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
¼ c soy sauce
¼ c mushroom stir-fry sauce
¼ c sugar
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.
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.