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Winter melon soup 冬瓜肉丸汤

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It's cold outside: Time for a big bowl of winter melon soup 冬瓜汤。In all fairness, this is one of those family favorites that can be enjoyed any time of year. It's mild and warming; not difficult to make. Sometimes I cook it without meat, but today I used ground pork meatballs. Let me show you a reliable and straightforward way to go about it. 

 

At the market you will usually see two kinds of winter melon. Admirably, the nomenclature couldn't be easier: namely big 大 and small 小。Wish all ingredient names were always that obvious. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.)

 

683988394_IMG_20181212_100521(2).thumb.jpg.7c79ec0d0be264cb47966f58d565c62d.jpgThe big ones, pictured on the right, are so large that you would have to use both arms and grunt to heft a whole one off the ground. They are always sold in small sections, such as those just in front of the friendly shopkeeper. 

 

Notice the white "frost" on the surface. This is where these gourds got their name. They actually grow better in the summer months, but way back when, a long time ago, their appearance reminded someone of a snowy winter. 

 

Smaller winter melons are also for sale, left part of the picture. They are more fibrous and work better in stir-fry dishes. This seller also has lush, deep orange butternut squash 南瓜, near the back of the picture. These all grow on vines, often trellised to improve yield. Her husband and her brother tend the farm, south of the city. She comes to town to sell the bounty. 

 

 

Both kinds are really cheap. For under 5 Yuan you can buy enough for two or three meals. The big ones have a texture somewhere between that of a watermelon and a cucumber. Donggua has a bland flavor, ever so slightly sweet. They aren't eaten raw; and they shine as an ingredient in soup because they don't eclipse other flavors. Often they are paired with pork spare ribs in a hearty soup 冬瓜排骨汤。I'll show you that one another day. 

 

One of the reasons this vegetable is such an integral part of Chinese family-style cooking is that it can keep a long time after being picked: 3 or 4 months if it hasn't been cut. For many of China's lean years it was a "go to" peasant food, along with cabbage 白菜。It could be grown without a lot of pampering; didn't require the sort of modern plastic tents 塑料大棚 that today make summer vegetables available nearly year round. 

 

811883912_IMG_20181212_100530(2).thumb.jpg.e8b579b0a4e6a26b658d887eae0bd414.jpg   345463989_IMG_20181212_100533(2).thumb.jpg.b7c0edd417497267559657ae94ee62bb.jpg

 

 

The seller will peel and seed it if you ask her, but I usually do that at home since I might not use it all at one go, and it keeps better with the peel on. Today I rinsed it and peeled it with my knife, then cut away the soft central pith. Sliced it into pieces a couple centimeters thick as shown. 

 

54446713_IMG_6894(2)-36.thumb.jpg.0327de00786cbf92a919ca51816db332.jpg   645427911_IMG_6899(2)-42.thumb.jpg.4d7e73ba4fd1253f9caae63db2c5c208.jpg

 

 

I bought a few flavorful organic carrots 有机胡萝卜, some spring onions 葱,single-head garlic 独蒜, and a piece of ginger 老姜。Cut these up as pictured, taking pains to mince the garlic and ginger really fine 切米. The Chinese term for this kind of cutting means that they should be minced into pieces no larger than grains of rice. 

 

104951008_IMG_6902(2)-42.thumb.jpg.da364f2baa74ae59a8f3acc1bcc786e6.jpg   48485176_IMG_6904(2)-46.thumb.jpg.3d10fe6b04f3ef590a5267fd4cf5e6ee.jpg

 

 

I bought some pork, ground to order with about 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat (by eye.) Pork prices have gone up recently because some pigs have had to be killed to prevent spread of a nasty virus. This has impacted stockpiles and supply lines. 

 

Put the ground pork on a chopping block 菜板 and minced it even finer with my cleaver 菜刀, turning it this way and that plus folding it over on itself half a dozen times. Then mixed it in a bowl with half a teaspoon of salt, a fourth teaspoon of ground white pepper, a tablespoon of soy sauce, one egg white 蛋清, and of course the minced garlic and ginger.  Stirred it all together really well 搅拌均匀。

 

2105122454_IMG_6907(2)34.thumb.jpg.21ccc94cf9bbcd6991ac5d78c8c3640f.jpg   2011253847_IMG_6910(3)-44.thumb.jpg.5b3b9970dc4cd542a7d9edbf25367a90.jpg

 

 

Put about 750 ml of water on the stove to come to a simmer and then spooned in the seasoned meat, forming it into approximate spheres using two teaspoons to make them round. Sometimes I put on a disposable glove and shape it with one hand, using a squeezing motion. Drop these one at a time into the simmering water and let them partially cook.  When they all float, after about 2 minutes, lift them out gently with a strainer and put them in a bowl. We will finish cooking them a little later. 

 

758564021_IMG_6915(3)-47.thumb.jpg.0dfaa0fe1fe2a70489006b5fb6e9c61f.jpg   1602186928_IMG_6918(2)-38.thumb.jpg.8aa4a4579727eaae4c5e74a7e15a4850.jpg

 

 

Since the carrots take longer to cook than the winter melon, start them first. Sometimes I use sections of corn on the cob instead of carrots. They can be put in right along with the winter melon. 

 

1813232010_IMG_6920(2)-38.thumb.jpg.3b163276b33b62186185ed017c056cd7.jpg   800691200_IMG_6921(2)-38.thumb.jpg.6acbf212bb259dd7b5f3bbe2ce7cf028.jpg

 

 

When the carrots become nearly tender (can be pierced with a fork) add the winter melon. It cooks fast, usually only requires about 3 or 4 minutes. When it's partially translucent 半透明 and tender (can be pierced with a chopstick) then return the meat balls to the soup. Give it all another 4 or 5 minutes for the meat to finish cooking and allow the flavors to blend. Keep the pot at a low simmer; a rolling boil would overcook the vegetables and meat, plus make everything kind of fall apart. The best Chinese clear soups are made by  cooking the ingredients just barely long enough. 

 

1909493517_IMG_6925(2)-41.thumb.jpg.56fd32f8c9662bc87e01878b84318c3c.jpg   

I've chopped some fresh cilantro 香菜 as well as the spring onion 葱花。Just before the soup is finished, I taste to see if it needs more salt and sprinkle these aromatic leaves on top as a garnish. 

 

Dish it up. This mild-flavored soup can be served as a side dish or it can be served with steamed rice 米饭 as a light meal. Adjust the amount of liquid to suit your taste. I prefer it kind of concentrated, and that's the version that is shown here today. In a restaurant, it's more likely to be somewhat thinner. This is one of the advantages to cooking things at home. 

 

 

 

 

This glorious but humble soup started as the food of farmers and factory workers, eventually becoming so well accepted that it's now found in five-star banquets. It's another of those authentic regional dishes that I'd never heard of, let alone tasted, until coming here a decade ago. It probably would not sell well at the all-you-can-eat China Star Buffet on the strip mall in Smalltown, Texas, USA.

 

1627566860_IMG_6932(2)-44.thumb.jpg.21155143ad4845b8d137c77c508c93cc.jpg   1593316701_IMG_6934(2)-45.thumb.jpg.64eb4ec46043cc070c592fb0a748161d.jpg

 

Try it and see what you think. Nothing flashy. Just honest family-style Chinese food. The real deal. 

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