Friday, June 17, 2011

Who's Your Umami???

   There will be bitter! That's all I have to say when talking about the relatively unknown and mysterious (to Western palates) Bitter Melon. Americans as a rule don't do bitter. Sweet and salty yes. We sort of gloss over and tippy toe around the sour part and go directly to the 5th flavor, the Umami. But wait just a sec, hiding in there in the middle of all those great adjectives is the missing taste.....Bitter.
   I remember having a dinner with friends years ago. We decided to be quite sophisticated (we were like 23) and dispense with the cookies and cakes and mousse, and serve dark, bitter chocolate truffles from Los Angeles' Paris Pastry which back in the day was "the place"  for all sweet stuff. We were so proud of our early '80s selves. It was so minimalist. Dusty, dark, hand rolled truffles on a silver tray, tiny cups of cappuchino. The 6 year old at the table, one Morgan by name, squeeed with delight!! Then something dark and hard whizzed past my head and struck the wall, sticking. It was one of the bittersweet, dark chocolate truffles. Morgan had quickly reached out and jammed one in her mouth, and then just as quickly projectile-spewed it across the dining room table. Ptoooey! Bitter!!
  A couple of Christmases ago I made a tart cherry compote. I made the mistake of announcing at the table what it was. No one would touch it. From the kid's table came a frantic whispered "Aunt Kathy, Aunt Kathy, do I hafta eat that??? I'm scared of it" Don't even ask about what happened when I served them Feta cheese. You would have thought I'd put raw Iguana meat down in front of them. So I learned and learned fast that things that are prefaced by tart, spicy and bitter have to be explained.
  That is why I'm explaining Bitter Melon, or bitter gourd as it's sometimes known. It is bitter yes, but with the correct balance of spices and other ingredients in the dish and on the table, the bitter is an asset, an adventure for the tongue and the spirit. It contributes to Umami, and we all know how cool that is.
   Bitter Melon is filled with vitamins and has been used for eons as a part of traditional medicine. Scientists today are discovering ancient Bitter Melon eaters were on to something as there's a great deal of research being done on the benefits. Read all about Bitter Melon here.
  Bitter Melon is found in any Asian or Indian Market and the two main types one will find are the Chinese (big and smooth) and  Indian (little pointed and nubbly) and yes, they're both bitter.
   I've cooked with Bitter Melon for years, and most of the time its been an ingredient, part of an Indian vegetable stew, or mixed with something else. In those dishes, the Bitter Melon was an accent, a part of the big show. This time I was determined to serve it on it's own. It was gonna be the star.
  No matter what is going to be done with Bitter Melon, it has to be prepped before cooking to reduce the bitterness. There are several ways of doing this. Blanching and salting are a couple of them. I decided to salt. I was going to cook a sauteed caramelized Bitter Melon dish as a side for lunch. Here's what to do.

Curried Bitter Melon

   Wash and slice the Bitter Melon thinly. Remove any seeds.
 Place the sliced Bitter Melon in a bowl. Sprinkle it with :
  1 tsp of salt
  1 tsp of turmeric
Massage it in well.
Let it sit for about 15 minutes
   After the Bitter Melon has "rested," squeeze the bitter water from it with your hands. Rinse it a couple of times and squeeze some more.
You are good to go.

  In a large skillet or kadhai, heat 2 Tbs of vegetable oil
 When the oil is hot toss in:
  1 tbs of urad dal
 1 large green chile, seeded and thinly sliced.
When the dal and chilies start to sizzle, toss in:
 1 onion, quartered then sliced
 A handful of curry leaves.
 A pinch of turmeric
 A paste made of 1 shallot and a 1 inch piece of sliced ginger blended in a spice grinder with a dab of water.
When the onions and paste have started to brown add in:
 The bitter melon
Sprinkle in 1 tsp of ground coriander and stir it together for a minute or two. Then turn the heat to medium, put a lid on it and let it cook for another 5 minutes or so.
 Remove the lid and  continue to saute until the vegetable is cooked through.
 Add in a handful of chopped fresh cilantro
And 1 Tbs of jaggery or brown or white sugar.
 Stir it all together and let the sugar caramelize the bitter melon. Cook it down a bit further.
 Taste for seasoning. You may need to add a bit more sugar. The flavor should be slightly sweet, with a bitter finish. After all it is Bitter Melon. There will be bitter!
   I was nervous giving this to Alan as part of his lunch. He's had Bitter Melon before, but only as part of a whole dish, never on it's own. I was ready to duck in case any little green rings went flying. Surprise of surprise...he liked it!
  The trick to serving Bitter Melon all by it's lonesome is what is served with it. Rice or a simple dal is always good. A chapatti, a raita, and another vegetable that will round out the flavors. You don't need to mask the Bitter Melon but you do want to balance it. That's the key to this interesting and snappy vegetable. If you dare, if you want to walk on the wild side, if you're not afraid to show your bitter and get all Umami up in there, go Bitter Melon.
 Coming up next. I do a dinner and explore more adventurous flavors. Follow along on Twitter @kathygori


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