Specialty Produce Recipe of the Month: Bitter Melon

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When I was a boy and well before I had ANY thoughts of becoming a chef, I thought I had a pretty good handle on produce.

Fruits were apples, bananas and grapes, and vegetables were carrots, onions and celery.

I wasn’t sure where lettuce fit into the whole picture, and I ignored tomatoes because I didn’t like them until later on when I found out they were used to make ketchup. (I still didn’t like tomatoes, but we came to an understanding when I discovered my mom also put them in her spaghetti sauce.)

Yep, I had produce pretty much figured out. Fruits were in a wood bowl on the dining room table, and the veggies were in the refrigerator, on the left-hand side, in the second drawer.

What I didn’t know then is that somewhere, on the other side of the world, kids just about my age also thought they had the produce thing knock, except fruits like bread fruit, lychees and vegetables like cardoons, lotus root and guvar beans were the norm.

Nothing much changed as I grew a bit older. Where I lived (in the suburbs) the grocery stores then, as many still are today, were stocked with the usual seasonal fruits and everyday vegetables.

My own “close encounter of a produce kind” happened when I went away to culinary school in New York. It was there that I first began to realize that the variety of produce I had been exposed to as a boy was a tiny fraction of what was being enjoyed around the world.

And the dishes made from these exotic-looking, smelling and tasting things were actually pretty darn good!

Where were these “things” my whole life?

Well, thankfully, the children of those who shop at Nino’s have the opportunity to see and taste many of these “alien” produce items and discover what’s NOT so unusual in other parts of the world.

Baskets of miniature pineapples, horned melon, rambutan, mangosteen, opo squash, flowering nira, galangal and dozens of other “worldly” edibles are available to see and purchase every day right here at Nino’s.

Of course, once you’ve purchased these “cutie fruities” or “edgie veggies,” you’re going to want to make something delicious with them.

That’s where I come in.

Over time, I’ve learned to “speak their language,” and what I’ve learned is that, like any ingredient, great produce deserves great recipes to show them off.

Here’s one of my favorites. It’s for bitter melon, a vegetable native to many foreign cuisines.

A mainstay of local markets in the Far East and Central and South America, bitter melon derives its bitter reputation from the abundance of quinine it contains. Its flavor goes particularly well with spicy and hot dishes, and it’s as often stuffed as used in stir-fry dishes. Larger and more mature melons are less bitter. This spicy, Pork Stuffed Bitter Melon recipe is a classic example of its use.