Mar 27, 2012

The Bitter Truth!

Young bitter melon with red peppers and garlic.
Click on photo to view larger image.
The truth is, we are talking about bitter melon, an odd looking green melon with wart-like bumps. You've probably seen them in the grocery store and said to yourself... what is that and how do you cook it?, well listen up! The bitter melon is considered the most bitter of all fruits. This cucumber sized gourd-like fruit is rarely found on menus, but is available in asian markets here in Hawaii. The bitter melon is native to southern Asia and an important ingredient in Asian cuisine. This unique food is cultivated in warm-weather regions throughout the world including Central and South America. It is rich in iron, contains twice the beta-carotene of broccoli, twice the calcium of spinach and twice the potassium of banana. It also has a long history as a treatment for diabetes, and it improves the body's ability to use blood sugar and improves glucose tolerances. Bitter melon is used to treat infections caused by retrovirus, and is being investigated in the treatment of HIV. Other uses for bitter melon include treating colds, flu and fever, parasites, digestive and skin diseases.

If you are adventurous, and like bitter tasting things like coffee, bittersweet chocolate, marmalade, broccoli raab, escarole, beer, or tonic water, then you might want to try cooking with bitter melon. When shopping for bitter melon, look for younger, greener melons that are less bitter. As the fruit matures, the skin turns bright orange and the flesh increases in bitterness. Bitter melon is often used in stir fry dishes and combines well with ginger, lime, cilantro, fermented Chinese black beans and garlic. Because bitter melon is so bitter, it is usually hollowed out, removing the seeds and white pith, then pre-blanched in slightly salted water for about 3 minutes to help remove some of the bitter flavor before cooking with it. Another method used in India is to soak the chopped, seeded melon in vinegar water, or lime juice, for 10 minutes then squeeze it dry before cooking with it. It takes an acquired palate to appreciate the bitterness of bitter melon, it is almost off-putting at first, so try it in small doses. Once you do, you will find that when it's gone you will want more... and that's the bitter truth.

Sweet Bitter Buns
If you are familiar with Chinese food and dim sum, then you have probably tasted "Cha siu bao". Cha siu bao is a steamed or baked sweet bun filled with a barbecue-flavored cha siu pork mixture. The word bao simply means "bun". Here in Hawaii we know them as "Manapua", which means "pork cake". In this recipe I have mixed bitter melon with my own sweet and savory black bean, cha siu pork mixture, creating a sort of yin yang effect, giving rise to "Sweet Bitter Buns".

Ingredients for stuffing:
1 cup bitter melon, diced small
6 ounces Chinese barbecue pork (cha siu), diced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese black beans, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons water

Ingredients for dough:
1/3 cup warm water (105˚ F)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 package yeast, active dry
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups cake flour
4 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
1 1/4 cups milk, low-fat
all-purpose flour, for rolling dough and 2 cups bun filling, of your choice
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons honey mixed with 1 tablespoon warm water

Mix together the warm water, 1/2 teaspoon sugar and yeast in an 8 ounce measuring cup. Let stand until it rises to the 8 ounce level (about 20 minutes). Sift flour, cake flour, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add shortening, yeast mixture and milk. Knead mixture 5 minutes to form a dough. Cover with a damp cloth and set dough in a warm place. Allow the dough to rise for 3 hours.

Trim and discard ends of bitter melon, then cut melon in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and pith with a small spoon and discard. Dice melon halves into small 1/4 pieces and boil in water for 5 minutes, drain of all liquid. Heat wok, add oil and stir-fry pork together with bitter melon for 2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons water, salt, sugar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce and black beans. Bring it to a boil. Prepare thickening by mixing the cornstarch and 4 tablespoons cold water. Stir into the mixture and cook for 1 minute. Let cool before using. After 3 hours, when the dough has risen, turn the dough onto a floured cutting board. With a sharp knife, divide the dough into 16 roughly equal pieces. Roll a piece of dough out on a floured surface to a 4-inch circle. Place 1 1/2 tablespoons of filling into center of the dough circle. Gather the edges of the dough over the filling, and twist them together to seal. Place the bun, seam side down, on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough. Allow buns to rise in draft-free place for another hour. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Bake one tray of buns at a time, brushing the tops and sides of the buns with beaten eggs right before baking. Bake 15 to 18 minutes on center rack until golden brown. The cooked buns sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove them from the oven, set on a rack, and let cool for 5 minutes. Brush the honey mixture on the buns for a sweet-glaze finish that will soften the crust. Refigerate leftover buns for up to a week and reheat at 350˚F for 8 to 10 minutes, until hot. These buns also may be frozen for up to a month. Thaw them completely before reheating. Makes 16 buns.

Stir-fried Shrimp and Bitter Melon
2 medium bitter melons*
6 tablespoons canola oil
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, and butterflied
8 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons fermented black beans**, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon thinly shredded ginger
1/4 cup shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon chopped red chile (optional)
black pepper
4 cups steamed jasmine rice

Trim and discard ends of bitter melons, then cut melons in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and pith with a small spoon and discard. Slice melon halves crosswise into thin pieces and set aside. Heat oil in a wok over high heat, swirling to coat the surface of the wok. When the oil is shimmering, add shrimp and stir-fry until they turn pink and are just cooked through, about 1 1/2 minutes. Transfer shrimp to a bowl with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce heat to medium-high. Add garlic to wok and stir-fry until golden and fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add fermented black beans and ginger, stir-fry 15 seconds, then add bitter-melon slices and stir-fry 1 minute longer. Add shaoxing and stir-fry 1 minute. Add soy sauce, sugar, and chiles and stir-fry until bitter melon is just tender, 2-3 minutes. Return shrimp to wok and stir-fry until heated through. Season to taste with pepper and serve with bowls of steamed jasmine rice. Makes 4-6 servings.

Note: *The bitter melon is cooked when it turns a brownish-green shade. Take a piece of bitter melon out and taste for doneness if you wish. The texture should be a soft and crunchy but not mushy. **Fermented black beans are commonly available in Chinatown markets and are not to be confused with black bean paste. Thought to have originated in the Hunan province in the southwest of China, fermented black beans are now used throughout Southern China.

Eggs with Stir-fried Bitter Melon
3 to 5 tablespoons canola oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 eggs
1½ cups sliced bitter melon, par-boiled in salted water for 3 minutes before cooking
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
½ cup water or chicken broth 

Trim and discard ends of bitter melons and discard. Slice in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds and white pith with a spoon. Slice bitter melon halves into 1/4" slices. Put slices in a pot of boiling water to just cover the melon and add one tablespoon of salt. Cook for about 3 minutes. Remove the melon from the water and rinse in a cold water to stop them from cooking. Set aside. Heat a wok on high heat until it is hot. Pour in 3 tablespoons canola oil and stir in garlic. When garlic is golden, stir in one egg and stir a few times. When the egg is cooked, stir in bitter melon. Stir for 1 minute, then add another egg and stir a few times before adding soy sauce and sugar. Add water or chicken broth and let it cook 1 minute. Depending on one’s liking, the melon should be not too soft or to firm; it should still have some crunch. Serve warm with steamed jasmine rice. Makes 2 servings.

Bitter Melon Soup
4 bitter melons about 6 inches long and about 1 1/2 inches thick
8 cups chicken stock
½ pound ground pork
½ pound shrimp, chopped
7 dried Shiitake mushrooms
2 tablespoons Chinese fermented black beans, coarseley chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon green onion, chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ginger, minced
pinch of ground black pepper
1 cup green onion tops sliced thin into strings and put into ice water to curl

Slice green onion tops at an angle into thin strings and put into cold water with ice cubes. We will use these to garnish the finished dish later. Soak dried shiitake mushrooms in warm water for about half and hour or until softened. Remove all of the tough stems from the softened mushrooms, finely chop 3 of the mushroom tops and set aside. Trim and discard ends of bitter melons and discard. Cut the bitter melon approximately 2 inches long and remove the seeds and white pith in the center with a scooper or small spoon, creating a tube. (Note: be careful not to break the melon while removing the seeds and pith). Put bitter melon tubes in a pot of boiling water to just cover the melon and add one tablespoon of salt. Cook for about 3 minutes. Remove the melon tubes from the water and rinse in a cold water to stop them from cooking. Set aside.

Mix chopped shrimp, ground pork, 3 chopped Shiitake mushrooms, black beans, garlic, 1 tablespoon chopped green onion, soy sauce, minced ginger, and black pepper. Stuff each section of the bitter melon with the pork stuffing. Do not over-stuff the melon. The melon seems to shrink more than the pork when it is all cooked. Drop into a pot of chicken stock with the other 4 whole mushroom tops. Bring to a boil, remove any scum that might form on top of the stock and simmer for about 20 minutes. Season broth with pepper and more soy sauce if needed. To serve, ladle hot chicken broth into soup bowls and place two stuffed bitter melon pieces into the center of the broth. Lay one mushroom top against the bitter melon in each bowl. Top with green onion curls before serving. Makes 4 servings.

1 comment:

gabriela said...

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