Stuffed vegetables were a speciality of my grandmother, who cooked these dishes regularly when making her fantastic and extravagant twice-weekly family meals. This basic pork stuffing works brilliantly with dried mushrooms and bitter melon, as well as medium-hot fresh chillies and eggplant.
Stuffed Chinese mushrooms
A word of advice: when making this dish, soak the mushrooms the day before. Good dried mushrooms have large, thick caps that need time to hydrate fully, or else you will have a hard, dry part in the centre. It can be difficult to judge the number of mushrooms you need for this amount of stuffing. If you have extra soaked mushrooms, thinly slice them and add them to the dish as the ingredients are simmering. If you have extra stuffing, shape it into meatballs and brown them briefly in the hot fat, before cooking with the other ingredients.
20-25 large Chinese mushrooms
500 grams slightly fatty minced pork
15ml soy sauce
10ml rice wine
5ml sesame oil
1 tsp granulated sugar
½ tsp fine sea salt
1/8 tsp finely ground white pepper
4 tsp cornstarch, divided
30 grams spring onions
10 grams fresh coriander, plus extra for the garnish
50ml oyster sauce
Cooking oil, as needed
Half a head of iceberg lettuce
Use kitchen scissors to snip off the mushroom stems as close to the cap as possible (this helps the caps hydrate more evenly). Rinse the mushrooms briefly in a colander, then put them in a large bowl and add enough tepid water so that they can bob around freely. Leave them to soak for about eight hours or until fully hydrated, turning them over once or twice to soak evenly. Squeeze the mushroom caps and rinse in the soaking liquid so that any grit in the gills is expelled.
Put the minced pork in a bowl and add the soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, sugar, salt, white pepper and two teaspoons of cornstarch. Mix to combine thoroughly. Finely mince the spring onions and chop the 10 grams of coriander, add them to the bowl and mix again. Refrigerate for about an hour.
Squeeze out the mushroom caps again and put them on a tray. Add a spoonful of the stuffing, pressing down so it is packed into the mushroom cap and mounded over it slightly. Strain the mushroom soaking liquid through a fine sieve and measure out 150ml into one bowl, and 60ml into another bowl. Add the oyster sauce to the 150ml bowl and stir to dissolve.
Heat a wide skillet over a medium flame and when it’s hot, add about 15ml of cooking oil. Swirl the oil in the pan so that it’s lightly but evenly coated. When the oil is hot, add the stuffed mushrooms, meat side down. Lightly brown the top then turn the mushrooms over. Pour the oyster sauce-soaking liquid mixture into the skillet around the mushrooms. Bring the liquid to a boil then lower the heat, cover with the lid and cook at a low simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the meat is cooked through.
While the mushrooms are cooking, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Cut the iceberg lettuce into wide (about 1.5cm) strips. When the water boils, add the lettuce and stir. Cook for about 30 seconds, or until the lettuce wilts. Drain thoroughly then wrap the lettuce in a clean, dry kitchen towel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Arrange the lettuce in a wide, shallow bowl.
When the mushrooms are cooked, use tongs to take them from the skillet and arrange over the lettuce. There should be at least 100ml of liquid in the skillet (if not, add some of the extra soaking liquid). Heat the liquid until bubbling over a low flame. Add the remaining two teaspoons of cornstarch into the reserved 60ml of mushroom liquid and stir until dissolved. Immediately add this in a stream to the liquid in the skillet, stirring constantly. Add just enough so the liquid forms a light sauce. As soon as the liquid in the skillet simmers again, turn off the heat. Pour the sauce over the mushrooms and lettuce, then garnish with fresh coriander before serving with steamed white rice. Serves four to six as part of a Chinese meal.
The extra soaking liquid, and the mushroom stems, can be used to make a flavourful vegetable stock.
Stuffed bitter melon
All the ingredients from the above recipe (minus the mushrooms and lettuce) also work well in a dish of stuffed bitter melon. Use plain water, in place of the mushroom soaking liquid, for braising the bitter melon, and add some fermented black beans.
All the ingredients from the first recipe, except the mushrooms and lettuce
2-4 bitter melon, depending on size
1 tbsp fermented black beans
Make the stuffing as previously directed. Soak the black beans in 50ml of warm water for about 15 minutes. Lightly crush the black beans and add 100ml of additional water.
Cut off the top and bottom from the bitter melons and scrape out the pith and seeds. Cut the melons into 1cm-thick rings and place them on a tray. Pack the stuffing into the rings, mounding it slightly.
Heat the oil in a skillet and when it’s hot, add the pieces of bitter melon, meaty side down. Brown the meat lightly, then flip over the pieces. Add the black beans and liquid, and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, cover the pan with the lid and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the melon is tender and the meat is cooked through.
Arrange the stuffed bitter melon pieces on a serving plate, leaving behind the braising liquid. Thicken the braising liquid with the two teaspoons of cornstarch dissolved in 60ml of water, as instructed in the first recipe. When the liquid forms a light sauce, pour it over the bitter melon and serve immediately.