Monday, October 15, 2018

Pork rib soup in a carved winter melon

Sometimes just a tiny bit of work can give you something really spectacular for the dinner table. Case in point: soup inside a carved winter melon.

It used to be that you could only buy enormous winter melons. But recently a smaller variety has been showing up with delicious regularity in Chinese markets, and they are the perfect size for home meals. 

They are also fantastic for another reason: since they haven’t been cut up, they remain fresh and delicious for a very long time.

I adore winter melon. It has an unusual, almost spicy aroma, and it is one of the most versatile vegetables in creation. Hot or cold, savory or (yes!) sweet, this is a true chameleon.

You’re probably thinking, ‘Sweet?’ Well, yes indeedy. Winter melon is transformed into candy, sweet drinks, and extenders for sticky fillings, such as pineapple, which might otherwise be too cloying without the moistness and comparative blandness that grated winter melon can supply.

Be that as it may, winter melon is mainly beloved for its role in soups, in braises, and as a blank canvas for things like this delectably refreshing appetizer. But the one incarnation that always delighted me the most was when it arrived on a banquet table, all carved up into fancy designs, and acting as both the bowl and the vegetable for a delicious soup.

Now that I can lay my hands on these cute little melons, I’ve been enjoying them even more, since dinnertime gets turned into a special occasion when this soup is the centerpiece.

Pork rib soup in a carved winter melon
Páigŭ dōngguā zhōng 排骨冬瓜盅
Serves 4

Pork and marinade:
Around 1 pound | 500 g pork riblets (half a side of ribs, the bones cut into 1 inch | 2 cm pieces)
¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 cup | 250 ml peanut or vegetable oil

1 quart | 1 liter unsalted stock or water, divided
1 cup | 250 ml Shaoxing rice wine
2 inches | 5 cm fresh ginger, sliced
Rock sugar to taste
1 tablespoon homemade mushroom seasoning, or salt or soy sauce to taste
Ice cubes, as needed

1 small winter melon (about 3 pounds | 1.5 kg)

1. Cut between the bones to separate the riblets. Pat them dry and place them in a resealable bag or container. Toss them with the soy sauce and rice wine, and then marinate for at least a couple of hours and up to 5 days. Drain the riblets and pat dry.

2. Set a wok or frying pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Slide in half of the riblets and fry until golden. Remove the riblets and then repeat with the other half.

3. Bring the stock (or water) and rice wine to a full boil in a medium saucepan. Add the ginger and the fried ribs, bring the pan once more to a full boil, and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the ribs until very tender, adding more stock or water as needed to keep the ribs covered. Remove the pan from the heat and cool. Add ice cubes to the soup, and then skim off and discard the congealed fat and leftover ice cubes.

4. While the stock is simmering, carve the winter melon (see Tips below), cut off the top to make a lid, and scrape out the seeds and membrane. Set the winter melon in a heatproof bowl and set the melon lid in the steamer, too, but without covering the melon, so that the heat easily penetrates the inside of the melon. (If you are going to serve this at a fancy dinner, though, replace the lid on the melon, as this will help keep the shape of both parts.) Steam the winter melon until it is tender but still holds it shape, at least 1 hour. Cool the melon until it is relatively easy to handle, and then pour out any liquid in it.

5. Now, before you go any further, practice removing that bowl from the steamer. Remember that it will be hot and heavy when it comes time to remove it, so figure that in, as well. The bowl should have a good lip on it, so that you can use a strong canning lifter to get a grip on it. The other alternative is to set the bowl on a small heatproof plate. But whatever you use, make sure there are a couple of inches | centimeters all the way around the bowl and optional plate so that you can safely grab them without dropping them back into the pot. It's a big mess when that happens, and yes, I'm speaking from experience.

6. Bring the ribs and broth to a full boil. Put enough of the ribs in the cooked winter melon so that the lid can still be placed on top of the melon, and then add the broth almost to the top of the melon bowl. Cover the melon with its lid, and then steam it for around 15 minutes to completely heat through the melon. Serve hot. Add more hot broth and ribs as needed, and toward the end of the meal, scrape out the melon flesh and serve with more of the broth.

Tips on carving

Wash the winter melon and pat dry. Use a paring knife to sketch out your pattern.

To cut the pattern, use either a paring knife, specialty carving tools, or (my favorite) a channel knife as shown in the second photo, as this makes the carving especially easy to control.

Once you have the melon decorated to your satisfaction, use a zigzag pattern to cut off the lid (see photo on the right). 

The membrane will be connected to the lid and therefore secure the lid down onto the melon, so carefully pry the lid off as much as you can, and then slip your paring knife in there to slash off the membrane. The seeds and membrane are pretty easy to remove after that.

Set the winter melon in a heatproof bowl that fits easily into your steamer. 

Make sure that there is plenty of clearance around the melon so that the heat circulates well, and also so that you can lift out your bowl without too much trouble. A wide, deep pot with a trivet or even a pasta insert work well.