Monday, August 18, 2014

Chilled boozy winter melon

One restaurant in the heart of Taipei was home to a couple of dishes I loved, but I always was very reluctant to go there. It certainly wasn’t the food that gave me pause. 

Granted, I didn’t go there for the atmosphere, which was more like a giant 1950s-era Rotary Club rec room than anything else: ceilings high enough to play basketball, old beige walls, echoes bouncing across the room, and the feeling that an impromptu bingo game could materialize at any second.

Cut up the melon
There were not many Westerners in Taipei at that time, and I’m sure that I was the only one that ever made it to this restaurant. The reason for this is that it was run by Taiwan’s armed forces as a dining hall for its officers. 

Fortunately for me, the public could also drop in and enjoy the many Yangtze-region delights on its menu. Unfortunately for me, few people seemed to know about the place, and so the waiters had lots of time on their hands.

And so, what always bothered me was not the décor, but one particular waiter, a middle-aged guy from Zhejiang or somewhere in that neighborhood who apparently thought of me as his personal television set. 
Steamed melon

I can still see him in my mind decades later, with his buzz cut and white rayon shirt, because he always planted himself directly in my field of vision and stared at me through the entire meal while smoking his way through a pack of local cigarettes. It was unnerving. And so I’d get up once he had settle in, move my seat so that my back was to him or position my husband between the waiter and me as a sort of visual blockade, and then finally focus on my dinner, which usually started with this fantastic wine-soaked dish.

It’s nothing much, just winter melon steamed until soft and then bathed in a heady marinade seasoned mainly with ginger and Shaoxing wine. The genius part is that it is then chilled. It’s a stunning way to start a summer dinner.

Chilled winter melon with wine and ginger
Jĭuxiāng liáng dōngguā 酒香涼冬瓜
This is what fresh looks like
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

1 square piece of winter melon (about 1 pound, as flat as possible)
2 teaspoons mushroom seasoning, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon fresh ginger juice
1 lemon
2 tablespoons julienned young ginger

1. Make this the day before you plan to serve it. Rinse the winter melon and pat dry. Remove the seeds and membrane, and then cut off any corners that stick up too high. Slash the flesh down the length of the melon into strips about 1 inch apart, cutting down all the way (but not through) the skin. Turn the melon 90 degrees and cut crosswise 1 inch apart. This will allow the melon to cook quickly and evenly, and also help the flesh easily absorb the seasonings.
A nice sized melon wedge

2. Place the melon on a rimmed, heatproof plate and sprinkle on the mushroom seasoning and rice wine. Steam the melon until the flesh is tender; to check, insert a chopstick in the center of the melon at the bottom of a cut—the chopstick should slide in easily, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the melon from the steamer and let it cool down a bit until you can handle it easily.

3. When it has cooled down enough for you to handle it easily, put the melon flesh-side down in a container along with any liquid from the steamer. Taste it, while you’re at it, and add more mushroom seasoning and rice wine as needed. Pour in the ginger juice. Zest the lemon and sprinkle it in, as well as about a teaspoon of the lemon juice. Cover the container and refrigerate the melon overnight.

4. Just before serving, use a thin blade to cut the flesh loose from the skin without disrupting its natural shape. Place the melon on a rimmed serving plate. Taste the sauce again and adjust the seasoning as needed. Sprinkle sauce and the optional ginger over the melon. Serve chilled or just above room temperature as an appetizer or side dish.

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