As of Thursday, February 19th, Happy Year of the Goat. In case you haven’t experienced it, the Chinese New Year is a two-week event rich both in celebration — fireworks, lanterns, red clothes — as well as clean-slate-wiping — house cleaning, bill paying, lucky money giving. But for me, it’s mostly an excuse to share one of my favorite, recently dusted off cookbooks, perfect for efficient, manageable weeknight cooking: Quick and Easy Chinese. The author is Nancy McDermott, whose love of cooking began, where else, at her grandmother’s side. Her passion for Asian flavors began, where else, during her Peace Corps term in Thailand. She went on to write Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking, Quick and Easy Thai, Quick and Easy Vietnamese, Quick and Easy Chinese, and a host of other Southeast asian cookbooks. As a matter of fact, here she is right here. I really appreciate her general philosophy of home cooked Asian food. In the introduction to Quick and Easy Chinese, she points out how enamored we Westerners are with Chinese food, in which “meat and veggies are napped in delightfully flavorful sauces, creating delicious hybrids that we mall rats love.” (See cheerful couple dressed as carry out!) We seem to think that these clever, slightly foreign flavor combinations equal a cooking process that is beyond us, but in truth, it couldn’t be more familiar. This cookbook won’t have you making dim sum or fancy seafood or some of the other restaurant level dishes that some folks have come to associate with Chinese; rather, the recipes reflect the kind of simple, home cooking that is as manageable in the average American kitchen as it is in the everyday Chinese household. In other words, we’re talking a skillet, a chef’s knife, and knife skills.
Mise En Place
This is the first element of Chinese cooking that I’m a sucker for: mise en place is French for “put in place,” in other words, chopping and measuring all of your ingredients on the front end of the cooking process. It sounds a lot like the French phrase, “mise en scène,” referring to the scenic design of a play or film. And in its own, quotidian sort of way, it’s the culinary equivalent of setting the stage. In general, it’s an organized and foolproof way of cooking, but Chinese food requires this step since everything is eventually cooked so quickly and at such a high temperature.
Fry it in a Pan
From there, the basic process is delightfully repetitive, whether you’re improvising a vegetable stir-fry or crafting your own, homemade version of Kung Pao Chicken. Start cooking your rice. Heat oil in a pan. Add vegetables, meats, herbs and flavorings, and watch everything sizzle until the consistency is right. Swirl in a sauce, usually containing soy sauce, cornstarch, oil, vinegar, and a few other, more specific, signature flavors. Watch the sauce thicken and turn off the heat. Voilà.
Another happy discovery is that no, you truly don’t need specialty ingredients to make Chinese food at home. If you currently use red pepper flakes, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, cilantro, ginger, peanuts, or black beans, then you’re mostly covered. I purchased a bottle of Asian Sesame oil, rice vinegar, and Hoisin Sauce and they’ve carried me through numerous incarnations of “Almond Chicken,” “Kung Pao Chicken,” and “Salmon with Ginger and Onions,” just 3 of the 70 recipes McDermott serves up. I’m eager to try her recipe for “Spicy Beef in Lettuce Cups” and “green onion pancakes,” which are street-food flatbreads inspired by the author’s annual trips to Taiwan. To tout my enthusiasm just a few words longer, this recipe for Eggplant Szechwan (Szechwan being a Southwestern province known for its sophisticated, spicy cuisine) is currently the easiest way I know to use up those suspiciously giant eggplants you often find in the grocery store. What the heck — as long as we’re celebrating the Chinese new year, why not make room for another quick and easy recipe that hails from…Japan. (The more the merrier?) I recently tried this chilled soba noodles recipe, adapted from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites. Lest anyone should be offended by my brazen intermingling of culinary traditions under the “Asian” umbrella, let me add that I used whole wheat spaghetti instead of Japanese buckwheat pasta, so technically, my version is a hopeless mutt, infused with commonly used Italian, Chinese and Japanese ingredients: garlic, ginger, scallions, peanut butter, Chinese chile paste, soy sauce, cilantro… It sounds like summer picnic fare, but I find that cold, peanut noodles with a side of cucumber/nut slaw makes for a refreshingly hearty lunch in the dead of winter.
Ingredients, Cold Peanut Noodles
Salt 3 garlic cloves, minced 3 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced 4 scallions, chopped 3/4 cup peanut butter* Hot sauce* 1/4 cup soy sauce 1/4 cup freshly chopped cilantro 8 ounces whole wheat spaghetti* *The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup peanut butter + 1/4 cup tahini, or sesame paste. If you have tahini, I’m sure it’s even better that way. I didn’t, so I used extra peanut butter. The original recipe calls for crunchy peanut butter but I was satisfied with my choice of creamy. *The original recipe calls for 2 teaspoons Chinese chili paste. Again, I made a convenient substitution. *Or one 8.8 oz package soba noodles (Japanese buckwheat pasta)
Boil Pasta Water, Mix Pasta Sauce
Boil lightly salted water for the pasta. Mix together the garlic, ginger, scallions, peanut butter, hot sauce and soy sauce. Add 1/2 cup of the hot water for the pasta to thin out the sauce. Stir in the cilantro.
Bring it Together
Cook the noodles in the boiling pasta water according to the package directions. Drain them in a colander and place under cold running water to chill them. Toss them with tongs and drain again. Mix the cold noodles with the sauce. If desired, make them ahead of time and chill in the refrigerator for a few hours. Serve with lightly pickled cucumber and almonds.
Cucumber Almond Salad, Ingredients
1 large cucumber, cubed 3/4 cup coarsely chopped lightly roasted salted almonds* 2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil 2 tablespoons rice vinegar Freshly ground black pepper, to taste *The original recipe calls for cashews. If you don’t have roasted/salted nuts, place whatever nuts you have in a dry skillet over medium-low heat and toast until crisp and fragrant. Season to taste with coarse sea salt or kosher salt.