This dish is neither a soup nor a vegetable, but something in between—a slightly soupy vegetable that I serve in a bowl to accompany rather splendid dishes like duck, which needs to be paired with delicate, unfatiguing morsels. It is an exceptionally pretty dish in its quiet way, very subtle and smooth on the tongue.
Seed the melon, scraping away any fibrous matter. With a sharp knife carefully trim off and discard the peel, cutting all the way down to the rind. (Winter melon is not a fruit melon like honeydew or cantaloupe, where the flavor diminishes as you near the rind.) Slice the pulp into domino-shape rectangles ¼-inch thick. The melon may be sealed airtight and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before steaming.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
About 40–60 minutes prior to serving, choose a deep, heatproof bowl or Pyrex pie plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. (If this will not be the serving dish, put one large or several smaller individual serving bowls in a low oven to warm.) Arrange a layer of melon slices evenly in the bottom of the bowl, then sprinkle with ham. Continue to build layers of melon sprinkled with ham, then pour the stock evenly on top.
Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat. Add the bowl to the steaming rack, cover the steamer, then reduce the heat to medium-high and steam for 20 minutes. Midway through steaming, lift the lid partway and baste the melon with a bulb-top baster or shallow spoon. If the juices threaten to overflow the dish, remove some of them to a small bowl and reserve for the sauce. Quickly replace the lid and resume steaming.
At the end of 20 minutes, turn off the heat. Wait several minutes for the steam to subside, then lift the lid and transfer the juices surrounding the melon to an empty bowl. (If you do not have a bulb-top baster, hold the melon gently in place with a plate and tip the bowl to drain it.) Return the melon promptly to the steamer and replace the lid to keep it warm while you make the sauce.
Immediately heat a small, heavy skillet or saucepan over moderate heat until hot enough to sizzle a bead of water. Reduce the heat to low and add the fat. When the fat is hot enough to sizzle one ring of scallion, in about 3–4 seconds, add the scallions and stir gently until fragrant, about 10 seconds, adjusting the heat so the scallions sizzle mildly and the fat does not burn. Add the reserved steaming juices, stir, then raise the heat slightly to bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, taste, and add salt as desired. Stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine, then add it to the pan. Stir until the liquids become glossy and slightly thick, about 15 seconds, then cover the pan and remove it from the heat.
Quickly transfer the melon slices to a serving bowl if necessary, then stir the sauce once and pour it evenly over the melon. Grind a bit of fresh pepper on top and serve at once. Chinese taste would traditionally insist upon white pepper, so as not to interfere with the pale color of the dish, but use what you like. I use a mixture of black and white peppercorns in a single mill, about 7–8 parts aromatic black to 2–3 parts spicy white.
Leftovers may be resteamed in a tightly covered bowl until hot and are tasty though rather mushy.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.