Celebrating the Chinese New Year
February 17, 2010
The Year of the Tiger is not for the timid. Characterized by bold and sweeping change, the year's namesake is graceful, powerful and impulsive. It would seem logical to celebrate with verve this charming and ebullient big cat.
Festivities to ring in the Lunar New Year tend to be bold and dramatic, conveying the importance of new beginnings. Beginning February 14 and lasting 15 days, the celebration is food focused, with many of the foods served symbolic of prosperity, good health and long life.
Even if you're unsure of a food's symbolism, you can certainly appreciate its grace and flavor. Over at my friend Kian's site, Red Cook, he shares a recipe for Braised Abalaone, which is simply gorgeous.
Most of us don't have the time, or perhaps the culinary skills, to create banquet food. For us, there are noodles.
And while noodles, symbolizing longevity in Chinese culture, may take a backseat to banquet food, they are the great Asian comfort food, served daily in homes for fast and nutritious meals.
There is familiarity as well as tradition steeped in the various noodle dishes prepared by the home cook, whether they are warm and nurturing soups, hearty and healthy vegetable-filled stir frys or light and delicate cold noodle salads.
Chef-author Helen Chen delights us with her second book in of a two-part series, Easy Asian Noodles (128pp, Wiley, $17.95), a kitchen-sized workhorse of a cookbook devoted to noodle dishes from Chinese, Japanese and Thai cultures.
Small enough to stuff into your bag for quick reference at the market, yet sleekly elegant with beautifully styled photography by Jason Wyche, the guide to all things noodle is made accessible even to home cooks who can barely boil water.
"We're all either working, raising a family or caring for elderly parents. We just don't have the time," said Chen. "I really try to write these recipes the way I cook."
A master of the Asian kitchen in her own right and daughter of Joyce Chen, who pioneered Chinese cuisine in Cambridge, MA, during the 50s, Helen Chen carries on the tradition of accessible authenticity in her recipes and with her cookware, Helen's Asian Kitchen.
Joyce Chen coined the name Peking Ravioli for potstickers, a name still synonymous on the East Coast with the plump filling dumplings. She introduced the American palate to Chinese food that wasn't bathed in cloying sweet sauces or some typical dish like Eggs Foo Yung or Chop Suey.
A restaurateur, a cookbook author, and TV show host, Joyce Chen developed her own specialty foods and cookware line. Needless to say, she was a fantastic cook.
Her daughter became a baker first to distinguish herself from her famous mother. She had bread rising to bake while we chatted. "No one wanted to eat my stir frys," she said, then laughed. "My mom's cooking was so utterly fabulous."
Why noodles, why now
The last two decades have seen a resurgence and appreciation for comfort food from cuisines around the world. Chen said the timing was right.
"Noodles, in particular, are very popular," she said. "Not only are Westerners interested in noodles, but for Asians, noodles are comfort food."
In Asian culture, noodles serve many purposes - breakfast, lunch, dinner or quick snack - because they are easy to prepare and a flavorful mouthful of different tastes and textures. "With vegetables, they're a really healthy meal... Everything is in that one bowl," said Chen.
Noodles are filling and satisfying without being greasy or heavy. For many Asians, noodles evoke wonderful memories of childhood. Chen remembered being served homemade longevity noodles on her Chinese birthday (according to the Lunar Calendar).Her mother used to tease that she'd made them so long that Chen would need a step ladder to eat them.
But you don't need to make homemade noodles to enjoy these recipes. Most markets have good quality fresh and dried noodles - wheat, bean and rice - available. In a pinch, one can use spaghetti for some recipes calling for wheat noodles. Chen also uses prepared chicken stock in her recipes and admits to buying it by the case.
Favorite noodle dish
Choosing a favorite meal is like choosing a favorite child. Each one has different qualities to love. For Chen, she chooses noodle recipes according to what she craves and what she feels like cooking.
"I usually start with, what do I feel like cooking," she said. "I find it easier to think of what form of noodle I want to prepare." Her cookbook is organized according to preparation - stir-fried, pan-fried, and sauced - so that you can decide how you want to cook, then what you want to cook.
One of her many favorites is a dish her mother often prepared, Peking Meat-sauced Noodles. This dish is famous in Beijing, where her mother grew up.
Garnished with fresh bean sprouts and shredded radishes and thinly sliced cucumbers, it is crisp-soft delicious and Chen's comfort food of choice. The dish may be made with ground turkey, although traditionally it is made with pork, and packaged vernicelli or spaghetti may substitute for Chinese wheat or egg noodles.
Peking Meat-sauced Noodles
serves 6 to 8
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 pound ground pork (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup bean paste, preferably Japanese red miso
2 tablespoons Hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
1 pound Chinese wheat or egg noodles or thin or regular spaghetti
10 radishes, shredded for garnish
1 medium cucumber, partially peeled (leaving a few long strips of peel on the sides) seeded and shredded for garnish
2 cups bean sprouts, par boiled for 15 to 20 seconds, rinsed in cold water and drained well, for garnish
10 ounces fresh spinach, washed, par boiled for 15 to 20 seconds,rinsed in cold water, squeezed dry and minced for garnish
5 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced, for garnish (optional, see Note)
Note: Northern Chinese have a propensity toward garlic - cooked or raw - and lots of it! The caveat to adding raw garlic garnish to these noodles is: if you're going out on a date or social occasion, leave them out.
1. In a small bowl, mix the wine and cornstarch together. Add the pork and mix well. In a separate small bowl, stir the bean paste, hoisin sauc, soy sauce and sugar together.
2. In a wok or stir fry pan, heat the oil over high heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the pork mixture and cook, stirring constantly.until the meat changes color and breaks up, about 2 minutes. Add the scallions and cook, stirring constantly, until the scallions are soft but not browned, another minute.
3. Stir in the bean paste mixture and 1 cup water and mix thoroughly. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. You will have a thin sauce.
4. Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Stir in the spaghetti and boil until a little more tender than al dente. Drain and rinse in hot water; immediately divide the noodles among 6 or 8 individual noodle bowls. Place the meat sauce in a serving bowl on the table. Set the vegetable garnishes out in individual bowls and let people sauce and garnish their own noodles.