The Ultimate Chinese Feast
by David Andrews
From the Editor: This month's recipes come from the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science. When I consulted with division president Curtis Chong about gathering recipes, he was delighted to have the division represented by one of the finest cooks in the entire organization. Most people know David Andrews as the past director of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind at the National Center for the Blind and as the systems operator for the NFB's computer bulletin board. But many people in New Mexico, Baltimore, the Twin Cities, and lots of places in between also know him as an excellent Chinese cook. His outlook on cooking is casual; his style is free-wheeling; and his results are memorable. This is what he says:
One common stereotype about people who work around computers concerns our eating habits. Common wisdom would have us dining endlessly on Coke, pizza, Cheese Doodles, Hostess Twinkies, and the like.
While I have been known to call Domino's on occasion, I also know my way around the kitchen, as well as the dining room and the computer room. To emphasize the point, I here offer my instructions for the Ultimate Chinese Feast. This meal, if done in its entirety, takes preparation over several days and should not be attempted by the kitchen impaired. However, as Curtis Chong, the President of the NFB in Computer Science, can attest, the results are well worth the effort.
The menu for the Ultimate Chinese Feast includes hot and sour soup, chicken and cashews, stir-fried cabbage, Szechuan cucumber salad, meat or vegetable fried rice, steamed rice, and jasmine tea. You can, of course, omit some items from the menu or add more, as I once did, but be prepared to spend lots of time in the kitchen.
A note on ingredients: Most of the ingredients for these recipes are available from well-stocked supermarkets. They all now carry bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and soy sauce. Most supermarkets now also carry ginger root, tofu, and snow peas. Some of the more esoteric ingredientstree ears, etc.will have to be obtained from Chinese or Asian markets or by mail order. The Chinese dark vinegar and Szechuan pepper used in the Szechuan cucumber salad recipe are necessary to achieve authentic taste, so make substitutions at your own risk, but it can be done.
Do not buy inexpensive grocery-store soy sauce such as La Choy or Chung King. This stuff isn't true soy sauce and is terrible. I would recommend Kikkoman. It is made right here in the good old U.S.A., is quite good, and is widely available.
A note about measurements: Many of my measurements are somewhat imprecise. If you are into measuring things exactly, take up baking; otherwise, head for the kitchen and experiment. You can vary most measurements according to your budget, the size of your guest list and cooking vessels, and your culinary preferences. I will provide guidelines, but I generally don't measure closely, so many of the amounts are approximations. Just use common sense and your hands and have fun!
The first step is making the stock for the soup. You can use canned chicken broth to save time, but I personally would never do such a thing.
Put a large chicken into a big pot (at least six quarts), cover with at least two quarts of water, and add a carrot, an onion, and a rib of celery, each of which has been cut into several pieces. You don't have to peel the carrot or remove the celery leaves because you are going to discard the vegetables at the end anyway. You can also add a couple of bay leaves and a handful of black peppercorns. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and cook for at least two hoursthree or four is better. Add water if needed, you want at least eight cups of stock at the end. Turn off the heat and let the pot cool.
Pour off the stock into another container and refrigerate overnight. Sort through the remaining contents of the pot. Save the chicken meatto make chicken curry casserole. (That is a recipe for another day.) Discard the chicken skin, vegetables, and spices.
The next evening you can use the chicken stock to make the hot and sour soup. You will be able to lift the fat from the top of the stock since refrigeration causes it to rise to the top of the container and congeal.
Hot and Sour Soup
8 cups or more chicken stock
½ to 1 pound pork (from chops or pork steak)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
A handful of Chinese dried black mushrooms
5 or six tree ears
A handful of lily buds
1 package tofu
1 tablespoon black pepper or more to taste
¼ cup vinegar
2 eggs beaten
2 tablespoons corn starch mixed with ½ cup water
Method: Soak the mushrooms, tree ears, and lily buds in warm water for about half an hour. This stuff smells pretty funky but is good in the soup. These ingredients are available from Chinese or Asian markets. They may be called different things. The black mushrooms are usually called "that." Tree ears may be called "black fungus," and lily buds may be called "golden needles" or something else. They are all dried products. The tree ears are generally fairly large pieces of matter with many folds and crevices. The lily buds are thin and about two inches long.
After soaking, cut out the stems from the mushrooms and tree ears and cut them into strips. The stems may be quite tough. Remove the stem ends from the lily buds. Cut the pork into ¼ by ¼ by 2 inch strips and sprinkle with the soy sauce.
Bring the chicken stock to a boil and add the meat, dried Chinese matter, vinegar, and pepper. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for ten minutes. If you like your soup hotter, add some red pepper or tabasco sauce.
Drain the water from the block of tofu and gently squeeze a little more out. Cut into ½-inch cubes. Add to the soup after the ten-minute cooking time; cover and cook for three minutes.
Gently pour the beaten eggs into the soup, beating and mixing them in with a fork. Cook for a minute or two, then add the corn starch and water. Be sure that there are no lumps in the corn starch mixture. Stir well to prevent lumping and cook for another minute or two to allow soup to thicken a little. You can serve immediately with chopped green onions to garnish each bowl, or refrigerate the soup overnight for the feast. If your guests ask you what is in the soup, and they invariably will, be evasive until they are finished. They really don't want to know they are eating fungus.
David Andrews always appreciates good food, prepared by his own hands or anyone else's
Dave's Ginger Mix
One key ingredient in many of my Chinese dishes is something I will call "Dave's ginger mix." It is fresh ginger root with a little extra kick.
I wash one or more fresh ginger roots, cut them into chunks, and throw them into my food processorpeel and all. You are going to cook them anyway, so they won't hurt you. I add two or more fresh jalapeno peppers, stems removed, and at least three cloves of peeled garlic. You can vary these ingredients according to your taste.
Process this mixture into a coarse paste. Use it in the recipes below. You can also put it into a Ziploc bag, sealing and flattening the bag with the mixture inside. This makes a thin sheet of Dave's mix. Freeze the whole thing, bag and all; and, when you need ginger, break off a piece, thaw, and squeeze some of the liquid into the dish being prepared.
On the day of the event, get up early and start chopping. With Chinese cooking you need to do virtually all of the preparation ahead of time. Once you start stir-frying, you won't have a lot of time to chop and mix.
Also remember to call your house-cleaning person in advance. After all, one of the reasons for hosting such an event is that it's a great excuse to clean the old homestead.
Chicken and Cashews
2 or more boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 tablespoon Dave's ginger mix
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg white
oil for stir-frying
2 more tablespoons Dave's ginger mix
5 or 6 dried red peppers (optional)
2 ribs celery
2 green peppers (or one green and one red)
¼ pound snow peas
1 package of fresh mushrooms
1 can bamboo shoots
1 can sliced water chestnuts
other optional vegetables
½ cup chicken broth or 1 chicken bouillon cube dissolved in ½
cup warm water
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
3 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons soy sauce
a handful of cashews (about a cup or as many as you can afford)
Method: The secret of this recipe is marinating the chicken. Cut the boneless skinless breast pieces into strips about two inches long by ¼ inch thick. Depending on how thick each breast fillet is, you may want to lay the slices flat and cut each one in half lengthwise to make narrower strips.
Put the chicken, corn starch, egg white, salt, soy sauce, and 1 tablespoon of Dave's ginger mix together in a bowl, mix, cover, and refrigerate for at least two hours. Stir at least once during the marinating process.
Cut the celery diagonally into ¼ inch pieces. Cut the peppers into strips ¼ inch by two or three inches. Cut the onion into eighths and separate into pieces. Wash, dry, and slice mushrooms. Drain the bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, reserving the liquid. Wash the snow peas, dry, and remove the stems. I prepare the vegetables ahead of time, storing each in a Ziploc bag. It is important to keep them separate from each other since each cooks for a different amount of time.
Other optional vegetables include green or Chinese cabbage, zucchini, green onions, green beans, carrots, etc. Add according to your taste, budget, size of guest list, and size of wok. The mandatory vegetables can also be varied according to the same factors.
In a wok or frying pan heat 1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oilnot olive oil. Get the oil fairly hot and add the chicken marinade and all. Stir-fry for five or six minutes, until the chicken is just about done. Remove from the wok and set aside. Some of the marinade ingredients will stick to the wok. Scrape them up and add them to the chicken if you wish, draining off oil. I stir-fry using an implement that is a cross between a spatula and a spoon. It has a handle, is round at the business end, and is perforated with dozens of small holes. It is slightly concave in shape. I found it in the kitchen-implement section of my grocery store. It is great for turning stir-frying food, and the holes permit you to remove the chicken from the wok, draining off oil at the same time.
Wash the wok and return it to the stove. Heat two tablespoons of oil, and add two tablespoons of Dave's ginger mix. Stir-fry for thirty seconds and add hot peppers if you wish. Stir-fry for fifteen more seconds, then add celery. Stir-fry for one minute, add green and red peppers and cook for another one to two minutes. Continue stirring the whole time. Add the onions and cook for another minute or so. Add the snow peas, mushrooms, and oyster sauce and cook for another two minutes. You can add any optional vegetables at the appropriate times. Experience and your taste for doneness will guide you.
Add the bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and cooked chicken and mix to heat. Add the chicken broth and allow to heat for thirty seconds or so. Mix together the reserved bamboo shoot and water chestnut liquids, soy sauce, and corn starch. Stir well to dissolve the corn starch. Make a well in the middle of the wok and pour this liquid into it. Let it sit for thirty to forty-five seconds to thicken, add cashews, and mix everything together. Turn off heat and serve.
8 cups or more of green cabbage, bok choy, or a mixture of the
3 medium onions
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon Dave's ginger mix
4 tablespoons soy sauce
Method: Coarsely chop the cabbage. Peel the onions, remove ends, cut into eights, and separate into individual pieces.
Heat the oil and stir-fry my ginger mix for thirty seconds. Add a handful of dried red peppers if you enjoy such things as I do. Add onion and stir-fry for about a minute and a half. Add the cabbage and continue stir-frying until the cabbage reaches the doneness you like; it should take four or five minutes. Add the soy sauce and cook for another thirty seconds.
This dish can be made in advance and reheated in the microwave without a major degradation in its quality. It is quick and easy and goes well with baked chicken. Since cabbage and onions keep for a relatively long time, you can almost always have the ingredients at hand, especially if you keep the ginger mix in the freezer. It is also delicious when mixed with cooked egg noodles.
4 cups or more cooked rice
3 tablespoons oil
1 cup of cooked meat (shrimp, pork, chicken, beef, or whatever you like)
¼ cup minced onion
¼ cup minced celery
¼ cup minced green pepper
½ cup chopped mushrooms
1 egg beaten (optional)
¼ cup soy sauce
Method: Cook the meat in advance and cut into ¼-inch dice.
The meat can be omitted if you prefer vegetable fried rice.
Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan and add the ginger mix. Stir-fry for about thirty seconds. Add all the vegetables and stir-fry for about two minutes. Add the meat and mix everything together. Next add the rice, stir-frying constantly. It will take a while to get everything mixed together; don't add it all at once. Stir-fry to heat. Some of the mixture will stick to the wok. Don't worry about it. If you are going to all this trouble to cook dinner, someone else can wash the dishes.
Add the soy sauce and egg (the egg helps to bind everything together), mix well. Serve and modestly accept the praise.
Szechuan Cucumber Salad
2 medium cucumbers, (about 1 pound)
3 cloves garlic
2 green onions, minced
1 tablespoon Chinese dark vinegar
1 tablespoon chili flakes in oil
½ teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon sesame oil
Method: If you have tender summer cucumbers from someone's garden, you can leave most of the skin on the cucumbers. If you have the grocery store variety, remove most of the skin in lengthwise strips.
Cut the cukes in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Cut each half into two pieces lengthwise once again. Then smack each piece with the side of a Chinese cleaver or the side of a big knife. This opens up the flesh to accept the sauce better. Finally cut strips into 1-inch pieces.
Mince the garlic until it is nearly a paste. A little added salt may help with this process. Mix the garlic paste with the rest of the sauce ingredients and pour over the cucumbers. Allow them to sit a few minutes, then serve.
Chili Flakes in Oil
Method: Heat ½ cup vegetable oil in a heavy saucepan until it starts to smoke. Turn off heat and allow to cool for three minutes. Add ¼ cup chili flakes (ground red chilies). The oil will foam and turn dark. Store covered in the refrigerator.
This dinner can be somewhat difficult to orchestrate, which is why you must make the soup in advance. It is also helpful to have all shopping, cleaning, and table-setting done in advance. Prepare all vegetables, sauces, and cooked rice the day of the feast. There are many good rice steamers on the market, including one sold by the NFB's Materials Center. You may wish to serve steamed rice along with the fried rice since many people like to eat their chicken and cashews on a bed of rice.
You can heat the soup and serve it to your guests when they arrive. This meal should be taken at a leisurely pace. The chicken and cashews should be started slightly ahead of the fried rice. While it is possible to man both woks, it is a little difficult. I usually draft one of the guests to stir one of the woks while I handle the other and parcel out ingredients and sauces for both at the appropriate times. People are usually glad to help because they want to know how it is all done.
As mentioned earlier, the cabbage can be heated in the microwave. And don't forget to boil water to make the tea. The experience can be a little hectic, but well worth the effort.
P.S. I once served this meal to Eileen Rivera, former President of the Baltimore Chapter, and she went into labor with her daughter Maria later the same evening. I make no claims either way, but it is an interesting fact.