Have my tastebuds undergone a seismic change? Am I just more accepting of bitter in the supreme service of Marketmanila readers? I think not. But if, like me, you absolutely abhorred ampalaya until now, do yourself a favor and read the rest of this post. I always disliked the vegetable because of its incredibly bitter taste. It didnâ€™t help that it looked really unappetizing after it was cookedâ€¦ it took on an olivish green hue that announced that â€œI am well and truly dead now.â€ But illogically, I liked the bitterness of broccoli rabe, the bitter pepperiness of arugula, and even radicchio. So I was resolved to give ampalaya another chanceâ€¦and while I wouldnâ€™t eat this dish every weekâ€¦it wasnâ€™t bad at allâ€¦
First, I wanted to ensure that the dish had a vibrant green color. The solution was to blanch the sliced ampalaya in boiling water with 2 teaspoons of baking soda. No change to the taste, but incredible impact on the color. After draining the blanched ampalaya, it was an appealing bright green. Now it just had to remain that way after sautÃ©ing with other ingredients. I used one large ampalaya for this recipe, 1 cup of ground beef, minced onion about Â½ of a medium onion, 5 minced garlic cloves, a bit of Kikkoman soy sauce, 2 eggs and salt and pepper. To make, put a pan on high heat. When it is really hot, add perhaps 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil then place the onion in the pan and shake vigorously. Add the garlic 30 seconds later. Never start with the garlic as it is likely to burn up and get bitter; this is good advice for most dishes. When the onion and garlic are softer (say 1-2 minutes) add the ground meat, the soy sauce and stir until cooked. Try to get rid of the excess liquid that comes out of the meat. Add the blanched drained ampalaya and toss. Add some salt and pepper. Add two lightly scrambled eggs and stir until cooked. Serve hot.
The key to this dish, as with an earlier dish with eggplant, is NOT to DILLY DALLY. I think the downfall of many Filipino vegetable dishes is that they are simply overcooked. If they were not meant to be, they have just been bastardized over the past few decades. Everything seems to cook at a low simmer and this just literally sucks the juices out of the veggies and leaves them looking like death warmed over. The key to this dish is to do it quick, to do it on a hot burner and not to abuse the ingredients. The outcome? A brilliantly appetizing dish with a pleasant and bearable bitterness. Great with a bowl of steamed rice or as a side dish to a richer and fancier main course, this is something I can actually handle. One downside of the blanching is a slightly watery finished dish. I will have to try this with unblanched ampalaya to see if that results in a dryer but less green dish. This can also be done without the beef if you want a vegetarian dish.