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.

        Wednesday, March 23, 2011

        Reims, France: Champagne in Brut Force

        Every upcoming February and September, I look on in dread as Fashion Week approaches. For most people, it sounds like an unending line of parties, runway shows and celebrity spotting. All very glamorous. And yes while it is all of these things, it means for everyone in the industry, sleepless nights, long hours at the office, and a whirlwind of travel for close to two months.

        One of the perks is definitely heading to one of my favorite cities: Paris! Along with the gastronomical delights awaiting me there, the city is also filled with some of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. Every corner you turn there is always a unknown church or building with the most intricate, gorgeous carvings. In New York, I am always annoyed at the stream of tourists who just stop in their track, blocking the natural flow of traffic around them. In Paris, I am definitely one of those gawking tourists whipping out my camera at every corner, completely enthralled.

        Since I am there for work, usually I don't have the time to really explore Paris except at night. This time however, I decided to carve out some time for myself by taking a red eye and getting in first thing in the morning. Thank you to the Mistress of Spices (my cohort in crime whenever I am in Paris) for suggesting an easy day trip to Reims to spend it sipping bubblies and making all the necessary arrangements.

        Reims is an easy 45-minute train ride 80 miles Northeast from the center of Paris in the Champagne-Ardenne region. To give a basic history of Reims, the Romans were the first to plant vineyards in this area of northeast France around the 5th century. 

        When Hugh Capet was crowned King of France in 987 at the cathedral of Reims, located in the heart of the region, he started a tradition that brought successive monarchs to the region—with the local wine being on prominent display at the coronation banquets. The cathedral, built in the early 13th century, is almost as beautiful as the infamous Notre Dame in Paris.
        The addition of a set of stained glass windows towards the back of the cathedral by Marc Chagall created in 1974 (One of my favorite artists! His "La Mariée" hangs in my apartment) was one of the best surprises.
        While hunting for some lunch before our appointments at the champagne houses, we stumbled upon a little farmers market in the square called the Marché du Boulingrin. It was filled with the usual assortment of local produce, cheese and meats.  Like the carnivore I am, I devoured the roasted chicken I purchased there for my lunch as we were walking to Mumm. It was perfectly roasted in an unusual curry-based seasoning. The French do know how to roast their chicken...delicious!!

        We did eventually get to the main point of our trip which was CHAMPAGNE! I had the pleasure of taking a cave tour of both Mumm and Pommery. While the basic concept of champagne-making is pretty similar, the two cave tours were definitely a different experience from the other. Mumm was a more intimate experience while Pommery was much grander with random offerings of modern artwork throughout the cave tour as Louis Pommery was an art lover.

        The caves are typically built at a distance of about 30 meters (roughly 98 feet) underground to maintain the proper storage temperature for champagne which is about 10-12 degrees Celsius (50-53.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Traditionally, massive cellars were drug underground or limestone quarries converted into cellars. Since the Roman times, these quarries have been exploited to get limestone for the building of walls and houses. In the Champagne-Ardenne region, the soil usually consists of chalk. All the caves are hand-carved! Since some of them are miles long, it is definitely a huge feat of man-work with no machinery.


        In the European Union, only wines coming from the Champagne region can wear the name Champagne on the label. In the area, 300 established wineries produce champagne. 


        A percentile system known as the Échelle des Crus ("ladder of growth") acts as a pro-rata system for determining grape prices and grape quality. Vineyards located in villages with high rates receive higher prices for their grapes than vineyards located in villages with a lower rating. While the Échelle des Crus system was originally conceived as a 1-100 point scale, in practice, the lowest rated villages are rated at 80%. Premier crus villages are rated between 90 and 99 percent while the highest rated villages, with 100% ratings are Grand crus. 

        Champagne is made from three varieties of grapes:
        • Chardonnay: used to bring a lightness and elegance 
        • Pinot Noir: used to give longevity, spiciness, and finesse
        • Pinot Meunier: used primarily for younger champagnes since the grape brings character and roundness that is usually achieved by a longer aging process
        Most champagnes are made from a combination of chardonnay and pinot noir. Rosé wines of Champagne are produced either by leaving the clear juice of black grapes to macerate on its skins for a brief time (known as the saigneé method) or, more commonly, by adding a small amount of still Pinot noir red wine to the sparkling wine cuvee.

        Méthode Champenoise is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced. After manually harvesting the grapes, they are pressed (pressurage) in order to break open the berries without damaging the structure of the bunch. Unlike the process of making wine, the red grapes produce a white color for champagne since the skin is removed during the process. 

        After pressing, the juice is put in vats for about two weeks at a temperature of between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius for the first fermentation known as "alcoholic" fermentation. It used to be stored in concrete containers like the one photographed below before finally moving to copper. Each container is labeled with the vineyard and a secret code of numbers known by each house identifying the date it was first stored.

        According to the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (known as AOC which is the French certification of authentication for wine, cheese, and other agricultural products) a minimum of 1.5 years is required to completely develop all the flavor. When the harvest is exceptional, a millesimé is declared and some Champagne will be made from and labeled as the products of a single vintage rather than a blend of multiple years' harvests. This means that the Champagne will be very good and has to mature for at least 3 years. Each house has a special blend (known as a cuvée) that takes several months for the "Chef de Cave" (Cellar Master) and his assistants to approve, tasting and mixing various years to create the perfect cuvée; this period is known as "assemblage".

        Each house stores a history of the best wines they have produced over the years in a sealed storage area that only a few have access to including the "chef du cave".

        After the primary fermentation and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation is induced by adding several grams of yeast and several grams of sugar. Natural yeasts convert the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is where we get the bubbles we love that are characteristic in champagne, known as prise de mousse. During this time the Champagne bottle is sealed with a cap similar to that used on beer bottles and then aged (vieillissement) laying down, for a period of 15-30 months for normal champagnes to 3-5 years for millésimes. 
        After aging, the bottle is manipulated, either manually or mechanically (nowadays mostly all houses are mechanical due to the high costs unless it is a prestige cuvées), in a process called remuage ("riddling" in English), so that the lees (yeast residue) settle in the neck of the bottle. During this stage the bottles are placed on special racks called pupitres. This places the bottles at a 45° angle with the cork pointed down. Every few days the bottles are given a slight shake and turn and dropped back into the pupitres (eventually the angle is increased). The drop back into the rack causes a slight tap, pushing sediments toward the neck of the bottle. In about 6 to 8 weeks the position of the bottle is pointed straight down with sediment in the neck of the bottle.  According to our guide at Mumm, a good riddler can turn up to 60,000 bottles in one day! That is NOT a job I would like to do every day.
        To take off the cap, the bottle's neck is frozen for easy removal. The pressure in the bottle forces out the lees and the bottle is quickly corked to maintain the carbon dioxide in solution. Some sugar and reserve wine (le dosage) is then added to maintain the level within the bottle.

        The early wine of the Champagne region was a pale, pinkish wine made from Pinot noir which was considerably sweeter than the champagne we all know and love today. The addition of sugar to the wine is what typifies the category of champagne.  It was only in the mid-19th century that a drier wine was introduced for the British market; this is what we know today as brut champagne. Contrary to what our tour guide at Pommery said that Louis Pommery was the one who introduced brut champagne, Wikipedia attributes this stunning turning point to Perrier-Jouet in 1846!  After all these years of thinking "Extra Brut" meant more sugar, I found out on the tours that it was the opposite!  This useful table from breaks it down nicely:

        Type of Champagne
        Extra-Brut, Brut Integral of Brut Zero
        For the expierenced Champagne drinker and/or the person who likes very dry Champagne

        For the majority of the Champagne lovers

        1-3 %
        A compromise between sweet and dry

        For the lovers of sweet Champagne, often preferred by ladies

        For lovers of very sweet Champagne

        After all that information was poured into our heads, we were finally lead out of the caves for the much anticipated tastings where they proceeded to get us a bit tipsy.  These tastings are not what we know as tastings in America as we received FULL glasses at  both Mumm and Pommery.

        While I was enamored with the blanc de blanc I tasted at Pommery, the cost turned me away so I settled with walking away with my second choice, the brut apanage, that was created specifically to be paired with food. It is a buttery, lively champagne with a taste of mangoes, apricots and vanilla...a party in my mouth to be sure!

        All in all, it was an eventful, but relaxing way to spend my first day in Paris. Who knew that so much was located within such an easy distance outside the city!

        Thursday, March 10, 2011

        Experimenting with Herbs in My Drinks: Passionfruit-Thyme Martini

        It's been a rough month for me with market and Fashion Week in New York.  So the night before I was supposed to head out to Paris for Fashion Week, I concocted myself a new drink to make my packing and house cleaning a little more fun.

        There has been a rise with mixologists in the use of herbs in cocktails served at the bar.  I have been wanting to try this at home for quite a while now especially after having the basil martini in Jean-Georges Vongerichten's gorgeous and scrumptious new farm-to-table restaurant in New York, ABC Kitchen.

        Just a note that martinis are ALWAYS best when made in individual quantities.  Yes, you can make a pitcher of this in advance but make sure to always taste before serving as measurements change when in larger quantities.  I hope that you enjoy trying my little experiment and makes a rough night all around better!

        Serves 1

        6-8 fresh thyme leaves
        1/2 tsp granulated sugar
        1 1/2 tbsp fresh lime juice
        5-6 ice cubes
        1 shot high-quality vodka (I used Reyka which is the world's first organic vodka hand-made in Finland and from the producers of Glenfiddich)
        1/2 cup passionfruit juice

        1. In a martini shaker, add thyme leaves, sugar and lime juice. With a muddler, crush the herb mixture. Only do this enough to release the aroma of the herbs.
        2. Add the ice cubes followed by the vodka and then the passionfruit juice.
        3. Shake vigorously for several minutes. Strain the martini into a glass.
        4. Garnish with a thyme leaf and serve.