Monday, January 7, 2013

Bitter melon turns nutty & even more delicious

I am sure that by now my proselytizing of the Gospel of the Bitter Melon has become about as welcome as finding a Jehovah's Witness permanently planted on your doorstep. 

I know. I understand. But wait: just one more recipe and story, and I'll stop talking about bitter melons. (Besides, the season is about over, so it's not like I'm being especially big about this.)

Today's dish turns the bitter melon on its head, making it nutty and flavorful with the minimum of ingredients and fuss. 

I wasn't expecting much the first time I had this at a Taipei restaurant many years ago. The reasons were simple:

The sole main ingredient
First, I never had been too crazy about bitter melon. Just about every cooked bitter melon dish I had tried up to that point had been stewed or fried the vegetable to death so that it was both mushy and still bitter, a deadly combination.

Second, I never got past the first point.

True, raw bitter melon entranced me from the moment we first met. It was true love. And even today I wait for late autumn for many seasonal ingredients, but for none with more anticipation than the lovely pale fruits that surface for a few short weeks and allow me to make my beloved Hunan-style Hidden Dragon Bitter Melon Appetizer.

Fried in one layer
Someone brilliant, though, devised today's intensely simple dish that doesn't even need to be seasoned, especially if it is being served with a sauce-draped entree that will offer opportunities for occasional dips into other flavors.

Dry-fried bitter melon also is remarkable in that the seeds stay inside the gorgeous jade green slices, offering a nutty textural contrast that is stunning beyond description. The seeds toast up in the thin sheen of oil that is busy cooking the flesh, and they end up not only eminently edible, but also incredibly delicious.

I love these so much the way they are that I don’t even need to salt them unless they are being served in all their glory. In that case, a restrained sprinkle would set off their aromas like nothing else.

Dry-fried bitter melon 
Gānbiān kŭguā 乾煸苦瓜 
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

2 pale green bitter melons between 10 and 12 inches in length
Peanut or vegetable oil
Sea salt, optional

Smoky & nutty
1. Rinse the bitter melons and trim off both ends, as well as any bruises. Cut the melons crosswise into ½-inch slices.

2. Heat a flat skillet over medium-high until it starts to smoke, and then drizzle in a tablespoon or so of the oil to just barely slick the surface. Put in only as many melon slices as will barely cover the bottom of the skillet. Fry the slices until they are browned and speckled, and then turn them over to cook the other side. Remove to a serving plate and repeat with the rest of the bitter melon slices until they are all cooked. Serve hot, with or without a sprinkle of salt.