Cook a Chinese New Year feast of your very own
As the lunar new year dawns, Chinese families are gathering for multicourse banquets in restaurants, banquet halls and homes. These eating marathons allow plenty of time for the generations to mingle, popos dandling their grandchildren, younger cousins reconnecting, siblings sharing memories.
Also common at this time of year are ritual visits to family members and friends to take yum cha — dim sum, or tea with snacks.
But a multicourse meal is a kitchen marathon, too, so you may wish to cut the traditional nine courses to three or four.
To follow custom, however, there should be a soup, two different proteins (braised, roasted, steamed or stir-fried pork, beef, chicken and/or fish or a tofu dish), steamed or stir-fried vegetables, and rice or noodles.
Although the Chinese traditionally didn't serve dessert at the end of the meal — sweets could appear at any time — today's banquets usually end with a sweet — perhaps almond cookies, jin doi (sesame doughnut rounds), gau (glutinous rice pudding) or bakery-bought Chinese pastries or sugared fruit and tea.
Here are some recipe ideas:
Watercress soup is one of the easiest to prepare. All you need is a rich pork, beef or chicken stock, which can be made in advance. Have about a cup of stock for each person. Make the stock or use a store-bought stock doctored with a splash of Chinese wine or dry sherry, a knob of peeled ginger and one whole star anise; bring to a boil and keep hot. Ten minutes before serving, add the tender leaves from a bunch of watercress, or, alternatively, a bag of tender, young spinach leaves. Taste, season with a splash of soy sauce, if desired, and serve.
Follow this with a Chinese chicken salad or a fish course. The easiest preparation is the Chinese classic steamed whole fish (have the fish department clean it). Place the fish on a rack and steam until done (or bake it at 325 degrees on a rack in a large baking pan over an inch or so of boiling water, covered with foil). Place the fish on a heatproof platter, heat a half-half mix of sesame and vegetable oil until very hot, remove from heat, add soy sauce to taste and pour this sizzling mixture over the fish. Serve, garnished with finely grated ginger, minced scallions and/or Chinese parsley.
Or try these sweet-sour shrimps from Gail Wong's classic cookbook "Chinese Recipes."
For the seasoning mix:
Split shrimp and set aside. In a wok or roomy, high-sided saute pan, heat a quarter-inch of vegetable or peanut oil until hot. Fry ginger and garlic until golden but not burned. Add shrimp and fry 2 minutes until pink. Add bell pepper and seasoning mixture. Fry two minutes. Add water or stock and cook 3 minutes. Add sesame seeds and green onion. Place on serving platter and serve immediately.
Serves 4 to 6.
Next could come a pork, chicken or beef course, served with rice or noodles.
An easy option is to broil or grill chicken halves, but deep-fried chicken is ever popular. First, prepare a rubbing mixture: 2 tablespoons thick black soy sauce, 2 tablespoons regular soy sauce, dash of Chinese five-spice, 1 tablespoon salt (or less, if desired), 2 tablespoons peanut oil, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, 2 cloves garlic and 1 thick slice peeled ginger, both crushed with the side of a Chinese cleaver. Mix these together in a large bowl. Cut a whole chicken in half with kitchen shears, rub it well with the seasoning mixture. Broil, grill or deep fry the halves and hack into slices with a sharp Chinese cleaver and serve over a bed of steamed spinach, baby bok choy or grated cabbage.
Or try this Chinese pepper steak, based on one in the "Practical Recipes on Chinese Cooking" by the now disbanded Te Chih Sheh Chinese Sorority at the University of Hawai'i and one from the cooks.com Web site. You can make it a stir-fry with thin-sliced beef or do as Pah Ke's restaurant in Kane'ohe does: pound beef slices very thin, fry them, make the gravy, then roll the beef around stalks of steamed asparagus. (Use round steak, or consult with the meat department if you choose this route; flank steak may not be tender enough.)
CHINESE PEPPER STEAK
Heat oil in high-sided heavy saute pan. Saute meat with onion, pepper and garlic until meat turns color. Add stock, bell peppers and tomatoes, if using. Cover and cook on low heat for 10 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch, soy sauce and water. Add to saute pan and cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring, until mixture thickens.
Makes 4-6 servings.
Serve the meat course with stir-fried or steamed vegetables of your choice, rice and/or noodles. You can save some work by buying noodles from a Chinese deli. Or you can buy kau yuk (Chinese pot roast) with steamed buns or spare ribs, and concentrate on the other courses.
For a finishing sweet, visit a Chinese bakery, such as Sing Cheong Yuan, for pastries or sugared fruit. Of, if you're feeling adventurous, make jin doi (Chinese doughnuts). Here's a recipe from Gail Wong's "Chinese Recipes."
For the filling:
For the jin doi:
In a medium bowl, mix filling ingredients and set aside. In a roomy saucepan, combine brown sugar and hot water, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and gradually whisk and stir in the gluten rice flour and add wine, if using, to form a thick but smooth and pliable dough. Turn out on a board lightly sprinkled with gluten rice flour and knead briefly. Cut dough into about 12 pieces and roll into balls. Flatten the balls slightly and place a little filling in the center and pinch the dough around it. Roll gently into a round ball. Roll in sesame seeds and deep-fry until golden and a little puffy.
*If fresh coconut is too much trouble, use angel-flake coconut and omit the sugar in the filling mixture.