Thursday, February 13, 2014

Chinese New Year 2014: Year of the Horse

Chinese New Year is one of those holidays that is near and dear to my heart. It reminds me of my childhood. And you know what they say about nostalgia and food memories, right? Well, these memories tend to be much stronger and life changing that other kinds of food memories. Heck, the food might not be that great but because it's from a happy childhood moment, it might taste like liquid diamonds on fat steroids (if that had a taste I'm sure it would be awesome). Well lucky for me, my mom was a fantastic cook. And so I know my childhood food memories was no joke. They were filled with delicious dishes left and right. The holidays were especially precious. And this, my friends, is why I was a fat child growing up.

Anyway, enough about me. More about the food. Now like any immigrant family cook, my mother didn't write any recipes down. She knew how things should taste by using her senses only. Taste, look, feel, smell. She was the best at cooking. Not so good at teaching since she got annoyed at little ol' fat Hungry taking up space in her precious kitchen. Without having these precious lessons in hand, I've been trying to recreate a lot of her dishes from memory. That is, from watching her work in the kitchen as well as from trying to remember what the dishes taste like. Some I feel like I've nailed while others needs improvement.
So for this year's Chinese New Year (Year of the Horse), I cooked for my sister and her family, my in laws, and some special extended family members (yes, the very special Mrs. Green M&M, Mr. HP Sauce, and Baby!). I was especially nervous because it was the first time I cooked a Chinese New Year feast for my sister and her family. She, out of everyone, would know best if I nailed a dish or not. Thankfully, she's not as brutal with her comments about food as I am. But she is honest and I appreciate that.
Traditionally, nine dishes are served since it's a very auspicious number for the holiday. I always try to abide by this superstition. One thing though, white rice nor dessert counts. The nine dishes are the plates that are served at dinner only and served family style.
First up, the honey walnut shrimp (recipe here) which is a family favorite. Freshly fried shrimp tossed in a sweet mayo sauce. Candied walnuts garnish the plate while broccoli dressed the edges. I was pretty confident about this dish so I didn't have to worry if my sister liked it or not. By the way, she did like it.
Next up, blanched yu choy tips with oyster sauce. Many of the vegetables in Cantonese cooking is just simply blanched in salted water. Yu choy was the most common vegetable in my family. It cooked really quickly leaving the leaves tender and the stems slightly crunchy. Salty oyster sauce added that punch of flavor at the end. My dish here was served at room temperature but was a bit colder than I would have liked. Next time, I need to work on my timing a bit.
The third dish is simply steamed chicken with ginger scallion sauce (recipe here). I've seen people steam a whole chicken (head and feet on) or even slowly poach a chicken. I prefer steaming because it's faster and I can steam it in pieces. This year, I steamed a whole chicken that was cut up into 8 pieces. It's better to steam the chicken in larger pieces to retain a lot of the moisture. After it's cooked (use a thermometer!), I let it cool completely then chop it into more manageable pieces. This is where a butcher knife comes in handy. I'm still working on my butcher knife skills (I'm afraid of chopping my fingers off) but I'm getting better every time. Sharpening it is key for me. Anyway, the chicken is served with a really delicious ginger scallion sauce. It's a simple 4 ingredient sauce that so good on almost anything. I've been know to just scoop it onto my white rice. I made a double batch this time around and it got eaten up just the same.
And the piece de resistance and another family favorite is the roasted suckling pork belly (recipe here). Crispy skin, fatty meat, and strong savory flavors with a side of hoisin sauce. This is a really good make ahead dish because it has to cool down before you cut into it. I was a bit worried about the execution of this dish because it normally takes about 2 hours in the oven. This time, it only took 1 hour and had exceeded the internal temperature by 10 degrees. I freaked out. Luckily, the fattiness of the pork belly really helped keep it moist. I had nothing to worry about at the end of the day. It was still juicy with its crispy skin on top.
The fifth dish is a specialty of mine: dumplings. This particular dumpling was pan fried beef and chives. I make them from scratch except for the wrappers. I purchase premade wrappers for the consistency. And they freeze much better than homemade wrappers. Anyway, I pan fried the dumplings ahead of time then kept them warm in the oven. Unfortunately, I didn't cover them with foil and the wrapper dried out a bit making it hard. Fail on my part. Also fail on an updated recipe post of dumplings. I'm overdue for one (old posts here and here). Next time, I think I'll keep them in the pan and reheat them when it's ready to be eaten. No more oven warming. It doesn't always work well with Asian food.
For Chinese New Year, I was taught that there should be one vegetarian dish. I think it's a homage to the animals that give up their lives to feed us. It's kind of like a thank you and we can skip a meat dish. My meatless dish is blanched bok choy with braised shiitake mushrooms and fried tofu (recipe here). I battered my tofu in corn starch and egg whites but if you want to make it truly vegan, then you can just coat with corn starch and fry.
What's a new year celebration without the mention of a long and virtuous life? And how would we represent this in food? Why noodles of course! The longer the noodle, the better. In fact, there's a company out there that makes a whole serving that just contains one long noodle. My mom cooked me this once for my birthday. It was really fun trying to slurp it up. Anyway, my noodles for Chinese New Year was a mushroom lo mein. I used 5 different kinds of mushrooms in this (fresh shiitake, oyster mushroom, king oyster, baby bella, enoki). And to keep it vegetarian, I used a vegetable based oyster sauce. It's really a mushroom sauce. Honestly, I prefer oyster sauce. It has more flavor and oomph. This just seemed like it lacked something. Oh and it was a bit too soft. Again, it was the oven. I kept it warm in there for too long. I really need to get this timing this right. And it looks like I need to do a lo mein recipe post as well. So much to do!
We're up to the eighth dish. We're almost there! Seafood bird's nest (recipe here). I fried the thin noodles then sauteed the seafood (scallops, squid, and lump crab) and vegetables. I think I'm going to retire this dish from the new year line up. It was the least eaten dish 2 years in a row. Something must be wrong. I could be cooking it wrong or people would just rather eat something else. Ms. Pastry Chef told me that nothing was necessarily wrong with it. It's just that everything else was so much more tasty. Hmm, point taken. I'll have to replace it with something with more punchy flavor.
And the last and final ninth fish of the night was the steam striped bass with soy sauce, scallions, and ginger (recipe here). This dish must be cooked to order. Whole fish doesn't reheat very well. So you really want to serve it straight from the steamer to the table. Oh and it's key to serve a whole fish to represent wealth and good fortune. Oh and don't you dare flip it over to get the other side of meat. Instead, filet the bone out properly. Flipping the fish means that you're flipping the fish boat which is very unlucky. It will in turn flip your own luck and you'll have bad luck for the year. I know, this is all mumbo jumbo but whatever. Traditions, you know.
And there you go. All the above was served with a bowl of white rice for each person. The meal was a very quiet one as each person was stuffing themselves silly with food. Hahaha. In anticipation of the overeating, I made a very light dessert (I forgot to make the mochi!) which was a platter of fruit with oranges, kiwi, star fruit, dragon fruit (yuck!), and Asian pear. We also had pomelo but there was too much already. Like me, my sister who provided the fruit likes abundance and came over with so much fruit in hand.
And if fruit isn't to your liking, there's always brownies. I made mini brownies which seem to be a crowd favorite. It's something about the crusty edges and miniature size that makes people eat more. That mini muffin pan is coming in really handy.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my Chinese New Year post. In case you were wondering, prepping that day started at 8am and continued through non stop until 4pm. After that, I was left with just the final touches right before dinner. It was all worth it.


  1. I need to marry someone in your family

    1. Well, I do have an extended English side of the family now.

    2. I need to work my way into your extended side of the family

  2. Mr. M&P's family is soooo lucky.

    All that great foods!


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