat, chicken, or fish. Can be poured on top of steamed rice. You can also use pumpkin or spaghetti squash and mix veggies up in different combinations. If you add one chopped sweet pepper, it would give an additional flavor. If you use three sweet peppers instead of squash or eggplant and don’t mash it at the end, you will have a Bulgarian dish called “lecho,” which is also very popular in Russia.