Thursday, February 16, 2012

winter melon soup

One of the somewhat annoying things about this pregnancy (and this has by far been the most symptom-laden of my three pregnancies to date--about which more later, if I feel like whining) is the fact that I really haven't felt hungry for, oh, the past four and a half months. Not that I'm not eating, of course--I am, pretty much as usual. But I just feel kind of generally blergh about the idea of food, and I haven't been really hungry in the classic sense since about the middle of November. I just kind of eat when it's eatin' time, because I know I should, and because my stomach is making noises. These days I'm usually indifferent at best about food before I eat, and then after, I feel kind of bloat-y and nauseous.

Eighteen weeks and counting. This had better be a mighty cute baby is all I'm saying.

I have been craving certain types of foods (this, again, is no different from before I was pregnant, only that I'm paying more attention to foods that don't fill me with a sense of mortal loathing), but these foods are not so difficult to locate in Atlanta. Mostly I've been craving Chinese soups. Real Chinese soups. Not the messes you find in your Chinese takeout restaurants--your MSG-laden wonton soups, your cornstarch-thickened hot sour soups or what have you.  And it's really not that I have anything in particular against takeout Chinese food--it has its place, and I enjoy a mess of greasy pan-fried noodles with beef as much as the next person. It's just a different cuisine entirely.  Authentic Chinese soups--what they in Chinatown call "slow fire soups" (I believe this is the more literal translation--anyone who speaks Chinese better than I please correct if necessary), are a different beast; soups that have been slowly simmering over the stove for hours, if not all day.

Chinese "slow fire" soups are different than Western-style soups in that they are much more broth-oriented. Many Western-style soups (consommé excluded) do kind of straddle that line between soup and stew--the solid ingredients are the focus rather than the broth itself. Chinese soups tend to focus more on the liquid component. You could filter our all the solids and still have an exquisite bowl of soup--clear yet full-bodied. Not to get all medical on you (nor to get you to focus on the common end-point of all ingested foodstuffs) but Chinese soups could well be included in a clears-only diet, whereas most Western soups would be excluded until one's diet was advanced to full regular.

What I decided I wanted to make was a winter melon soup.

(Thankfully, my go-to Asian mart sells winter melon pre-hacked into usable-sized chunks, because I seem to have left my machete in the car.)

Now let's not let the fact that I have never in my life made a winter melon soup, nor the need for a few specialty ingredients deter you. That's what the Internet is for. I skimmed this recipe from Epicurious (which I used more as inspiration rather than explicit instruction, because--stuff a whole chicken's hollowed out organ cavities with matchsticked scallions ham and ginger to make my own chicken broth? How much time do you think I have?) and kind of cobbled together my own recipe out of what schedule constraints and ingredients I could readily get my hands on. And now here it is for you.

I don't really have the amounts precisely because I'm a little slapdash as a cook, but here's what I used generally:

  • Winter melon (Dur. May be hard to find in a regular supermarket, but an Asian grocery store should have it)
  • One big carrot (to give the soup some easy sweetness)
  • Smoked ham hocks (for adding porky fattiness to the broth--the kind I got were frozen but no matter--I used half of the package depicted)
  • Chicken broth (I used one carton's worth)
  • Water (About 1.5x as much as the chicken broth)
  • Ginger (peeled carefully!) -- about two inches worth
  • Scallions (one bunch)
  • Dried shrimp (about a handful)
  • Dried shitake mushrooms (about a handful too)
  • Salt

Except for the winter melon, put everything into a pot and then simmer the shit out of it for three hours.

(Seriously, that's most of my "recipe."  LOOK, I DON'T COOK, OK?)

Fine: I peeled the carrot, cut the ginger into discs and cut the scallions into four sections, but seriously--that's about it.  Oh, but look at this cool thing I got at the Asian mart (it's not an Asian implement per se, but they happened to sell it there for super cheap):

Maybe you can't see it too well from the shadow of the pot lid, but it's this little permeable metal basket for broth-making ingredients. I wanted to flavor the broth with the scallions and the dried shrimp*, but I didn't want to go fishing them all out at the end either, because my goal was a nice, clean soup without a lot of bits floating around in it. So this basket seemed like a good option, almost like a giant version of those things that people use when they want to use loose tea instead of teabags.

Anyway, simmer the shit out of it. Salt the broth to taste, but don't get too crazy with the salt unless you want to RUIN EVERYTHING. After three hours, take out all your ham hocks and your little basket of scallions and dried shrimp--they've done their job, now they can go, because they are ugly.  I guess a purist might filter the broth through a fine mesh to get it really nice and clear, but what am I, Martha Stewart?  Just leave it, it's fine.

Cut up your winter melon (not including the peel, also get rid of the seeds and stringy stuff) and cut it into nice spoonable sized chunks. Add to the broth and simmer for another half an hour or so, or until the melon gets translucent and velvety.  I also added a little bit of Napa cabbage at the end because it seemed contextually similar and something else to soak up those nice soupy flavors, but you don't have to--it's not really a classic interpretation.

(I have seen some other recipe variations which included cilantro, which while I admit might improve the presentation--the palette runs somewhat monochromatic--also kind of defeats what to me is the essential appeal of winter melon soup.  I think of this soup the way that Ruth Reichl once described mushroom soup, which is that it is smooth and easy and comforting with no sharp edges to jar the palate.  I like cilantro, but it doesn't belong in every damn thing, people.)

Dish it out.  Serve with white rice.  Or put the rice and the soup right in the same bowl, like I do.

It's eatin' time.

How about you all? What easy ethnic comfort foods have you guys have been able to recreate reliably at home without too much fuss?

* I substituted dried shrimp for dried scallops, because even at the Asian food mart, there were no dried scallops to be found. Perhaps at a different market, or in Chinatown--a urban neighborhood which, so far as I am aware, Atlanta lacks. I do recall there being a jar of dried scallops in the fridge at my house during most of my childhood, and though they looked like ugly little dessicated eraser nubs, I can attest that the flavor is quite good--very salty and savory and jammed with flavor, like fishy Milk Duds.  Dried shrimp is a decent substitution though, or at least so says Ming Tsai, noted Chinese person who cooks stuff on the teevee.


  1. Michelle, I have never in my life heard of "winter melon" (and I cook all the time!!), but now, thanks to you and Wikipedia's entry on this plant, I'm now at least acquainted with it!

  2. I love making some Chinese noodles (soy sauce + peanut butter + sesame oil + chopped garlic + green onions)... My boyfriend makes it for me when I'm feeling lousy, with extra peanut butter!
    I also love making those Viet spring rolls at home... Getting the thin spring roll wrappers and putting in shrimp/cucumber/cilantro. Although the best part of it is the peanut butter mixed with hoisin sauce that I slather into it (it really makes everything taste better).
    I'm tempted to try this winter melon soup though...

  3. I heart mexican food, indian food, sushi and enjoy taking favorite dishes and mixing something crazy in it. Fried tofu mixed with shrimp enchiladas, sushi with venison or a spicy curry with squid.

    I also love to get new ideas from food blogs. i have been recently thinking I want to try some jamaican dishes maybe something with goat hmmm..

  4. Posole. I am a gringo New Mexican, and when I need comfort food, it's definitely posole. Chimayo red chile, onions, garlic, mexican oregano all sauteed together and then pureed, add some chicken stock and chunks of pork loin that has been browned, and a bunch of hominy. I like my posole stewy rather than soupy. Garnish with lime, cabbage, radish, cheese, corn torillas and a little sour cream if it's too spicy, and you have yourself one awesome meal.

  5. Anonymous1:12 PM

    When I'm feeling the need for comfort food, I love salty chicken; the rice it's cooked under is the best part though! I'm also a big fan of the winter melon soup. My Gramma still grows her own winter melons :)


  6. Anonymous8:08 PM

    Ethnic...not sure...southern , big time. My comfort food in a crock pot of Lima beans (big ones) with a salty ham hock. Maybe a pot of collard greens and a batch of jalapeño cornbread....good stuff!

  7. Anonymous9:47 PM

    Michelle, do you have to buy all new baby stuff or did you keep some of the bigger stuff from Cal/Mack?

  8. Bravo Michelle! I've never made winter melon soup before but I love it!

  9. Winter melon soup sounds interesting and tasty. My go-to recipe for Chinese cuisine is actually pork wontons. The filling itself is *so* versatile, I can turn it into wontons for soup, wontons just because, or meatballs covered in sticky rice. Also, congratulations on baby #3, and I am so jealous of your flat belly. Maybe you're just way taller than me, though. I'm 5'2" and short waisted, and it was obvious from about 12 weeks on that I was pregnant, both times.

  10. Linda8:22 AM

    Love winter melon, and the soup looks delicious! Congrats on the pregnancy!

  11. Anonymous3:20 AM

    nice idea..thanks for sharing....

  12. Anonymous2:29 AM

    fantastic. I've had the soup with carrot and cabbage and I must say you did a fantastic job keeping it authentic. Though I've only had it with fatty pork ribs and not ham

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