Friday, August 10, 2012

Watermelon soup from the cold north

For the longest time now, I have been trying to wrap my head around the fact that Manchuria seems to have a real passion for watermelon as an ingredient, not just simply as something cool and juicy to devour when the weather is hot. Maybe it's because summer is such a brief fling up there that this particular fruit has such dedicated followers. 

But still... this is the cold northeast, up there near Russia and North Korea. The fruits must be imported at great distance from Xinjiang, China's desert region that stretches out into Central Asia, so you see why my brain hurts. It's like saying lobster is beloved by folks in Des Moines, Iowa, or fresh corn is part of Alaskan cuisine. 

Oh well. I give up trying to reason why. All I know is that today's dish is nothing short of fabulous to look at and even more fabulous to eat. And the biggest secret of all is, this is really, really easy.

Zig-zag top and bottom
Before we get to the part about carving the watermelon -- a simple skill that will have you looking like a master in no time flat -- let's talk about the soup itself. 

Traditionally, this is an unadorned chicken soup with seasonings courtesy of little more than dried black mushrooms, Chinese ham, and dried shrimp. The chicken is just chopped up and cooked in the broth with the other ingredients, and that's that. No watermelon makes its way into the soup; the shell is there as a pretty container and nothing more.

It's good that way, but I wanted to take things a couple of steps further, so my apologies to any purists out there for messing with something that is already quite fine. I wanted to have the chicken meld with the flavors of mountain (mushroom), smokehouse (ham), and sea (dried shrimp), plus I am always looking for ways to make chicken turn out juicier when it's part of a soup, as it tends to surrender all its magic into the broth.

Meatballs in the raw
So, when I looked at some ground chicken meat and the round watermelon in my shopping basket, a light went off in my head. I could almost smell the ozone as synapses snapped and a plan took shape.

Once I got home, I first soaked some porcini mushrooms and dried scallops instead of the usual suspects (i.e., Chinese black mushrooms and dried shrimp). The porcini have a deep flavor and soft texture that really goes well with the chicken, and the scallops flake into tiny slivers that become an almost imperceptible marine layer of flavor in the broth. In fact, as you sip your bowl of broth later on, you should notice the aroma of the sea taking over that of the chicken and the ham as you work your way down to the bottom, which makes each mouthful a revelation.

The mushrooms were chopped and added to the ground chicken, along with a nice smattering of chopped fresh ginger to add the tiniest bit of crunch and heat, as well as a green onion and some seasonings. For the requisite ham, I used a bone from a piece of Chinese-style ham, along with some leftover ham rind, and this added both a gentle smokiness, as well as some nice mouthfeel courtesy of the fat.
Cutting off the lid

Now we get to the fun part: the carving of the watermelon. This is what turns this simple meatball soup into a showstopper. And like just about every Chinese dish I've introduced on this blog, it may look hard, but it's all smoke and mirrors.

The main thing you need to do is to cut off the stem end so that it acts as a lid. So, about a fifth of the way down from the stem, cut a zig-zag pattern (instead of the usual straight slice), all the way around the melon (see the picture on the right). The best way to do this is to use a short (4- to 5-inch) knife with a thick (1 inch), strong blade. This allows you to accomplish three things with ease: first, the teeth of the zig-zag will be an even inch long; second, the blade is just long to reach toward the center of that part of the melon; and third, the knife is strong enough to twist in the rind without bending or breaking.

The separated lid and base
That last explanation needs more of an explanation: Once you cut all the way around the lid, you will need to get the top loose. To do this, just gently twist the blade in the cuts, and the center of the watermelon lid will soon break loose. And then all you have to do is lift off the lid.

What you are left with is something like a big, red sunflower, as can be seen on the right; notice now the center of the melon has broken off, in contrast to the slice marks on the zig-zags. After that, use a melon-baller, if you like, to cut around 24 balls out of the flesh, and then use a large, thin spoon to scoop out the rest of the melon. You can use this part to make the cold watermelon soup in the previous post, or just enjoy it as is. As you scoop out the flesh, leave a small layer of the red melon in there so that it contrasts beautifully with the soup when you serve it. 

The next part is the best part of all: decorating the rind. You can be as fancy as you like here, carving dragons and phoenixes and peonies if you are really talented. I just went with a simple geometric design, using a paring knife to outline the teeth on the body, and then a little further knifework on the lid to dress it up.
Detail of the lid

And that's it. Set aside a half hour or so the first time you make this -- as long as you are not carving the Great Wall in your melon, that is -- and you will be surprised how fast the carving takes.

My final bit of advice is to tie some kitchen string around the melon in a cross pattern (sort of like tying ribbon around a gift) so that you can lift the melon out of your steamer. Why steam the melon? Well, you're going to be pouring hot soup in there, and if the melon is cold, the soup will immediately cool down. Besides, if you follow my advice and pour the soup into the melon bowl about 15 minutes before you serve it, the soup will stay very hot, and you will be nice and rested when it comes to the soup course; plus, the melon balls will have just enough time to absorb the savory soup while releasing some of their juices back into the broth.

So here it is, my own take on a Manchurian classic, just in time for melon season.  Read the recipe through a couple of times before you start to make sure that you know what utensils will be needed and to get the timing right. It's completely easy, but the magic is -- as always -- in the details.

Manchurian chicken and watermelon soup with ham 
Ji huo xiguazhong 雞火西瓜盅 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

Melon and broth:
3 small dried scallops, or 3 tablespoons dried shrimp
½ cup dried sliced porcini or Chinese black mushrooms
Boiling water, as needed
1 ham bone (Chinese or Western), with a strip or two of the rind with fat attached
5 cups filtered water
One (10- to 11-pound) round, seedless watermelon, perfectly ripe

½ pound ground chicken, preferably organic and free-range
1 tablespoon finely-chopped, peeled ginger
1 green onion, trimmed and finely chopped
Carve balls out of the flesh
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon Shaoxing or other rice wine 
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 or 4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
Salt or soy sauce, if needed

1. Place the scallops and mushrooms in separate heatproof bowls. Cover the scallops with boiling water and cover with a plate. Cover the mushrooms with about a cup of boiling water. While they soak, prepare the broth by boiling the ham bone and rind in the water for a few minutes, and then reducing the heat to a gentle simmer. When the scallops and mushrooms are soft, remove them from the soaking water (pour the soaking water from both through a fine sieve into the broth). You can shred the scallops with your fingers into thin shards; add these to the broth. (Chop the shrimp finely if you are using those instead of the scallops.) Gently squeeze the mushrooms to remove most of the water, and then chop them finely; these will be added to the meatballs in step 3.

2. Wash the melon and dry it, then cut the lid off about a fifth of the way down from the stem end, using a zig-zag pattern as described above. Use the larger end of a melon-baller to cut 24 balls out of the center of the watermelon; reserve these melon balls and use a large, thin spoon to scoop out the rest of the flesh, which can be used for something else. Leave a thin layer of the red flesh inside the melon base and the lid. (If you don't have a melon-baller, cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes and then shape them with a paring knife.) 

3. Make the meatballs by mixing the ground chicken in a medium work bowl with the chopped mushrooms, ginger, green onion, cornstarch, rice wine, soy sauce, and as much black pepper as you like. (I like about half a teaspoon.) Stir the mixture with your fingers in one direction to make the meat bouncy and light. Then, divide the meat into 24 small balls. Wet your hands and rub each ball between your palms to smooth the surfaces.

4. Heat the oil in a large flat frying pan over medium-high heat and add the meatballs in one layer. Brown them all over. (You can prepare this soup ahead of time up to this point.) About 15 minutes before serving, remove the ham bone and rind from the broth and add the meatballs; poach them very gently without boiling the broth, as this will cause the meatballs to break apart. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning with a bit more soy sauce or salt. About 5 minutes before serving, add the watermelon balls to the broth and continue to gently poach the broth.

Tie string around the melon

5. Prepare a large, deep pot with a steamer trivet on the bottom; this pot needs to be deep enough and wide enough to hold the melon base, and you will need a cover for the pot, as well. First tie kitchen twine around the base in a cross pattern (see picture on the right) and tie a knot at the top; this will make removing the melon from the steamer very, very easy. Pour an inch or two of boiling water into the pot and place the melon base on top of the trivet; cover the pot and steam the melon for no more than 5 or 6 minutes, just to heat it through. (The lid shouldn't be steamed so that you can handle it without getting burned.) 

6. Have a bowl ready that holds the melon base snugly, and transfer the melon base to the bowl; cut off the string and discard. Pour the broth, meatballs, and melon balls into the base, put the melon lid on top, and let the soup sit for about 15 minutes so that the melon balls become slightly seasoned and softened without turning mushy. When you are ready, serve the soup with a flourish. Ladle it out into individual soup bowls at the table.

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