Easy winter melon soup

Winter melon soup

 

Winter melon soup sometimes appears at Chinese banquets, often steamed and grandly served in a whole melon. You don’t need to wait for a banquet to eat this delicious, soothing soup. It’s easy to make a simple version of this Chinese classic at home.

winter melonLook for the frosty white-tinged green-skinned melons with snowy white flesh at farmers’ markets and Asian supermarkets. The melon’s size can equal that of a large watermelon so it is often cut and sold in chunks. When simmered in broth the flesh softens into delicate morsels with a mild, soothing, refreshing taste.

This Hakka home-style version uses ground meat for a quick weeknight soup. Feel free to embellish with bits of ham, seafood, or mushrooms.

Easy Winter Melon Soup

Makes 6 servings as part of a multi-course meal

8 cups chicken broth

6 slices fresh ginger, lightly crushed

2 pounds winter melon

1 large carrot, sliced 1/4-inch thick (optional)

8 ounces ground pork, chicken, or turkey

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry

1 tablespoon soy sauce

About 1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

 

1. In a 4-quart pan over high heat, bring broth and ginger to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, cut skin off melon and scoop out and discard seeds. Cut melon into about 1-inch chunks. Add melon and carrot to broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until melon is almost tender when pierced and translucent, 10 to 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, mix pork, garlic, cornstarch, wine, soy sauce, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Drop 1/2-inch wide lumps of pork mixture into soup. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until pork is no longer pink in center of thickest part, about 5 minutes. Remove ginger slices, if desired. Skim off fat and discard. Add salt to taste and cilantro. Ladle  soup into bowls.

A Literary Feast

A literary feastThanks to all who came to our Les Dames d’Escoffier’s “A Literary Feast” last Sunday afternoon. In the light-filled mezzanine of the San Francisco Ferry Building, about 35 cookbook authors shared food samples from their books, autographed copies, and met with interested followers.

Guests sampled Pickled Mustard Greens (page 147) from The Hakka Cookbook. They loved the crunchy texture and sweet-sour taste of these easy refrigerator pickles. Best of all it is one of the easiest recipes in the book.

Our visitors were enthusiastic and interested. Loved meeting so many book fans. Thanks for coming and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

 

New ways with Hakka pork belly

Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens

Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens at the Hakka Restaurant in San Francisco

One of the most popular Hakka dishes is Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens ((扣 肉 梅 菜 kiu ngiuk moi choi or kou rou mei cai). In a recent post on The Sandy Food Chronicles, Sandra Lue writes about the version she tasted at The Hakka Restaurant in San Francisco. I  also love Chef Li’s version–dark, soft, succulent, salty, and a bit fatty– he captures the Hakka flavor.

img_4046In my book research, I found every cook seemed to have their own version of this dish. Lue shares a few recipes she discovers which I am eager to try. Her post reminded me of another version from Fah Liong, a Hakka from Indonesia. I used many of her recipes in The Hakka Cookbook, but did not have room for her variation on Pork Belly with Preserved Greens. She replaces the salt-and- sugar preserved mustard greens (moi choy) with a more natural salt-free option, sun-dried bok choy (also called cole). She layers the pork slices in the center of the greens so the meat juices can travel through the greens more evenly. Since the pork hides in the center, there’s no need to unmold the dish; just dig in. Serve this homey dish with plenty of rice.

 Hakka Pork Belly with Dried Bok Choy

Makes 4 to 6 servings as a main course or 8 to 10 servings as part of a multi-course meal

3 ounces dried bok choy (also called cole), about half a package
1 piece (1 to 1 1/2 pounds) boneless pork belly with skin, preferably with a high proportion of meat
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 1/2 cups Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (or 2 tablespoons light soy sauce and 1 tablespoon molasses)
2 teaspoons sugar

1. In a large bowl soak the dried bok choy in hot water until soft and pliable, changing water occasionally, at least 2 hours or up to overnight. Drain and rinse vegetable. Gather the stem ends together, wring out the water, trim off and discard tough ends, and cut the vegetable crosswise into 1 inch pieces.

2. With a knife tip or fork, prick the skin of pork belly all over. Place a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over high heat. When pan is hot, about 1 minute, add the oil, and rotate the pan to spread. Set the pork, skin-down, in the pan. Cook, pressing down on pork, until the skin is well browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and continue cooking on all sides until well browned. Lift out of pan and cut the pork across grain in 2- to 3-inch sections. Then cut each section with the grain into 1/2-inch wide slices.

3. Remove all the fat from the pan except for 2 teaspoons. Return the pan to medium-high heat. Add the garlic and stir until soft, about 30 seconds. Add the wine, dark soy sauce, and sugar. Bring to a boil. Add the bok choy and pork. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until 1/2 to 3/4 cup liquid remains, 15 to 25 minutes.

4. With a slotted spoon, lift out and arrange half the bok choy in a shallow 5- to 8-cup bowl. Arrange pork slices, overlapping slightly, if needed, in an even layer over vegetable. Cover with remaining vegetable. Skim off and discard fat from any remaining pan juices and pour evenly over vegetable.

5. Set the dish on a rack over 2 to 4 inches boiling water in a steamer (at least 1 inch wider than dish) or wok (if bottom is round, place on a wok ring to stabilize). If the steamer lid is metal, wrap the lid with a towel to reduce condensation dripping on the food. Cover and steam over high heat until the pork is very tender when pierced, about 2 hours. Watch the water level, adding more boiling water as needed. Carefully remove the dish from steamer and serve from bowl. Or if desired, set a plate on top of the bowl and invert. Lift off bowl.

Hakka radish dumpling

-2At the end of my talk at the Toronto Hakka Conference someone asked me if I had a recipe for Radish Dumplings (lo pet ban 蘿蔔粄). She described it as a steamed dumpling filled with shredded daikon radish that her Hakka grandmother had made in Jamaica. She had been trying to recreate it. Unfortunately, I did not know this dumpling.

Later another new friend Sandra Lue, author of the The Sandy Food Chronicles, also asked me about the dumpling. She, too, tried to create the dumpling but had problems with the dumpling skin.

When she mentioned dumpling skin, I recalled that I did develop a recipe for a Hakka steamed dumpling I had seen in Singapore. I could not recall the filling but remember testing it many times but left it out of the final manuscript because I wasn’t sure if it was good enough. It was a long recipe and a bit tricky to make, so I decided to omit it. I promised Sandra I would look for my recipe and perhaps she could make it work. I finally found the recipe and find it isn’t the same dumpling. My version does not contain the key ingredient–daikon radish.

However in my search, I discovered I had saved a couple of links to blog posts with recipes or descriptions of this Hakka Radish Dumpling. I am sharing these links so those who know this dumping can refine these recipes to recreate their grandmother’s dumpling.

http://morethanonemoreday.blogspot.ca/2010/07/jamaican-hakka-chinese-lo-pet-ban.html

http://alittlebitofplumleaf.blogspot.ca/2011/02/hakka-steamed-radish-dumpling-law-pet.html

Please share your recipe if you do!

Stir-fried Chinese lettuce

Chinese lettuceLast weekend, I saw the whole stalks of Chinese lettuce (芹 萵) sold in San Francisco Chinatown. With leafy greens sprouting from a long, thick stem, it looks like a little tree. This vegetable goes by many names–A-choy, stem lettuce, Taiwan lettuce, celtuce, won sun, ching woh, qin woh sun. The tops resemble romaine lettuce, which makes a good substitute. The thick stems have the texture of broccoli stems or kohlrabi with a lettuce flavor.

In China, I saw the vegetable sold with leaves attached to the stalk. In America, I find the tops and stems are often sold separately. The thick stalk-like stem resembles a broccoli stem in texture. Peel it deeply reach the tender interior. Slice the stems to use for pickles, stir-fries, and soups. The leaves can be cut and stir-fried or added to soups.

Stir-fried Chinese LettuceOn page 57 of The Hakka Cookbook, try the recipe for Stir-Fried Chinese Lettuce, Garlic, and Black Beans. If you can’t find the Chinese lettuce, use romaine lettuce but cut the leaves in half lengthwise if wider than 3 inches. The process is simple. Cut the lettuce leaves into about 3-inch lengths. Wash and drain well. In a hot wok, stir-fry sliced or small whole garlic cloves, fermented black beans, and minced fresh ginger in oil until aromatic. Then add lettuce pieces, a splash of water, and a little soy sauce to taste. Stir-fry just until leaves are slightly wilted. Enjoy!

Hakka in Suriname

Bitter melon braised with Madame Jeanette pepper, 5-spice powder, star anise, garlic

Bitter melon braised with Madame Jeanette pepper, 5-spice powder, star anise, garlic

Before I met Stuart Lee at the Toronto Hakka Conference 2012, I did not know Suriname, his home country. I learned this former Dutch plantation colony is located on the northeast Atlantic coast of South America with Guyana to the West and Brazil to the south. Many Hakka, as well as many other ethnic groups, live there.

Recently Stuart shared photos of the diverse food culture of his home country. Here are some of his photos and comments.

Stuffed tofu (ngiong fukah) by Surinamese Creole

Stuffed tofu (ngiong fukah) by Surinamese Creole

The Hakka placed their footprints on Suriname in 1853. Their contribution to the New World is huge. Chinese medicine, foods, kite flying, fireworks, mahjong–all ethnic groups in Suriname use these gifts from the Chinese. Their influence is seen in many Surinamese dishes, often blended with local ingredients, and multi-cultural tastes.

Chicken in hoisin and wine sauce with ever-present yellow pepper

Chicken in hoisin and wine sauce with ever-present yellow pepper

 

 

Dutch split pea soup with Chinese dumplings

Dutch split pea soup with Chinese dumplings

 

“As Suriname is probably the third most ethnic diverse country after USA and Canada,” says Lee, “ it is not uncommon for us to eat a lunch or dinner plate with boiled or fried cassava, plantains, ham choy with chicken and a sambal made with chicken hearts, gizzards and livers.” Dutch, Indonesian, Jewish, Hindustan, and African also play a strong role in this multi-cultural cuisine.

Pom, national dish of Suriname

Pom, national dish of Suriname

All cultures also embrace the Suriname national dish Pom. It is only available in Suriname, Holland and the Netherlands Antilles. “I have to thank the Jews who came to Suriname 400 years ago for inventing this dish!”

This baked casserole is made with root called pomtayer, similar to taro used to make poi. “I think the root is only grown in Suriname by the descendants of African slaves or the Creoles. My Mom marinates it with orange juice for the nice orange color, fills it with braised chicken and salted cured beef. The salted beef is also a Jewish influence. My grandfather and father would import shiploads of salted beef that were packed in wooden barrels similar to the wine barrels. Hakkas like my family were the ones who got the salted cured beef from New Brunswick. We also imported salted cod from Halifax that were the size of a small desk and came in jute bags and also salted pig tails, salted herring from Holland, and cured hams from Virginia. All these were poor man’s foods.”

Thanks to Stuart Lee for sharing a glimpse into the Surinamese diverse culinary history.

Comfort food: mustard greens soup

mustard green soupOn a cold wet night, all I want is a bowl of Mustard Green and Pork Soup. The hot broth enriched with pork, garlic, fresh ginger, and pungent mustard greens sends warmth throughout my body and comforts my soul. With a scoop of hot rice, it turns into a whole meal in a bowl.

Ingredients Mustard green soupThe simple, bold, direct flavors come from just a few ingredients. Start by cooking pork, crushed garlic, and ginger slices in broth. If you have time, use chunks of pork butt or bone-in pork neck. Simmer until the meat is very tender. For a fast shortcut version, use ground pork seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper. Poach chunks of the pork mixture in the broth, then immerse loads of mustard greens into the hot soup. It’s so easy, you don’t need a recipe but if want one, look at page 26 in The Hakka Cookbook.

I find almost any type of mustard green works. Buy Chinese mustard greens at the farmers’ or Asian market. Or choose leafy varieties found at the supermarket.

Sometimes I embellish the soup with the addition of sliced carrots and chunks of tofu, or replace the pork with chicken. In almost any variation, it is a feel-good meal.

 

Chinese summer squash, loofah

loofah squash, peeledLast month I saw a friend in the farmers market who had just bought some loofah squash. She told me how much she loved it. Her enthusiasm prompted me to buy some. Loofah squash (aka angled loofah, silk squash, Chinese okra) is long and slender with a rough dull green skin. Protruding ridges run down the length of the squash. Inside, the flesh is white and soft which turns silky, slightly sweet, and delicately refreshing when cooked.

Until I wrote The Hakka Cookbook, I rarely cooked this Chinese summer squash. When my friend Fah introduced me to her recipe Loofah Squash in Egg Flower Sauce (page 216), I discovered its sweet silky nature when gently braised. In Hong Kong, I ate Steamed Loofah Squash with Toasted Garlic Crowns (page 81). Click here to see a food video on this recipe.

Lately, I have discovered it’s firmer nature when stir-fried. I do not add a lot of liquid so the squash does not soften as much. I find this vegetable tastes light, clean, and refreshing, just right for hot summer days.

Loofah and ChickenStir-fried Loofah Squash and Chicken

If desired, omit the Chinese sausage and step 2. In step 4, increase the oil to 2 tablespoons.

Makes 2 servings as a main-dish or 4 to 6 servings as part of a multi-course meal

1 boned and skinned chicken breast half (8 oz.), sliced into thin strips

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound angled loofah squash (about 2 large squashes)

1 Chinese sausage (lop chong), thinly sliced

1 tablespoon thinly slivered fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

3 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

 

1. Mix the chicken with the soy sauce, cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon oil.

2. Trim ends off squash. Peel off ridges and skin if tough (if skin is tender, you can leave some on for firmer texture.) Cut squashes diagonally into 1/4-inch thick slices.

3. Set a 14-inch wok over medium-low heat. Add Chinese sausage and cook, stirring occasionally, until sausage is browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Lift out sausage and place in serving dish, leaving the fat behind in pan.

4. Return the pan to high heat. When the pan is hot, add 1 tablespoon oil and rotate pan to spread oil. Add chicken and stir-fry until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Lift out the chicken and add to sausage.

5. Return the pan to high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan. Add ginger, squash, and salt. Stir-fry to coat squash with oil. Add the wine and stir-fry until squash is barely tender-crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. (If squash is not tender and begins to burn, add 1 to 2 tablespoons more water and continue stir-frying). Stir in sausage and chicken, Sprinkle with cilantro and scoop into serving dish.

 

 

Asian eggplant

Chinese eggplantIt’s time to eat eggplant. In northern California, I find Chinese and Japanese eggplants are the best in the summer and early fall. Look for the freshest in farmers’ markets or try Asian grocery stores. Unlike the large plump, rounded pear-shaped eggplant favored by North Americans, both these Asian varieties are slender. They contain few seeds and hold their shape when cooked.

Chinese eggplants may grow to more than twelve inches long with a smooth lavender to dark purple skin. Japanese varieties tend to be shorter with a blackish-purple skin. Because these Asian varieties are less seedy, their flesh feels creamier and smoother when cooked. When stir-fried or braised, the pieces hold together, especially when attached to the skin, rather then collapse into a shapeless mass.

Eggplants act like sponges. They soak up the flavor of the seasonings and foods they are cooked with. This characteristic makes them highly versatile.

Try them in braised dishes such as Braised Eggplant, Pork, and Mushrooms on page 93 of The Hakka Cookbook or view a food video of the recipe at grokker.com

Eggplant SticksIn Garlic-Chile Eggplant Sticks, page 56 to 57, the soy-braised eggplant sticks maintain their shape. Serve them as a cool or hot first course or vegetable dish. Consider them for a cool appetizer for a hot summer evening.

 

The slender eggplant can be sliced into short sections, split in the center and filled, so they somewhat resemble eggplant sandwicheseggplant sandwiches. Use your favorite filling or try this one. In the Singapore Stuffed Vegetable and Tofu Soup, page 106, pan-brown these pork and fish-filled eggplant sandwiches, then poach in broth with other filled vegetables and tofu.

Although you can often find Asian eggplants year round in Asian supermarkets, try them now while they are in season to get the freshest and best quality. They should be firm with shiny skin.

 

Sweet bitter melon pickles

bitter melonI admit I am not a huge fan of bitter melon. But when transformed into these pickles, I changed my mind. Crunchy, sweet and tangy, with a slight bitter finish, these pickles converted me.

My inspiration came from the Asia Society Event, Chinese Soul Food: Hakka Cuisine. Last spring I consulted with Chef Kin Fong at M.Y. China in San Francisco about the dinner. Most of the menu was inspired by my recipes from The Hakka Cookbook. However, the chef wanted to do something new with bitter melon, a common ingredient in the Hakka diet. He suggested raw paper-thin shavings of bitter melon served with acacia honey and nestled in an ice bowl. Bitter Melon M.Y. China

I was a bit surprised.  Bitter melon is commonly cooked, usually stuffed and poached in broth for soup, stir-fried with meat, or stuffed and braised. I had never considered eating bitter melon raw and cold. As I thought more about the concept, it began to make sense. The sweetness of the honey and the cool temperature might temper the bitterness. Served in ice bowls, it would serve as unique palate cleanser.

bitter melon picklesAll the way home from our planning meeting, I thought about bitter melon served cold and sweet. How would bitter melon taste pickled? I have a recipe for Pickled Mustard Greens in The Hakka Cookbook (page 147). Why not substitute bitter melon for the mustard greens in the recipe? My experiment worked! I loved the pickle’s crisp bite. The sweetness softened the bitterness. They are easy to make and stay crunchy for weeks in the refrigerator. It’s a simple way to preserve surplus melons.

Sweet Tangy Bitter Melon Pickles

Bitter melon (foo gwa)  are in farmers’ and Asian markets now. They don’t look like melons, their shape is more like a slender gourd or a plump zucchini. Their green skin is rutted with bumpy furrows and their interior is filled with white pith and seeds.

Makes about 2 cups

2 medium bitter melons (about 12 ounces)

2/3 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt

1. Trim ends off melons. Cut melons in half lengthwise. With a spoon scoop out and discard seeds and white pith. Cut the melon halves crosswise in 1/4-inch thick slices to make about 2 cups.

2. In a 3- to 4-quart pan over high heat, bring about 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil. Add the bitter melon. Stir to separate slices and cook just until bright green, about 30 seconds. Drain and immerse in ice water to cool quickly.

3. In a large bowl, mix the vinegar, sugar, and salt until the sugar dissolves. Stir in drained bitter melon. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Transfer bitter melon and liquid to smaller containers. Cover and chill, stirring once, until the pickles are crisp, sweet, and tangy, 2 to 3 days. Keeps in refrigerator for a few weeks.