I love soup — broth-based soups in particular. It’s a comfort food for me; strange, I suppose, for someone who grew up in the temperate climate of southern California, but I guess it is what it is. Of course, now that I live in New England, I appreciate a bowl of nice hot soup even more so.
Growing up, Mom made two soups that I remember in particular: ham hock soup and wintermelon soup. To be honest, I don’t really have a clear idea whether these were actually two distinct soups or if she would just make ham hock soup and put different things into it, wintermelon being one of them. The memories of the warm savory broth and the delicate, semi-translucent chunks of melon go hand in hand. So when I think of one, I always think of the other.
Over the years, I’ve had cravings for these creations, but never could find the proper ingredients in the local markets. I did find a smoked pork hock at one point, but the resulting soup did not pass muster, let alone reach the warm soupy goodness that I remember. (Frankly, it was just BAD.)
November 2003: Eureka!
Close up: the bounty.
Recently, when we visited my friend DrJ down in Maryland and did a tour of the Baltimore public markets, we came upon hocks that were finally up to the task. We brought a few back with us, and have since had our small freezer cache restocked by her most recent visit.
Wintermelon is also not particularly common, but we haven’t had any trouble finding it in most of the markets in Chinatown and have even found them at Russo’s, one of the local farmstand markets.
So, with the weather turning cold, we decided it was time to make some ham hock wintermelon soup.
Ingredients (quantities guesstimated):
2 high-quality Hollins Market ham hocks
1-2 Tbsp dried shrimps
6-8 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 wedge of wintermelon (1/8 of a whole melon)
1/4 lb bamboo shoot
chinese cooking wine
vermicelli (mung bean noodles)
We started the stock midweek (Thursday, I think), adding two hocks, a handful of dried shrimps (2 Tbsp?) and several (maybe 6-8) largish shiitake mushrooms to a stockpot half-full of water. I brought the water to a boil and then lowered the heat to a simmer. At this stage, you should skim the schmutz that floats to the top, but due to the high-quality nature of our hock supply, there was very little schmutz to be skimmed. We let the stock simmer for a couple of hours and left it outside for the night. (the fridge is always packed and it’s cold enough now that the deck serves as an auxiliary cooler. Foodnerd somehow managed to make space in the fridge the next morning. I really have no idea how she does it but I think it involves the access of 4th dimensional space through some kind of invocation to a pantheon of kitchen deities.)
[I should mention now that you will hear no more of the shitake mushrooms. Normally I love shiitakes, but we bought a crummy batch at Costco, and while they do fine in a soup/broth making capacity, they’re actually quite nasty to eat. When the soup was done we tried one, and promptly fished the remaining mushrooms out and dumped them. Bah. But having said that, the soup was otherwise a great success — you’ll see.]
Saturday, we headed over to the Super 88 in Brighton to fetch our wintermelon. While we were there, we also picked up some fresh bamboo shoot and some napa cabbage. We could have gotten canned bamboo shoots, but Foodnerd insisted on the fresh. We also purchased some unrelated fat sticks (sweet Chinese sausage) and sauces. (The Foodnerd just can’t help herself sometimes. She claims we “needed” them.)
First, I coarsely julienned about 1/4 lb of the bamboo shoot. (I’d say it was about enough to make a full handful. Pretty much everything here can be adjusted to taste.) I pulled about half the leaves off the napa cabbage, rinsed them and then sliced them crosswise into 1″ wide strips. (I’m guessing it ended up being about 1/2-1 lb — basically a heaping pile on the cutting board.)
And then it was on to the wintermelon.
I’ve now read that you could just eat it raw, like watermelon, I suppose. It’s also interesting to discover that if you do a Google search on wintermelon, after asking you whether you’re really searching for “watermelon,” you’ll end up with a lot of pages about wintermelon soup. Foodnerd only found one thread on recipes that didn’t result in soup.
Basically, you want vaguely cube-like chunks that are around 1″ on a side. I removed the seeds (I hate to waste any melon, so I don’t just cut off the seedy section), sliced it into 1″ wide, um, slices, and cut off the rind trying to preserve as much of the tender white flesh as possible. (I’m sorry, does that sound dirty?) I then cut the slices into cubes. You don’t want them too large so they don’t take forever to cook through, but you don’t want them too small or they’ll just dissolve. (But you probably already knew that.)
[I had a tough time figuring out how much wintermelon we actually needed so we bought two wedges (roughly an eighth of a whole melon each, i.e. cut in half and then quartered), where each wedge probably weighed around a pound or so. After cutting up one of the wedges, I’d say one’s probably enough.]
So in went the bamboo shoots, wintermelon and cabbage. The stock (still with hocks) only filled the pot half way, so when I put all the other stuff in, all the wintermelon was submerged, but the cabbage kind of sat above the waterline, an island of vegetable. No worries, though. The volume reduces as the water cooks out of the cabbage, which also increases the volume of the soup. Now that’s win-win. At this point I also added the white pepper and salt.
One more thing:
Last year, we tried to make a pork and pickled cabbage soup, but the broth just didn’t come out right. We’ve been looking over some of our Chinese cookbooks, and one of the things we noticed was that some of the recipes added ginger to the stocks. Something clicked, so Foodnerd managed to dig up some ginger root out of the freezer (maybe a 1/2″ chunk) and we threw that into the stock too.
We let the ingredients cook up for about an hour. You can generally tell when the wintermelon is done because it takes on this cool semi-translucent appearance. But of course, you gotta do the taste test: it should be really easy to bite through, but still should have a little something to it — like a perfect al dente pasta, but then it should pretty much melt in your mouth.
At that point, we figured we were done, but when we tried the broth, it still seemed to be missing something. Foodnerd suggested vinegar, but I didn’t think that could be right, especially since I think she’d suggest that for just about anything anyway (it’s her east-European pickle-lover side). We finally agreed on Chinese cooking wine. (we have a bottle of Shao Hsing rice cooking wine in the fridge for just such an occasion.) We tried a splash, then a few more and it rounded out the flavor nicely. All told it probably worked out to about 1/4 cup, but as with much of this, you should probably just do it to taste.
With everything else done, we finally added the vermicelli, a mung bean thread. Growing up, I used to know it as xi fen (pronounced: she-fun), and I loved the stuff. It was in college when I first heard the term “vermicelli,” and since then, I had a bit of confusion as to exactly what it was that I loved so much. I just remember the little bundles of dried noodles that Mom would have in the pantry that she’d put in soups or we’d have for the (infrequent) hot pot dinners. The one time I bought them in college, I found them by pattern-matching the packaging in an Asian food store. I got it right that time, but recently we made the mistake of buying rice noodles and it just didn’t cut it. It’s gotta be the mung bean.
We now have a pink netting bag of Lungfung brand vermicelli, each bundle of noodles tied off with two pieces of thread, just like I remember it. I threw two bundles in, and gave it about 5 minutes to cook through and then it was serving time.
Hot, savory, rich, and yet…clean. A little crunch of bamboo shoot (and I’m usually not a big fan), cabbage that’s barely there, clear noodles and yummy chunks of melt-in-your-mouth wintermelon. Ahhh.
Oh yeah, I love me some wintermelon soup.