Last weekend, I was on one of my 'Adventures in the Produce Department' strolls at my local grocery store when I suddenly saw this perculiar, light green colored, cucumberish vegetable that I had never seen before. It was, according to the item tag where is was placed and my subsequent research, a bitter melon, aka. bitter gourd, bitter squash or balsam pear. I had never heard of either of these things and had absolutely NO idea what it would taste like, but in my head, I heard the host of 'Chopped' on Foodnetwork say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, open your baskets. For the entree course, we have bitter melon...'. Yes, I know...hearing random voices is quite possibly a sign of a more disturbing imbalance, but in my defense, these little quirks of mine amuse and frequently inspire me! I had no idea what I was going to do with bitter melon, but I was excited to find out all that I could about this interesting albeit unusual vegetable, if in fact it was even a vegetable...the later part of it's name suggesting otherwise. It was in the veggie area and I was willing to give it my best shot despite the 'bitter' part of it's name.
Bitter Melon is widely grown in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. It contains at least three active substances with antidiabetic properties including charantin, which has been confirmed to have a blood glucose lowering effect, vicine and an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p. Bitter melon is also known to contain a lectin that reduces blood glucose concentration by acting on peripheral tissues and suppressing appetite, similar to the effects of insulin in the brain.
In traditional medicine, bitter melon is used for colic, fever, burns, chronic cough, painful menustration and skin conditions. It's also used to heal wounds, assit childbirth and in parts of Africa and Asia, prevent or treat malaria and viral diseases such as measles and chicken pox. In addition, researchers from Saint Louis University in the U.S. say they have shown that an extract from bitter melon can kill breast cancer cells and prevent them from growing and spreading. These were all great reasons to explore the culinary bitter melon options more.
I didn't have the forethought to take a picture of the bitter melon whole BEFORE I cored it and discarded the seeds, but this is how it looked after the fact. Actually, before dicing it, I sliced it in half, removed the fibrous core and seeds, (as was directed from several of my research sources), I also read that to reduce the bitterness, one should lay the de-seeded, cored bitter melon on paper towel and sprinkle with salt and let them rest for at least 10 minutes, then rinse with cold water and pat dry, which I did. It still tasted pretty darn bitter to me and not in a nice 'lime' way...in the 'blech, get this taste out of my mouth' way. I had also read another hint that said to reduce bitterness, blanch chopped bitter melon in boiling water for 2-3 minutes, which I also did. This did seem to reduce the blechiness, but not entirely. However, being the eternal optimist that I am, I thought perhaps when I cooked them with oher ingredients, they'd lose their blechiness altogether.
Bitter melon are not typically peeled because the skin is edible, and so are the seeds for that matter but they're very hard. It's commonly stuffed, curried or pickled, though it can be prepared in all kinds of ways and is suitable for any dish from drinks to desserts...or so 'they' say! Bitter melon is often used in soups, stir frys and may be steamed. It's flavour is supposed to combine well with other strong flavours or ingredients such as garlic, chilli peppers, coconut milk and fermented black beans. Apparently, with spicy foods, bitter melons act as a coolant and with rich sauces such as coconut milk and curry, hummus and even ice cream, the flavour balances the natural oils in these ingredients, acting as a palate cleanser. I didn't have any coconut milk and wouldn't you know it, I used my last can of fermented black beans, (as if), just the other day. I wasn't in the mood for curry and soup? Nah...didn't think so. I decided to play it safe with stir fry....heck, if bitter melon couldn't figure out how to play nice with a whack of fresh veggies and some beautifully seared meat ,not to mention garlic, onion, fish sauce, soya sauce and a little stir fry sauce, I wasn't sure I'd want it in my playground anyway!
I got to prepping all of my ingredients: fresh sriloin, cut in strips, white onion, red onion, green pepper, red pepper, mushrooms, celery, carrot, bok choy, garlic and, of course, chopped bitter melon, missing from the below picture because it was out draining on paper towel on the other side of the sirloin.
I could say that I then heated up my wok, but I don't have a wok. I use to have an electric wok but the cord fell victim to my clumsiness and well, I never got around to replacing it. Soooo....I heated up a large nonstick skillet over very high heat, added in a little olive oil and quickly seared the sirloin strips until a mouth watering brown in colour. I then added in the onion, mushrooms, carrot, celery and gave all of that a quick saute before adding in minced garlic, red and green peppers, bitter melon and bok choy. I seasoned everything with a little freshly ground sea salt and black pepper, a couple of dashes of fish sauce, a couple of dashes of sesame oil, splash or two of soya sauce, and about a Tablespoon of stir fry sauce. Mixing that all around, I reduced the heat to medium and let it cook for a few minutes.
At some point, I can't really remember when, it occurred to me that some sort of starch would be nice with the stir fry and I really wasn't in the mood for rice so I brought a cup of water to boil and added in a cup of vermicelli noodles.
Rice vermicelli is pretty common in Asian cuisine. I only had semolina vermicelli, notably used in Italian cuisine, but decided what the heck? Vermicelli is a very thin, spaghetti-like pasta that can either be in long sticks or smaller pieces, like Ive used here.
It only took a few minutes for the vermicelli to be cooked al dente, or still with a little firmness. While it was cooking, I sprinkled my stir fry ingrdients with a little corn starch and then added in a cup and a half of low sodium beef broth, stirring to incorporate. I let the stir fry simmer and thicken and when the vermicelli was ready, I drained it and tossed that on in to the skillet with the stir fry.
You may or may not notice but just before serving, purely on impulse, I took a handful of grape tomatoes, cut them in half and added them into the mix. I then added a sprinkling or two of sesame seeds...just for authenticity!
The beef had absobed all of the yummy flavours of the vegetables and the vegetables had taken on the rich beefiness of the sirloin. My only regret with this dish was the bitter melon. I really tried to like it, but it just didn't work for me. Perhaps I cooked it wrong, perhaps I prepped it wrong or perhaps unless I totally overpowered it with other really strong flavours it may have been more pleasant to my palate. But for me, it still retained it's blechiness and my daughter Mackenzie was quick to agree. Stephen on the other hand said he didn't love it, but he didn't hate it either. (I noticed a few pieces left on his plate though). Moral of the story? I gave bitter melon a shot and I went about it with an open mind and positive attitude...it just didn't do it for me. Bitter melon, I'm sorry, you have been chopped from my potenial ingredients for future dishes.
All that having been said, I'm glad I went with the stir fry idea. Scholars believe that stir frying dates back as far as the early Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), but it wasn't until the Ming Dynasty (1363-1644), that the wok reached it's modern shape. Stir frying itself was brought to North America by early chinese immigrants. From there, stir frying spread from Chinese families and kitchens into general use for non-Asian dishes. One popular cookbook noted that in the 'health-conscious 1970's', (and I'm sorry, but that seems like a bit of an oxymoron to me), suddenly it seemed that 'everyone was buying a wok and stir-frying remained popular becaiuse it was quick'. Many families had difficulty fitting a family dinner into their crowded schedules but found that a stir fry could be prepard in as little as 15 minutes.
That fact remains to be true. Take any meat of your choice, stir fry it quickly over high heat in a little oil, add in a bunch of veggies, season it up with some garlic, salt, pepper, soya sauce and a litle broth and voila....a healthy, hearty dinner ready to eat faster than it takes the kids to set the table!
Beef Stir Fry with Vermicelli Noodles. with or without bitter melon....easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious!