Thursday, March 22, 2007

BitterSweet Melon-choly

Ever wonder how certain foods remind you of people from your childhood, especially grandparents? In my case, bitter melon reminds me of my grandmother.

Periodically, the grandchildren were deposited into her care, and after some thorough spoiling, she graduated us to other matters: cleaning us up not only on the outside but also on the inside. This involved introducing us to specific adult foods.

One of these was the bitter melon, a dreadfully bitter vegetable - as ugly as it was bitter - and it was so bitter, we were actually excused from not eating the entire serving. Unheard of. We called it the green crocodile from hell because its skin was toady and reptilian. The first time I took a taste, I was so stunned by it's bitterness - I could hardly believe something that bad would be deliberately put on the dinner table.

Grandma tried everything to get us to regard this as a sainted food and not a flat-out inedible poison. She called it "korela". The older kids ate it without fuss, in fact, they were shepherded in, their grown-up eating preferences put on display, and they actually ate it as though they liked it. The adults made a big deal of how smart they were, and how we were so young, likely going to remain that way if we continued to look upon this sainted food as poison. Somehow, we knew this, the most odious and relentlessly bitter-tasting of vegetables, had to be pretty special - you couldn't find a substance more opposite to the idea of sugar than this. So we made faces, but we ate it and grandma really did try to make it taste good. But she never said it wasn't bitter, she said straight up it was very bitter, and very good for you, that it cleaned your blood and made you strong. And she was right. A year or so later, I was among the older and wiser kids, setting a superior example to a new generation of recently assaulted tastebuds. My grandma, Doctor Grandma to you!

To this day, when I see bitter melon in the rare store, I am reminded of my fantastic good health. My subtle knowledge of what foods to select to stay that way I attribute mainly to her...I do pay homage to my entire ancestral line which contributed to this uncanny taste-balance , food-health-diagnostic thing I have. So, I buy lots of bitter melon, and pass on the bitterness. How sweet this memory is, and how I miss her. Now all grown up and then some, I find myself craving it usually around spring cleaning... which is now...

Bitter melon is among the few items that will cure diabetes (and if you don't believe that, it's OK with me, please don't eat it, and if you don't like me making that claim, feel free to climb the nearest legal rope and hang yourself) ... and they're finding out it cures a lot of liver ailments, good for a lot of immuno-supressive diseases. Whatever. I've do crave this thing now, and when I do, I remember those innocent times with bittersweet melancholy, for they can be no more.

I have developed this recipe which gets rave reviews, and calls for seconds and thirds by those who have never tasted bitter melon before.

Bitter melon with yellow lentils (chana dal)

1 cup yellow split peas (lentils)
4 cups water

2-3 Tablespons soysauce (optional)
1 large onion, finely chopped (I prefer white onion)
1/2 head garlic finely chopped
2-3 tablespoons fresh and finely chopped ginger
1 Tablespoon cumin seed or powder if you don't have the seed
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 Tablespoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt (or more, if you don't use soy)
4 Tablespoon mix of olive and sesame oil
1 Tablespoon of chana masala which has: amchoor (dried mango powder yum!), ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, anardana (pomegranate seed!), black and green cardamom, black salt, white salt, cloves, turmeric, garlic, nutmeg, mustard seed, bay leaves, asafetida (hing), coriander, cumin, fenugreek (methi) leaves. This is sweeter than the other masalas.

If you don't have it, that's fine too, just use 1 teaspoon of curry powder, or a tiny bit of as many of these ingredients that you do have. Don't worry about the spice balancing. If you can only manage to have one or two spices, make sure these are cumin and turmeric.


(Warning: The pressure-cooker approach is about as nutritious as flash frying onions in plastic.)

Clean the lentils thoroughly in cold water, and bring to a boil in 4 cups of fresh water. Skim off the beany scum. Add salt, soy sauce (optional), turmeric, masala to the lentils and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile in a small pan, heat oil, and add cumin, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, onion, garlic, and ginger for several minutes; when the spices begin to release their oils, add it all to the lentil mix.

Simmer and stir frequently as the lentils tend to burn. If they do burn, do not stir or scrape, just remove contents to a fresh pot, and continue. Simmer for another hour or so, until the lentils become soft and it turns into a creamy texture.

You will want to serve this over the bitter melon, next to a bed of rice and perhaps other tidbits. Note, it can be refrigerated and heated up the next day for a richer taste. I prefer to split the prep over two days, and re-simmer for 30-45 minutes the next day when I do the bitter melon. In my experience, lentil soup does not keep for more than a three or so days in the refrigerator, and you will know this as it can develop a "sour" smell, and does this quite rapidly, so take care, don't leave it out.

Bitter melon:
1 large bitter melon ripe or not
Fenugreek seeds 1/2 tsp
Black mustard seeds 1/2 tsp
Soy sauce
A tspn of the chana-type masala which has: amchoor, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, anardana, black and green cardamom,black salt, white salt, cloves, turmeric, garlic, nutmeg, ral, bay leaves, asafetida, coriander, cumin, methi leaves. This is sweeter than the other masalas. If you don't have it that's fine too.
1 medium onion chopped finely
5 cloves garlic chopped finely

Cut melon lengthwise and fish out the seeds. Cut into thin strips and then across so each strip is about 2 inches long. Place in a bowl with some soy sauce (for the salt), some tumeric and a bit of chana masala. Marinate for about 10 minutes.

In a saucepan place some olive oil, and the onion and garlic. Brown them slowly, and add the spices, then the bitter melon. You can skip the onions and garlic if you'd prefer the bitter melon straight up but use the spices. Cover and cook very slowly for about 30 minutes, stirring as it will brown and stick from time to time. In the end, they'll be quite soft with a lot of brown in the pan, it's all good. You may have to add a teaspoon of so of water along the way.

When the lentils are ready, spoon several tablespoons of the bitter melon mix in a soup bowl, pour two ladles of the lentil soup over it, and serve right away.

The lentils give an almost sweet contrast to the bitterness of the melon, and this dish gets rave reviews for taste and health values.

For a more elaborate dinner, I serve this with a fish and another vegetable dish, followed by a slice of the Springtime version of apple coconut pie... washed down with sparkling wine. These sorts of dishes mark the end of winter for me.


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