As an avid kitchen gardener, I'm always looking for new edibles to grow and serve. Several years ago, my quest led to the Cucamelon (Melothria scabra), an annual vine in the Cucurbitaceae plant family that includes cucumbers, melons, and squash.
The cucamelon is known by numerous names, including Mexican sour gherkin, mouse melon, and in its native Central America, sandita, which means "little watermelon." All of the names apply: Cucamelons taste like a cross between cucumber and lime and look like mini watermelons, the perfect size for a mouse picnic. Luckily, neither wildlife nor insects in our garden show any interest in the tiny, tart fruits (although that may not be the case in your area).
Cucamelon seeds can be found at heirloom seed retailers, and they are an easy, prolific crop. Seeds can be started indoors 4 to 6 weeks before last frost, or direct sown after last frost. In Philadelphia, PA – zone 7b – I sow the seeds in the garden in mid-May (spacing 3 inches apart; depth one-half inch; light required for germination). I see small yellow flowers by mid-June, and I'm swimming in sanditas by mid-August.
The vines will happily grow along the ground, but for easy access and to save space, grow them vertically on a fence, net, or trellis. They can also be container grown with the proper support, and they make interesting hanging baskets. Most instructions suggest growing cucamelons in full sun, but ours are situated for morning sun and afternoon shade. This is because Philly has surprisingly hot and humid summers – high 90s to low 100s for days and weeks at a time – and in full sun our plants would burn.
Cucamelons are super straight off the vine, and are scrummy in a salad or stir-fry. My favorite way to prepare cucamelons is to make refrigerator pickles. I use a similar recipe to the one my father taught me for refrigerator cucumbers, but I've adapted it for cucamelons and the results are delicious.
I like to use clear Ball jars because the pickles are pretty and the size is just right to send home with dinner guests (trust me, they WILL want to take some home). In my kitchen, this recipe yields 4 pint jars, but your yield may vary depending on the shape of your jar. If you wind up with extra cucamelons then make more pickles; if you wind up with extra vinegar whisk it with your favorite oil to make salad dressing.
Cucamelon Refrigerator Pickles
Preparation: 20-30 minutes, plus 2 weeks in the fridge. Yield: 4 wide-mouth pint jars
• 4 wide-mouth pint jars, sterilized
• 6 cups cucamelons, washed (approx. 1.5 cups per jar)
• 3 cups white wine vinegar
• 2 tsp salt
• 2/3 cup sugar
• 12 sprigs of fresh dill (I use 3 per jar)
• Handful of fresh mint leaves
• Pink peppercorns (20 per jar)
• Coriander seeds (20 per jar)
• 4 cloves garlic (one for each jar)
• 4 fresh grape leaves (one for each jar), optional
1. Combine vinegar, salt, and sugar in mixing bowl, whisk until dissolved, set aside.
2. Divide the cucamelons and spices between your jars, placing a layer or two of cucamelons and then adding some of the spices, repeating until done. I put the dill sprigs around the middle of the jar when it's half full.
3. Pour vinegar mix over cucamelons in each jar up to the tread. OPTIONAL: scrunch a grape leaf, place it on top of the cucamelons, and push it down under the liquid (this was my Father's trick for keeping the pickles crisp).
4. Seal tightly. Place in refrigerator, wait two weeks until you eat them, finish within two months, continuous refrigeration required.
Cucamelon refrigerator pickles can be used just like any other pickle: in a relish tray, in salads, on sandwiches, etc. Enjoy!