Monthly Archives: August 2009

Slow Food: Hairy Melon


Inspired by a delectable Slow Food evening at Saturday night’s IWFS-Columbus dinner hosted by Jack & Vivian Davis, and having enjoyed Julie & Julia, yesterday I tackled the challenge of preparing a dish with Chinese hairy melons grown by Roger & Sherran Blair.

Slow Food is a movement I learned about in my Barolo, Italy vacation with the Blairs 2 years ago. The movement was founded in nearby Bra in 1986 in reaction to the opening of the McDonalds hamburgers there. During our week in Piedmont, we savored our dinners and 4-hour dining experiences and came back looking for the opportunity for more.

The Slow Food philosophy: “We believe that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible. Our movement is founded upon this concept of eco-gastronomy – a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet.

It’s a philosophy akin to that espoused by Michael Pollan in his books In Defense of Food and The Omnivor’s Dilemma. I should write a blog on those books, but until then, I’ll just note that I was impressed his pragmatic, non-preachy observations and conclusions. Advancing the careful and aware production, preparation, and consumption of real food – in contrast to the highly-processed stuff we all buy today – Pollan has convinced me to change my old eating habits, and he has influenced my thinking about the food industry.

Meanwhile, back to the hairy melons. Every spring, I give Roger & Sherran packets of Chinese vegetable seeds to try in their garden – veggies that they don’t find in the local markets. It’s always an adventure to see what comes up. The first product this year from these seeds has been two large hairy melons (mo gua in Chinese). A few years ago, they took that year’s hairy melon crop to Wing’s Chinese restaurant and Kenny had them stir fried with pork for us. Sherran & Roger invited me to dinner and asked how to cook the melons without pork, for dinner in their Kosher home. I picked up the melons on Sunday morning and volunteered to cook them after consulting my collection of Chinese cookbooks.

Most of the recipes I found for hairy melons – or “fuzzy melons” as they’re also known – were for soup (like wintermelon soup). Alas, soup wouldn’t fit into the dinner menu. In Kim Chee Lee’s Chinese Cooking, I found a simple recipe for Stir-Fried Fuzzy Melons, but was afraid the taste would be too delicate to accompany the grilled steaks on the menu. On the next page of the cookbook is a recipe for Abalone Mushrooms and Green Vegetables in Oyster Sauce. It sounded like the delicious dish that Mom and I often order at Central Seafood in Hartsdale, NY. Mom has been excited about the health benefits of eating a variety of mushrooms (and we were delighted with a Braised Mushroom dish at a dinner Ray Chen invited us to at the new Three Ocean Restaurant in NYC’s Chinatown last week). Since fuzzy melon takes up the taste of the sauce it’s prepared with, I thought combining the recipes would work well.

I drove over to the New Asian Supermarket (which has the best selection of Chinese produce I’ve found in Columbus), and bought fresh King and Shitake mushrooms and baby Shanghai bok choy. I also found some Mushroom Stir-Fry sauce to substitute for Oyster Sauce (trying to keep Kosher – oyster-flavored sauce is made from oyster extract).

As this was a first-time preparation for me, I tested my approach with a little of the ingredients and tweaked the combined recipe. Since the recipe cooks so quickly, I decided to prepare all the ingredients at home and take them to the Blairs to cook just before dinner.

The dish was a big hit. The melon was tender, but not mushy, and as expected, took up the flavor of the sauce. The King mushroom slices were nicely chewy and contrasted with the tender Shitake mushrooms. The green Shanghai bok choy provided another textural and color accent. The entire dish tasted umami! And it was so guiltless, healthwise. The seven of us happily ate almost the entire double recipe (some of us had three or four servings!).

The actual cooking time was less than 15 minutes, but the preparation was quite time-consuming (about 3 hours for twice the below recipe, but that included the trial run). Though the mushrooms, bok choy, and sauces were not from local sources, the preparation was certainly in the spirit of Slow Food, celebrating the home-grown melon as an experience to be savored, lovingly prepared for and enjoyed with good friends.

As in cooking Julia Child’s recipes, I’ve found that spending hours carefully preparing a dish or a meal for family and friends, then savoring it with them, can and should be a tremendously enjoyable experience. At times, it can even be sublime.

Stir-Fried Hairy Melons, Mushrooms, & Shanghai Bok Choy in Mushroom Sauce

INGREDIENTS (for 4-6 side-dish servings)

1 large hairy melon (football-sized)
1 knob ginger, peeled and julienned
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 lb baby Shanghai bok choy
½ lb fresh Shitake mushrooms
½ lb fresh King mushrooms
2 T cornstarch
peanut oil, for cooking
1 T sesame oil

Seasoning Sauce:
¼ c soy sauce
¼ c mushroom stir-fry sauce
¼ c sugar

PREPARATION

Peel the hairy melon. Scoop out & discard the seeds and inner membranes. (If smaller melons are used – like zucchini – the seeds are tender and don’t need to be removed.)
Slice vertically into quarters.
Cut across into1/8” thick slices, using a mandolin, if available, to ensure uniform thickness.

Cut the King mushrooms across into thin slices (about 1/16” thick).
Remove the stems from the Shitake mushrooms. Wash to remove dirt.

Blanch the bok choy and Shitake mushrooms separately in boiling salted water for 1 minute.
Drain & put into ice water to cool. Drain again. (This process preserves the color of the vegetables.)

Mix together the soy sauce, mushroom stir-fry sauce, and sugar.

Mix corn starch in 3 T cold water.

COOKING

Heat oil in deep fry pan, pot, or wok over high heat.
Stir-fry melon slices. Stir fry for 1-2 minutes, until the slices start to cook. Remove melon from pot.
Stir-fry ginger and garlic. Stir-fry until garlic starts to brown.
Add melon back to pot. Stir and cover to steam 2 minutes. (Add a little water, if needed.)
Add mushrooms, stir-fry, cover to cook 1 minute.
Add bok choy, stir-fry.
Add seasoning sauce (use more or less, to taste). Stir and bring to a boil. Add water or chicken stock, if needed, to make enough liquid for sauce.
Stir in cornstarch mixture to thicken the sauce.
Stir in sesame oil and serve.

Julie & Julia

Though it differed from what I expected, I thoroughly enjoyed the new movie Julie & Julia. I was psyched for it, having just cooked a big dish of garden fresh Chinese Long Beans for my friends Roger & Sherran on Sunday. Following a week’s worth of media hype about the movie and the glowing reviews for Meryl Streep (and less praise for Amy Adams), I went out on Monday for a premium-priced showing ($9 vs. $7 regular price in Columbus, OH) of the film.

With my home theater system and over 900 DVDs, I don’t go out for movies very often. I usually wait 6 months, buy a used DVD, and get the same audio/visual theater experience (10′ projection image and 7.1 sound from a 2800 watt A/V receiver and a 2500 watt subwoofer), in the comfort (Ekornes Stressless chairs), and convenience (fresh-popped corn with known additives from flavorings and a wide selection of legal beverages – my wine cellar abuts my home theater), of home – at 1/3 the cost for me, plus no additional charge for guests. However, the foodie in me was allured to catch Julie & Julia now.

I grew up inspired by Julia Child on PBS. Her whimsical demeanor delightfully deflated the starched stuffiness of the French cuisine mystique. Combined with my father’s genes and his own love for food and cooking, Julia’s TV presence reinforced my expectations that cooking should be fun and the resulting food would be delicious.

Writer/director Nora Ephron has woven together two memoirs – Julia Child’s story of her cooking and cookbook-writing beginnings in France, and Julie Powell’s year of cooking and blogging her way through Julia’s cookbook – to provide a delightful comparison and contrast of their lives. At the start of their stories, Julie is actually a better cook than was Julia. But Julia’s life was certainly more glamorous and intriguing, with her living the leisure life of an American diplomat’s wife in France, settling into a luxurious Parisian apartment, while Julie and her magazine-writing husband have just upgraded to a 900 square-foot apartment above a NYC Queens pizzeria. Julia’s need to occupy herself leads her from hat-making classes, to bridge lessons, and finally to cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu. Julie needs a release from her 9-to-5 phone-bank job helping NYC’s 911 victims, so commits herself to cook every one of Julia Child’s 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and blog daily about her experience. Both husbands are lovingly supportive, through their own trials, as are their friends. The development of these very different yet similar stories, intertwining 8+ years of Julia’s life and 1 year of Julie’s, carried me along, savoring every scene.

Meryl Streep’s portrayal is absolutely marvelous. I’ve experienced two memorable portrayals by an actress of a celebrity. I recall being mesmerized by Zoe Caldwell’s portrayal of Maria Callas in Master Class on Broadway in 1995. It took all of 30 seconds for Ms. Caldwell to have me believe she was Maria Callas – another notable personality from my high school years – on stage, right in front of me, conducting a master class with aspiring opera singers. Ms. Streep never had me believing she was Julia Child, but her absolute mastery of her craft had me admiring, for the entire 2 hours and 5 minutes, how well she could invoke my fond memories of Julia without ever having me feel she was presenting a caricature of her. And somehow, through the magic of film and the film maker, she always came across as the full 6′ 2″ that Julia Child was, instead of Meryl Streep’s own 5′ 6″, hence never breaking the spell.

I must confess that in the 1980s, I really didn’t like Meryl Streep as an actress, despite friends who swooned over her performances. Several years ago, however, I found my opinions completely reversed over the Metropolitan Opera tenor, Richard Leech. For over a decade, I had seen him perform the role of Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – and I really didn’t care for him. Then I saw Mr. Leech perform as Romeo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette – and I realized that what made me dislike him all those years was that he portrayed the role of his character so well, he had me believing he was the despicable Pinkerton! In that same sense, Meryl Streep conveyed Julia Child, as she did all the characters that I didn’t like in her earlier films.

While the critics seemed to share my adoration of Ms. Streep’s acting prowess, they were less kind to Amy Adams. I don’t know her work (I’ve seen a couple of movies she’s been in but don’t really recall her), and came to expect little after the reviews of Julie & Julia. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. Since I don’t know Julie Powell, Ms. Adams had different challenges portraying her to me. It’s hard to say why Julie wasn’t as clearly defined or nuanced as Julia. Was it the character (by her own definition, not the goddess on a pedestal that Julia Child is as Julie’s muse), the book, the screenplay/direction, or acting? It’s hard to blame Ms. Adams; she may have played the part perfectly. Certainly, Ms. Adams quickly had me feeling she was Julie and got me sympathetic for her.

But to my real surprise, this wasn’t really a film about food. There aren’t any salivation-generating scenes of irresistibly alluring dishes. Even Julie’s year-long intimidation of her known need to eventually tackle de-boning a duck was laughable to me, given the fact that my father taught me to de-bone not by slitting the skin down the center, as Julia instructs, but to remove the bones through the duck’s vent to retain the skin’s shape and minimize the stitching required to enclose the stuffing.

Julia’s story is initially about learning to cook, but then moves to her years of working with the original authors of the would-be first English-language French cookbook and the re-writes needed to get the magnum opus published for the American housewife audience. Julie’s story is about her self-imposed need to get through preparing Julia’s 524 recipes in 365 days and the affect this quest has on her life and marriage. There are nice insights into the impacts and changes of the times – from the McCarthyism of the 1950s to an unknown’s blogging of today leading to fame and presumed fortune.

More, it’s about two individuals persisting to fulfill their dreams – of maintaining their happy marriages and of completing their self-assigned challenges. In this era in which so many of us require immediate gratification of our desires, Julie’s commitment of a year to complete her task may seem to be a lot. Yet the underlying contrast with Julia’s 8-year work on her cookbook – and celebration of her $250 advance from a publisher – shows how much times have changed.

Julia Child’s efforts made her an icon. Julie Powell’s efforts made her a movie character. It was an enjoyable movie – one that I look forward to seeing again when I buy the used DVD for my collection.

Chinese Long Beans


I gave my friends Roger & Sherran a pack of Chinese Long Bean seeds in the spring. Today, we got to try the grown beans from their garden.

Also known as Yardlong Beans, these are a staple in Chinese markets. They are also great fun for kids – I tell them they’re “Jack and the Bean Stalk” beans because of their unusual length. Fresh from the garden, they were more tender than those from the store because we picked them fresh at only about 18″ long. Rather than searching my Chinese cookbook collection for a recipe, I found one online by famed restaurateur/chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (he’s been serving Chinese food for decades in his NYC restaurant Vong). I modified his recipe somewhat, since Pop taught me to blanch Chinese long beans in oil to cook through their tough skin.

The result was delicious! The beans had a much meatier taste and texture than American green beans. The onions and red bell pepper added an umami savoriness that plain stir-fried beans don’t have.

Since I knew I’d be using a small pot of oil to blanch the beans, I used the oil first to puff up a batch of instant sizzling rice cakes that we had as an appetizer with a fresh tomato and mozzarella salad. The beans were a delicious accompaniment to the perfectly grilled marinated chicken breasts Roger prepared. Watermelon closed out the tasty, healthy meal. Yum!

Chinese Long Beans with Cracked Black Pepper
Recipe by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, modified by Rod Chu

2 cups peanut oil

1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 pounds Chinese long beans, washed and thoroughly towel dried, cut into 3-inch lengths
1 medium red bell pepper, peeled (see note) cut into 1/3-inch dice
4 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan to 375°. Blanch the beans in the hot oil, a handful at a time, until they begin to blister (30-60 seconds). Drain and set aside each batch while blanching the rest of the beans.

Saute the onion in 1 T oil over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add red pepper and stir-fry to soften the pepper, about 1 minute. Add the long beans and stir-fry until the beans are slightly softened and browned in spots, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar and stir to coat. Add the water, cover and cook over moderately low heat until the water has evaporated and the beans are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the soy sauce and cracked pepper and cook for 1 minute. Adjust sugar and soy sauce to taste. Transfer to a platter and serve.

Next time, I’ll try adding a couple of cloves of minced garlic.

NOTE: Peeling bell peppers

There are two basic methods for removing the tough outer membrane from bell peppers. The classic method is to roast the peppers over a gas flame, searing the skin until it’s black in spots. I used a long handled barbecue fork to hold the whole pepper, skewered through the stem end, over the flame of Sherran’s industrial range burner. However, I found the skin rather tedious to remove when seared this way. (I recall another tip was to put the seared whole pepper into a paper bag to rest to loosen the skin; I didn’t have a bag handy nor the time to try this time.)

The easier method I’ve used is from Thomas Keller’s (of The French Laundry and Per Se restaurant fame) recipe for Ratatouille, from the movie: Heat oven to 450°. Halve, seed and de-vein the bell pepper. Place pepper halves on a foil-lined sheet, cut side down. Roast until skin loosens, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest until cool enough to handle. Peel and dice. This works well for doing multiple peppers, since they can all be done at once. However, I didn’t want to heat up the oven for just one pepper this time.