Friday, March 25, 2011

The Year of the Rabbit - A Chinese New Year Feast

Kung hei fat choy!! This is the VERY late homage to my Chinese ancestry and family cooking.  To those unfamiliar with the traditions of the Chinese Lunar new year except for dragon parades and firecrackers (as well as the much dreaded month-long holiday shuttering the Chinese factories), this is the most important holiday for East and South-East Asians. While known by many different names in each country (Koreans as "Seollal", Bhutanese as Losar, Mongolians as Tsagaan Sar, and the Vietnamese as Tết, the concept remains the same throughout. This is the time for family to come together and reflect on all of the good and bad from the previous year, as well as to forgive any wrongdoings. 

Some traditions during this 15-day celebration include cleaning the house to sweep away any ill-fortune and decorating the windows and doors with red-colored (red symbolizes luck, prosperity, and happiness in Chinese culture which is why it is the color worn by the bride) hangings with auspicious phrases such as "wealth", "happiness" or "longevity".
There is also the traditional gifting of red envelopes (called hong bao) on New Year's Day containing money from the adults to children or unmarried young adults. Receiving the hong bao was like Christmas Day for us growing up down to the very packaging!  Gifting of the money varies from a couple of dollars to several hundred.  The amount should always be an even number, determined by the first digit (ie $30 or $50 is considered unlucky).  Three is considered one of the most unlucky numbers, with six and eight being considered the luckiest.  However, it is acceptable to gift single bills such as $100. I can go on and on with all the confusing rules in regards to this tradition, but I will keep it at that.

There are twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac sign, each one represented by a different animal.  2011 is the year of the rabbit symbolizing characteristics like creativity, sensitivity and compassion. I did not make anything for my Chinese New Year feast from rabbit.  Instead, I opted to keep it as traditional as possible by preparing a meal of steamed whole fish in soy based-oil sauce (the Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for riches or abundance, and it is believed that eating a whole fish will help your wishes come true that year), dumplings (symbolizing a purse of wealth), and noodles (symbolizing longevity and long life. Ideally, you should serve and eat them WITHOUT breaking the noodle. ). 
Below are the recipes for my shumai (this is another version of dumplings and was my easy way out of making the traditional dumplings as I have not yet mastered the pleating) and Lunar New Year Noodles. 

The shumai is a fun way to involve the kids too. I remember helping my parents make dumplings and wontons growing up. And my dad's little sigh as he unpleated the poorly constructed dumplings I had made into 8 perfect little pleats. I learned that if dumplings are not pleated properly, they will fall apart. To this day, I am jealous of my dad's technique and his speed in making dumplings. My mother is good, but you just can't beat dad. 

Thank you mom and dad for all your tricks and techniques after all these years of watching you cook!


Makes 36 pieces
For shumai:
1 lb ground pork
3/4 lb uncooked, peeled shrimp, roughly chopped
2 bunches scallion, green part only, roughly chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine, can be replaced with sherry or cognac
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground white pepper
1 large egg, lightly beated
1 package wonton wrappers with edges cut off
1 bunch napa cabbage, bottom cut off and leaves separated

For dipping sauce:
2 slices of ginger, outer skin removed, cut into thin matchsticks
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp red chile flakes (optional)
2 tbsp cilantro, finely chopped (optional)

1. In a food processor, place the first ten ingredients, cover and pulse several times until it is well blended and shrimp is ground. 

2. Remove from food processor into a large mixing bowl.  Add the egg and gently fold it with the pork-shrimp mixture.  Do not overmix it as it will make the final product slightly dry.
    3. To assemble the dumplings, have ready a small bowl of either water or 1 beaten egg and large sheet pan covered with aluminum foil.  Make sure to work as quickly as you can since the wonton skins will dry out the longer you keep it out.
      4. Place a skin on your hand.  Mound 1 tbsp of the pork-shrimp mixture in the middle of a wonton wrapper. 
        5. Bring together two sides of the wrapper and then gently squeezing the dumplings, create several pleats with the skin.  Use the water or egg mixture to help the pleats adhere. The pork-shrimp mixture should be visible in a shumai and will look like a little purse. 

        6. Repeat this process with remaining mixture.
        7. Line a round pan with the napa cabbage leaves.  It should act as a cup to hold the shumai in place and avoid it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Gently place shumai on leaves, leaving at least an inch between each piece.
        8. Place in a steamer and let it steam for approximately 15-20 minutes. 
        9. Remove from steamer and serve immediately.  Shumai is not good cold! Add a spoonful of the dipping sauce over the shumai if you like.
        NOTE: Unsteamed shumai can be frozen for up to a month in the freezer.  When you are ready to use, defrost for a few hours prior to steaming.

        These noodles can easily be made vegetarian. I like to replace the proteins in step 1 with extra-firm tofu sliced 1/2 inch thick. I would cook it on an indoor grill to get a nice sear and crisp to the tofu. The thing I love about tofu is that it tastes like nothing by itself and absorbs the flavors that you marinate or cook it in.
        Serves 8

        1/2 lb calamari rings, cleaned thoroughly
        1/4 lb pork butt, cut into thin 2-inch long strips
        1/4 lb peeled and deveined large shrimp with tail on
        5 tbsp dark soy sauce
        1 tbsp shacha (aka Chinese BBQ sauce, I prefer to use the Bullhead brand)
        1 tsp sambal oelek (season to taste, this will give it a slight kick)
        1/2 tsp sesame oil
        1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine, can be replaced with sherry or cognac

        1 16-oz bag packaged thick Shanghai-style noodles
        2 1/2 tbsp canola oil

        2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly minced
        1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
        3 heads of baby bok choy, stem cut off bottom and separated into individual leaves
        1/4 lb fresh snow peas
        1/2 tsp salt
        2 tbsp oyster sauce
        2 tbsp teriyaki sauce
        1 tsp white pepper
        1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves (optional)

        1. Add the first three ingredients into a medium mixing bowl. Then, add 2 tbsp soy sauce, shacha, 1/2 tsp sambal oelek, sesame oil, and Shaoxing wine. Use your fingers to mix it all together. Cover in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to marinate for 2-3 hours. 

        2. In a large pot, bring water to a boil.  When it is bubbling, add the noodles and cook for approximately 5 minutes.  With chopsticks or tongs, constantly use them to stir and separate the noodles.  If you do not do this, the noodles will stick together into a clump. You will know once it is cooked when the noodles are soft, but still have a little texture and chewiness when you bite into it. Strain and rinse in cold water to remove excess starch.

        3. In a wok over high heat, heat 1/2 tbsp oil. Add the marinated proteins and stir-fry for 8-10 minutes until it is all fully cooked. You will know it is cooked when the calamari rings have reduced in size, pork is fully browned on all sides, and shrimp is a bright orange color and the body curls. Remove from heat and reserve the proteins in a clean bowl.

        4. Using the same wok, add the balance oil. Once it is sizzling again, add the garlic and ginger. Cook for a minute and then add the bok choy and snow peas. Season with salt and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes.

        5. Add noodles to the wok with the vegetables, then the balance soy sauce, sambal oelek, oyster sauce, teriyaki sauce and pepper. Work quickly and mix it all together.

        6. Then, add the proteins into the noodle mixture. Combine well. Cook for an additional 3-4 minutes still over high flame, making sure to constantly keep stir-frying to avoid noodles from sticking to the wok.

        7. Right after removing the noodles from heat, add the cilantro and mix. You don't want to cook the cilantro. It should just add a hint of freshness and coolness to the noodles.  Serve family style in a large pasta bowl.

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