Saturday, July 19, 2014

High end lo mein

I don't pretend to know anything about Chinese cuisine, and I know even less about Chinese cooking.  But I know I like noodles and I know what tastes good.  And this tastes good:

Sharp-eyed folks will notice the non-authentic kaffir lime leaf that I used for garnish.

Of all the Asian cuisines, Chinese is probably my least favorite. Never mind that my beloved epicurean grandfather was first to introduce me to moo shu porkwhich I love to this day.  Or that every time my family went out to a restaurant for a meal (especially after a funeral), it was to a Chinese restaurant and I loved spinning the lazy susan as I watched all those bejeweled plates and bowls of rice whirl by.  Or even that stir-fry cooking is fresh, fast and usually a healthy choice for dinner.  I have my reasons.

I'm sure that part of the reason I do not truly enjoy Chinese food is that because to me, it lacks the intrigue and seduction of cuisines from India, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, which typically rely on bold spice combinations, bright fresh herbs and chilies to make an impression.  There are times that I like to experience an assault on my palate, and Chinese food generally does not accomplish that.

But after reading a wonderful book last year called A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, in which the author writes with humor and openness about her lacking of cooking skill and her need to connect to her family (something that happened when she began to learn to cook her family's recipes), I became more interested in Chinese cuisine and made several of the recipes in her book.  You can find out more about Ms. Tan here on her beautiful blog.  Be sure to try her grandmother's recipe for Chinese Gambling Rice, which is not found in her book.  The story behind how it got its name is charming.

Reading Ms. Tan's book also made me want to revisit some of the Chinese cookbooks that I've managed to collect over the years.  These cookbooks have all been given to me and they've collected dust on shelves more than the other cookbooks I own. The one book that I seem to reach for over and over again is Ming Tsai's Blue Ginger, a compilation of recipes from Tsai's Wellesley, MA restaurant of the same name.  In this cookbook lives a recipe entitled "Chicken Chow Mein My Way."  I have used this recipe over and over as the basis for several dishes throughout the years because the combination of flavors in the marinade is so delectable.

Lap cheong, or Chinese sausages

Tsai's recipe is the basis for a noodle dish that I like to make that I call "High End Lo Mein."  It's not an expensive dish to make, seems to be infinitely alterable, and tastes like a million bucks.  You can make this lo mein with as much or as little variation in protein as you'd like.  You can substitute pork for the chicken, omit the shrimp and add crab or lobster, omit the Chinese sausage (which isn't always in my pantry), alter the vegetable ratios, add sugar snap peas or snow peas, and etc.  But one thing you should not do is tamper with the marinade ingredients.  Why?  Because they are perfect just the way they are.

And I think you'll agree.  Try it and let me know what you think:

These noodles pair well with a caramel-y, sweeter ale or beer.  Or you could choose a crisp sauv blanc.

High End Lo Mein

     Adapted from Ming Tsai's 1999 cookbook Blue GingerClarkson Potter Publishers.

2 Tbs. cornstarch
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/2 cup good quality oyster sauce (such as Panda Brand)
1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh ginger (I grate mine on a Microplane)
I bunch scallions, both white and green parts, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more for correcting seasoning
1 Tbs. sambal oelek
1 lb. chicken, preferably cut from legs and thighs, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (I have used boneless chicken breast and also pork butt with good results)
1 lb. fresh or dried lo mein noodles, or fettucini or broad rice noodles
5 Tbs. grapeseed oil
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 cups fresh shiitake or domestic mushrooms, quartered
lap cheong, or Chinese sausages cut into small dice
4 heads baby bok choy, or one head Napa cabbage, cored and cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 stalks celery, cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 medium carrots, coarsely grated or thinly sliced on a mandoline
1/4 to 1/2 lb. small cooked shrimp, thawed (I use frozen peeled and deveined salad shrimp, 150/250 count), or an equal amount of crabmeat or lobster, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup rich chicken broth
sliced scallions or cilantro, for garnish

1.)  In a large bowl, combine cornstarch and sherry and mix well.
2.)  Stir in the oyster sauce, ginger, scallions, 1 tsp. black pepper and the sambal oelek.
3.)  Add the chicken, stir well to coat with the sauce and marinate covered and refrigerated for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.
4.)  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
5.)  Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water.
6.)  Cook the lo mein noodles in the boiling water until al dente, approximately 5 minutes for fresh noodles and 10-15 minutes for dried noodles.
7.)  Drain and transfer the noodles to the ice water; when noodles are cold, drain again and toss with 1 Tbs. of the oil.  Set aside.
8.)  Heat a wok or a large skillet over high heat and add 2 Tbs. of the oil; swirl to coat the bottom of the pan.
9.)  When the oil shimmers, add the garlic and the mushrooms and stir-fry until the mushrooms are soft, about 4 minutes; remove mushrooms and garlic and set aside.
10.) Add the remaining 2 Tbs. oil and when it is hot and shimmering, add the chicken, lifting it from the marinade with a slotted spoon, reserving marinade for later use.
11.) Stir-fry chicken until almost cooked through, about 6 to 8 minutes, adding the Chinese sausage in the last minute of cooking the chicken.
12.) Now add the bok choy, celery and carrots and stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 3 to 4 minutes.
13.) Add the remaining marinade and the chicken broth, stir well to incorporate, then taste and correct seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.
14.) Add the shrimp and then the reserved mushrooms and the noodles.
15.) Stir to coat noodles well, heating through, about 5 minutes.
16.) Garnish with scallions and cilantro, if desired, and serve with extra sambal oelek on the side, if you wish.  Serves 4 to 6 people.

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