A mission statement

Hello, and welcome to My Kitchen and I. Every year I choose a cuisine to explore. This year, it's the year of the Snake! And I'll be continuing to cook mostly Asian foods, particularly Chinese dishes. Have I finally found the best cuisine in the world? Come explore and cook with me and let's find out. Please feel free to share your stories and comment on anything you see here, and thanks so much for visiting. Hope you enjoy the Year of the Snake in food!


Friday, June 1, 2012

Winter Melon Soup 冬瓜汤 — Wonderful!

My sister gave me a wonderful book exploring the cuisines of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia called Culinaria Southeast Asia. She knows how interested I am in Asian cuisines, so this was almost the perfect gift for me. There are so many interesting pictures and stories in this book, I know it's going to be a fascinating trip!

The first recipe I made from the book did not disappoint. This was a very interesting soup, traditionally made with winter melon and flavored with ham. The book lists it under Singapore, but the Chinese friends I spoke with knew about this soup and say it is more widespread.

According to Chinese medicine, winter melon
is a cooling soup and should be eaten in summer.
Properly prepared, it is a "detoxifying" soup.
Winter melon itself has no flavor, but has the intriguing ability to soak up whatever flavors you cook it with.

In fancier restaurants, the winter melon serves as its own soup tureen. The seeds are scooped out of the inside and the outside is then carved with beautiful figures and symbols for good luck and fortune. These carvings are so elaborate, they can take an entire afternoon or more to finish. The soup is then steamed for five hours. So it is very labor intense and must be ordered in advance. I'm told it can cost a few thousand dollars for this soup!

But you can enjoy the same flavor at home for much less, even if it doesn't come with elaborate carvings of fantasy creatures on the outside. The key ingredient ...

The key ingredient, winter melon, can be found in most large Asian markets and won't set you back more than two or three dollars for a couple of large chunks. The melon isn't usually sold whole, however, so if you want a whole melon for a soup tureen, you'll probably have to grow your own melons. I saved a few seeds from my last melon soup to give that a try.

Most recipes for winter melon use Chinese ham to flavor the melon. Virginia ham has a very similar flavor profile if you want to be very authentic. But most any ham will be fine. Abalone is also a common ingredient in this soup, but terribly expensive, not to mention an endangered species. I think scallops are a very suitable substitute.

Lotus seeds are found in Asian markets, but if you don't have access to them you could use white navy beans instead. The texture and flavor are very similar. Even their potassium levels are similar, so you're not changing the nutritional profile much at all. You could also use fresh portobello mushrooms instead of dried shitake — but I will say, the dried mushrooms are a bit chewier and the flavor more concentrated, so give them a try first. Once you're used to the texture, you may find you quite prefer them in soups at least.

Lastly, I used a cornish game hen instead of chicken breast for my version of this soup because I just liked the flavor profile better.

Regardless of when you're supposed to eat this soup, summer or winter, I think this is a fun soup to make and a great lunch any day of the year! Hope you enjoy this wonderful Winter Melon Soup. :)

(dong1 gua1 tang1)

Wonderful Winter Melon Soup

I made the soup with abalone and with scallops.
Traditional recipes call for abalone, shown above, 
but I honestly think the scallops taste better.
We'll add the ingredients in order of cooking time, from longest to shortest.

First bring to boil

Four to five cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
2 ham hocks
1/2 cup dried shitake mushrooms, rinsed

Reduce the heat and simmer from 1 to 4 hours, or as you like, to make a nice flavorful broth. You can soak the mushrooms first and mince them if you like smaller pieces, but I just skip that step since I'm boiling them for so long.

Once the broth is to your liking, add

1 cornish game hen
1 can bamboo shoots, drained
1/4 cup lotus seeds, soaked 30 minutes in rice wine, bitter green centers removed
1 T rice wine
1 fresh ginger root, minced

Simmer until the game hen is almost done, about 20 minutes, then add

winter melon flesh, cut into bite-size cubes, rind removed

Simmer until translucent, about 10 minutes, then add

1/2 cup scallops

Just look at that! A warm golden broth,
and pretty emerald onions.
Good in any season, if you ask me!
Simmer until the seafood is done, taking care not to overcook. I would say it takes 2 or 3 minutes at most, but certainly not more than 10.

Salt the mixture to taste and serve with a garnish of fresh chopped green onions on top.

I served my soup with some steamed pork buns, for a nice light lunch.

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