Friday, August 10, 2018

"B" is for "Bitter": Bitter Mellon and Potato Sauté + Bonal Spritz











"B" is for "bitter", as in "Bonal", my drink of the moment. Not quite vermouth and not quite amari, Bonal is a gracious infusion of bitter herbs and fortified wine. My friend Arnaud brought it the other day when he stopped by for a dinner. We opened the bottle and "where have I been all those years," exploded into my face. "What have I been drinking?"

"It should be served either neat or with an orange twist on the rocks," said Arnaud (and a guide to Bonal I stumbled upon on the Internet). Excusez-moi, I dare to disagree! Dark brown and a bit medicinal, both in looks and the taste, Bonal makes for a killer spritz. Bitter with a hint of sweetness, it's a kind of spritz that makes you ponder and ask questions; it's bold, profoundly intelligent, and very refreshing. Now that I think about it, it's better than Aperol and Campari, combined. So, you two, please bow down, I like Bonal MUCH better.

"B" is for "bitter", as in "bitter melon". Indian variety is my favorite, the one that looks like a thousand-year-old cucumber, deeply wrinkled and very wise. This impossibly bitter vegetable is a persona non-grata in the Manhattan supermarkets, so whenever the crave hits, we make a special trip to Sri Lankan grocery stores on Staten Island. So, imagine my surprise when last Saturday I spotted a big pile of the untouchables at the Lani's Farmstand at the Union Square Greenmarket.

"You are not going to get that stuff," said my friend Nermin in terror, when I filled up a bag.

"Not even Indians eat them anymore." He waived his head in disbelief, and raised his hands high up, as if an army of angry bitter gourd soldiers was attacking him, and he had to fight for his life.

"Can't help it," I winked at him. Nermin works at Lani's, and every time I stop by we have a long chat. Everyone knows that chatting, gossiping, discussing issues is the proper thing to do when at the market -- it's something the mankind has been doing for centuries -- yet somehow, in this fast-paced Gotham City of ours, we forgot about it and fell out of practice.

I look forward to the Saturday market and my chats with Nermin.

Back home, as I placed the gourds onto an old Indian wooden tray, I realized that Nermin was right. Not even Indians cook bitter melons anymore. Case in point. Once upon a time, a couple of blocks down south on Church Street from where we lived, lay a small cluster of South Asian delis. A fusion of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian cuisines (we could never tell), they were the place where South Asian cab drivers of New York City came to eat. Just like in their home countries, eating at the "Deli Land" came with some risks, because some of the establishments often struggled to get good sanitary grades. Yet, they served some mighty delicious dishes. Cooks changed often and menus were hard to pinpoint, because every cook brought her own spatula and spice jar. Dr. V and I liked the suspense, it was a part of the thrill, and a constant exploration of South Asian home cooking. We would figure out the winning "chef" by looking at the long line of yellow cabs parked on the street in front of the establishment -- an unmistakable barometer of taste an authenticity. We often stopped by late in the night, on our way back from a movie theater, or a party, and joined the line of sweaty and tired South Asian men. They spoke loudly in their native languages, and gawked at us curiously and with no hesitation. A tall, blond woman and a well-kept, nicely-dressed Sri Lankan man, a polished and unfamiliar version of themselves. We were outsiders, an outlier so to speak; we looked different, we felt different, we broke the routine. We were not supposed to eat there. V and I fought the stares bravely, and as a prize, we each took home a three-compartment Styrofoam container stuffed to the brim with warm food. We raced back home chased by the steam from the New York City subway and devoured the goodies on the sofa, in front of the TV. "The South Asian Bento Box", as we nick-named it jokingly, held a pile of rice (plain or yellow, we constantly went back and forth), topped with three dishes from the daily selection. Dr. V always went for chicken makhani, chickpea curry, and aloo gobi. My signatures were saag paneer, cabbage with peas, and, needless to say, bitter gourds with potato. Potato and bitter gourds are a killer combo, a match made in heaven, like strawberries and cream, ham and peas, or tomatoes and mozzarella. Bitter and sweet at the same time; soft and crunchy; sharp, yet relaxed, and just like my Bonal spritz, really, really smart.

Killer smart.

Street smart, like the streets of South Asian neighborhoods the dish was born to.

Over the last couple of years, most of delis have closed, chased out by the increasing rents and new commercial developments around the World Trade Center site. Our favorite take-outs are replaced by more stylish, more Manhattanized joints, Wolfgang Puck's restaurant, and a line-up of expensive condominiums. And the only one piece of Deli Land that remained, well, they do not make bitter gourds anymore. To compensate for the loss, I started to cook the bitter gourd and potato dish at home. But even my Sri Lankan husband does not eat bitter gourds anymore.

"I can't stand that dish," V complained when I offered him a bowl recently.

"That's because it's not meant for dummies," I teased him.

"I just don't get it," I continued. "How can one stop eating the food of one's childhood? Seriously, it is a puzzle."

"I don't get it either," Dr. V replied back. "You are a lone, non-Asian women, fighting to keep this terrible vegetable from extinction, even though everyone else in South Asia has stopped eating it. Seriously it's a puzzle."

Perhaps V was right. Perhaps Nermin was right.
Am I the last cook standing?
Wonder what you think.



Bitter Melon and Potatoes  

* 1/3 lb bitter melon
* 2/3 lb yellow potatoes 
* 6 tbsp sunflower oil 
* 1 tsp brown mustard seeds 
* 1 tsp turmeric powder 
* salt

Cut the bitter melon in halves lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each half into half lengthwise. Cut each quarter into very thin slices, 1/8-inch thin, even less. 

Season the bitter melon generously with salt, and leave for about 30 minutes. Rinse with water, and with your hands, squeeze the liquid out. Drain with paper towel. This will help reduce the bitterness.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/4-inch thick julienne (i.e. potato sticks that are 1/4-inch thick). 

In a large sauté pan, over medium-high heat, heat the oil, until very hot. Make sure that the bottom of the pan is fully coated in oil, otherwise add some more oil. Add the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to pop, add the bitter melon. Fry, stirring constantly for a couple of minutes, or until bitter melon begins to crisp up on the edges. Add the potatoes and turmeric and stir well. Cook for another minute or two while stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add a drop of water, stir, and cover with a lid. Cook for about 25 minutes, stirring from time to time, until potatoes are fully cooked. Remove the cover, increase the heat to medium, and cook for another minute or two. Season with salt. Serve slightly warm. 
Serves 4 


Bonal Spritz

* 1 part Bonal 
* 2 parts prosecco 
* a dash of sparkling water 
* slice of orange 
* ice  

Fill up a wine glass with ice. Add the Bonal, processo and a drop of sparkling water. Finish with the orange. Serve. Enjoy. 



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