Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Zhejiang's ham and winter melon soup

We came home yesterday to a cold house and were hungry to boot. Nothing would have suited us better than a steaming bowl of soup, and in about 30 minutes that's what we had.

This is not a fancy soup - although it can easily be used as one if poured into pretty bowls or a nice tureen - but rather a balanced combination of just a few ingredients that play off of each other well, and most of these ingredients can be kept on hand for a very long time, making this a great go-to dish when time and money is tight.

About the only item that needs to be fresh is the slice of winter melon. These enormous squashes are available most of the year in Chinese markets, and you might even be able to snag a smallish whole winter melon that will keep for weeks, if not months, in a cool, dry area, like the garage, basement, or pantry.

Once it is sliced, though, winter melons deteriorate rapidly, and so these should be used up within a couple days of purchase. I discussed their selection a couple months ago, so just suffice it to say that you should steam any fresh, cut winter melon that you don't plan to use it right away, since that will extend its usability for a couple of more days.

This recipe calls for a slice of winter melon without any more details because Chinese markets just hack them up into irregular pieces, and you get what you get. So, cut up as much of that slice of winter melon as it takes to get about 2 cups of cubed melon, and keep the rest for something else. Or, just add more to the soup; it's your call.

Stir-fry the mushrooms and ham for flavor
Now we get to talk about the most exotic ingredient here: Chinese-style ham. This is nothing at all like what we think of as the ham that is served with eggs or at Easter dinner, since that is moist and cured in brine. 

Chinese hams are dry cured and very salty, and the closest thing this side of the Pacific would be country ham or Smithfield ham. In fact, true Chinese hams are as hard to find around here as talking frogs, so Chinese markets almost always will offer slices of these American substitutes in the meat department. (Be sure and keep any of this ham covered in plastic and stored in the refrigerator, and save any of the rind and bones that might come with the ham for soups such as this. Black mold might form on the skin and white mold on the meat after a few months, but these can usually be scrubbed off; just use your nose and common sense to determine whether any ham you've stored for a while should be eaten or given the heave-ho.)

Raw winter melon is an opaque white...
The most famous of the Chinese versions are the Jinhua hams of Zhejiang and Yunnan's Xuanwei hams. But, since you are probably not going to see them any time soon around here, we'll just settle for our local country hams and still consider ourselves lucky, for these have a divine smoky flavor and nice saltiness. The following is a recipe that hails from the East China province of Zhejiang, which is of course home to all of that lovely Jinhua ham and so often features this local delicacy in its remarkable dishes.

This soup is a classic and does justice to a good piece of ham since it doesn't have to jostle with other flavors for supremacy. It is a clear, even cheerful soup that you can serve with pride to guests as well as family. And if you want to turn this into a main dish, just toss a skein or two of cellophane (mung bean) noodles into the pot and let them simmer until just barely soft.

I have added fresh shiitake mushrooms to the traditional recipe for two reasons: they increase the richness of the broth by adding another level of meaty flavor, and the cooked slices have an untuous, almost fatty texture that really complements the soft winter melon and harder ham.  Use dried mushrooms or even another variety of fresh mushroom if that is what you have in your kitchen. This recipe can be easily multiplied for more people or to make extra for another day.

... and when done is a translucent pale yellow
As usual, I made this soup in my trusty old sand pot, which is an unglazed clay casserole. This is one of my favorite utensils for cooking in because it looks downright gorgeous, it is very versatile, and it saves me the hassle of washing out a wok and a serving bowl by doubling as both. You can find good sand pots in many Chinese grocery and hardware stores. Get a size that fits your household (a small to medium one for one or two people, a big one for more family members), and check it all over for chips or cracks. The store should offer to fill it with water before they ring it up so that you can be assured that there are no cracks. (These are almost never returnable, so be sure to ask for this test.) Scrub the pot carefully, both inside and out, when you get home with a mild soap and a brush, and then rinse it carefully. Dry it in a warm place (a turned off oven is good) so that it doesn't mold, and then store it in a dry place.

Never soak this pot in the sink or wash it in the dishwasher. Just wash it gently and dry it off. If the pot cracks, chances are that whatever you are cooking will seal up the crack on its own, and you will be no the wiser. That is another reason why you should never soak it or trust it to the dishwasher. My old sand pot has a crack that runs almost all the way across the diameter, and so far so good. Just keep an eye on it, and if it looks like it might crumble, just toss it in the garbage with only slightly a heavy heart (or use it as a flower pot if you are really cheap), since they are inexpensive and you can easily find yourself another one.

Chinese ham and winter melon soup 
Huotui donggua tang  火腿冬瓜湯  
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

1-inch finger of ginger
2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
4 fresh shiitake mushrooms
A small piece of country ham (see above), about 1 inch by 2 inches
Any skin or bones from your country ham
A slice of fresh winter melon
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
4 cups boiling filtered water
Freshly ground black pepper
Cilantro for garnish
1. Cut the unpeeled ginger into very thin slices. Clean the mushrooms, remove the stems, and cut the caps into thick slices. Rinse off the ham, skin, and bones, pat them dry, and trim the ham into very thin slices. Peel and seed the winter melon, and then cut it into 1-inch cubes; you should have around 2 cups, but just about any amount close to that will do.

Zhejiang's finest
2. Heat the oil in a sand pot or wok over medium-high heat and add the ginger. Fry the ginger until it turns brown and toasty, at which point it will have flavored the oil. 

3. Add the mushrooms and ham (and any skin and bones from the ham you might have) to the oil and stir-fry until the mushrooms are browned on the edges. Toss in the winter melon and stir-fry it quickly for a few seconds before pouring the rice wine over everything. 

4. Let the wine bubble for about 10 seconds, and then add the boiling water. Bring the soup to a boil, cover, and lower the heat to medium-low so that you have a nice simmer going. 

5. At this point the winter melon will be a white opaque hue, but when it is done, it will turn translucent and slightly yellow; don't cook it much more past this point, as then it will lose its texture and turn mushy. Check it after around 15 minutes and then every 5 minutes after that, removing the soup from the heat as soon as the winter melon is cooked to a perfect state of doneness.

6. Fish out the bones and skin; I like to remove as much of the ham as possible from the bone at this point at return it to the soup since the meat is so nice and soft that this can be done with a chopstick. Grind the fresh pepper over the soup and sprinkle it with chopped cilantro for color and a zippy bit of freshness. Serve the soup boiling hot.