Saturday, April 18, 2009

Putting Hair On My Chest: Stir-fried Bitter Melon with Lamb and Black Beans

Although Spanish cooking is my greatest interest, I love to cook dishes from all of the world's great cuisines. I am especially drawn to Asian (especially Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese) cooking because of its astonishing array of ingredients, textures, and flavors. As an added bonus, Asian cooking has three practical advantages for me: 1) it helps me increase my intake of vegetables 2) it allows me to use up any leftovers easily and 3) it allows me to experiment with all sorts of "exotic" ingredients.

Last night, my wife and I ate at Barcelona. Barcelona is a great example of the upscale faux-Spanish restaurants that are common across America. Now don't get me wrong, my braised Colorado lamb shank with cheesy risotto was delicious. Memorable even. It just doesn't remind me of anything remotely resembling Spanish cuisine, traditional or nueva. Simply put, it is the type of dish any trendy American restaurant might serve.

Diatribe against American attempts to replicate Spanish food aside, my leftover lamb shank inspired me to try a classic Hunanese dish I've been thinking about for awhile. For months, I've spotted the gnarled and wrinkly bitter melon at the Asian grocery. After reading an old post from Kian at Red Cook, I finally decided to give it a shot.

Bitter melon is, well, bitter. Fiercely bitter. Will-put-hair-on-your-chest bitter. This is not for the squeamish. For some reason, bitterness is the one flavor that will cause otherwise adventerous American eaters to balk. Exactly the sort of challenge I love. The key to succeeding with bitter melon is to pair it with something equally bold. The gamy Colorado-raised lamb was the perfect ticket. Cooks in Hunan province often pair bitter melon with fermented black beans. The complex sweetness of the beans goes a long way to balance the bitterness of the melon. Surely the lamb and beans together would be enough for my first foray into bitter melon cooking...

WARNING: This dish is incredibly bitter. Bitter melon is not a joke or euphemism. If you serve this dish to a child, expect an immediate visit from Child Services!

Stir-Fried Bitter Melon with Lamb and Black Beans
Inspired by and adapted from
Serves 2 (or 4 as part of a traditional multicourse Chinese meal)
Cost: Tough to say...let's estimate $10 since leftover lamb shank is hardly commonplace

1 tbsp. fermented black beans, roughly chopped
2 tbsp. Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbsp. neutral oil (I used corn)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. ginger, minced
1-2 dried Thai red chiles (optional)
1 bitter melon, sliced lengthwise seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups leftover lamb (or other full flavored red meat!)
1 1/2 tsp. Chinese light soy sauce
1/4 ground pepper (white is traditional but all I had was black)

1) Soak the black beans in the rice wine

2) Heat the oil in a 12" non-stick skillet or wok over high heat. When the oil is getting hot (but not yet smoking), add the garlic, ginger, and chiles. Cook, stirring, until fragrant. Add the bitter melon and cook for an additional 1 minute.

3) Add the water, black beans, and wine to the skillet. Cover and reduce heat to medium-high. Cook, shaking occasionally, for 2 minutes.

4) Uncover and add lamb. Cook for 2 more minutes until heated through. Add the soy sauce and pepper, toss, and transfer to a bowl. Serve with white rice.

1 comment:

  1. Great recipe! I'm very glad you used your creativity to create this stir-fry dish. And yes... bitter melon truly lives up to its name. It is very bitter.

    Incidentally bitter melon has been proven to be beneficial for diabetes patients. Apparently the chemical compounds that make the melon bitter have the ability to regulate blood sugar level.