We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Celebrating Chinese New Year

by Michelle
   "Sure it takes times to cook, but it takes time to live! What other activity in the sphere of human pleasure makes our dwellings aromatic and brings friends and family to our table? If we value these aspects of our lives, then we cook. If we savor the food we prepare and the environment in which it is presented, then we dine."  ~Barbara Tropp

   As February approaches, the month will bring several opportunities to gather with family and friends to celebrate - the fun quotient bolstered with  the accompaniment of great food and specialty drinks. Chinese New Year, ushering in the year of the rabbit, will be celebrated far and wide on Thursday, February 3rd. Quickly thereafter, Super Bowl XLV will reign supreme on Sunday the 6th. Mid month the celebration of love and affection, better known as Valentine's Day will have some tittering in anticipation and others not so much. The month will finish with the Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, the 27th. With a long winter underway, there is no better way to heat up a social calendar than to create a lively atmosphere, invite over your favorite people and eat spicy food together.
   One of my favorite annual events to host is an "Asian Fusion" potluck. Friends will ask excitedly if I plan to make Dragon Noodles and my answer is always yes. Everyone loves the chili oil infused noodles garnished with lemon zest, scallion rings, shredded carrot and red radishes and roasted black sesame seeds. I like to serve the noodles with Salt and Pepper Prawns and Special Mustard Sauce and Easy Cucumber Pickles. I also like to round ot the menu by making Oven-Baked Egg Rolls with Sweet Chili Sauce for dippping. The egg rolls are also really tasty dipped in the Special Mustard Sauce. Wash it all down with a Mai Tai, Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir or a good beer and all will be right in the world - at least for one leisurely meal. Homemade Shirley Temple's, renamed Pomegranate Fizzes (so it is friendly to one and all, including the boys) or Gingerale work well for non-alcoholic beverages as well as Martinelli's Apple Cider.

  Although I own many cookbooks that cover countries and regions across Asia, the two books that I return to constantly are authored by the late Barbara Tropp and are focused on China: The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking (William Morrow 1982) and China Moon Cookbook (Workman Publishing 1992). Many have called her the Julia Child of Chinese cooking. When I read through these books, I find inspiration on every page. Our Dragon Noodle recipe is built upon Barbara's recipe of the same name.
   In the China Moon Cookbook, Barbara advocates getting started with the recipes in her book by making a handful of pantry items that store well in the refrigerator, or in a kitchen cabinet, and are then at the ready to provide a flavor boost to many meals. Barbara's list differs somewhat from mine, but here are the homemade items that I always have on hand:

Spicy Citrus Chili Oil
Ma-La Oil
Pickled Ginger
Ginger Syrup
Quick Pickle Marinade
Curry Powder
Ten-Spice Powder

Store bought pantry items:
Black Soy Sauce, preferably Pearl River Bridge brand -  An aged, concentrated soy sauce that is made with molasses.
Mushroom Soy Sauce, preferably Pearl River Bridge brand - A "meaty" soy sauce flavored with dried Chinese black mushrooms and is great for sauces and stews.
Soy Sauce, preferably Pearl River Bridge brand - Tamari, Japanese soy sauce, is a satisfying alternative.
Chinese Black Vinegar or Balsamic Vinegar - The two can be used interchangeably in recipes.
Cider Vinegar - I like to use raw and unfiltered Orangic Apple Cider Vinegar with "The Mother" by Bragg
Distilled White Vinegar, preferably Heinz brand
Unseasoned Rice Vinegar, preferably Marukan or Mitsukan brands - As Barbara observed, rice vinegar is "less harsh than distilled white vinegar and less sweet than cider vinegar, it is a pleasant in-between."
Oil for High Heat Cooking - Choose between corn, peanut and safflower oil.
Sesame Oil, preferably Kadoya brand - This is a potent, dark sesame oil and is a seasoning oil and not a cooking oil.
Dried Crushed Red Chili Flakes - The flakes should be bright red and not brown from age.
Roasted Black Sesame Seeds - Store both white and black sesame seeds in the freezer to prevent spoilage.
Star Anise - Buy the whole spice over pre-ground.
Szechwan Peppercorns - The open pod is used in cooking with the thorns and small bitter black seeds discarded.
Italian-style pasta, such as Spaghetti - Of course, fresh egg noodles are better, but the dried spaghetti has shelf life.
Glass Noodles - Used primarily in soups.
Rice Noodles - Best for frying and also in some noodle dishes.

Salted Black Beans, preferably Pearl River Bridge brand - Do not wash the beans before using.
Kosher Salt, preferably Diamond brand
Sugar - Stock-up and both white and brown sugar. I use C and H brand.
Sea Salt - Purchase sea salt that is hand harvested with an ingredients list that includes trace minerals.
Fish Sauce - I use Thai Kitchen brand.
Hoisin and Plum Sauces - Since using canned sauces can be tricky - many are filled with preservatives - I look for prepared sauces on the shelves at Whole Foods Market.
Sweet Red Chili Sauce, preferably Thai Kitchen Brand - Dipping and all-purpose sauce. I have even used it as a glaze on a spiral-cut ham.
Dijon Mustard - I use Dijon mustard in lieu of the powdered mustards available in the spice section.
Sambal Oelek - Fresh chili paste.
Sriracha Chili Sauce - A Thai style chili sauce.
Roasted Red Chili Paste, preferably Thai Kitchen brand
Organic Peanut Butter
Tamarind - The pulp is sold in 14-oz blocks.
Organic Vegetable Broth and Chicken Stock
Unsweeted Coconut Milk - I use Thai Kitchen with success.

Spices, in addition to Szechwan Peppercorns and Whole Star Anise (listed above):
Black Peppercorns
Cayenne Pepper
Cardamom Seeds
Coriander seeds
Whole Cloves
Cumin Seeds
Ground Cinnamon and Sticks
Fennel Seeds
Fenugreek Seeds
Ground Ginger
TurmericYellow Mustard Seeds

Fresh ingredients:


   Please do not let the list be daunting. The homemade pantry items are easy to prepare and when stored properly, last a long time without spoiling. Similar to Barbara's experience that she describes in the China Moon Cookbook, I too felt as if I had "grown a foot as a cook" after making the infused oils for the first time. I excitedly relayed my experience to my sisters and we are all now huge fans.
   The infused oils, pickled ginger, ginger syrup, spices and the Dragon Noodle sauce all make wonderful gifts. I store these items in tightly sealed glass jars - usually French Working Glasses - for personal use and to give as gifts. Unique handmade labels identify each jar and I pair the items with the China Moon Cookbook for a special birthday or Christmas present.
   Once you get going with these pantry items, you will find new and innovative ways to use them in your cooking. I had an ah-ha moment and began using the ginger syrup as a base for homemade gingerale. The pickled ginger, when thinly slivered, is an excellent addition to Asian flavored coleslaw or to top housemade sushi and rolls or to add to the pickled vegetables for Bánh Mì, to die for Vietnamese sandwiches. The curry powder is the best I've ever tasted and is exceptional in a Chicken Curry Salad that I like to make year round, but especially in the spring. The infused oils season everything from salad dressings, to sauces, to stir-fries - the possibilities are endless.
   To make the Dragon Noodles in a few weeks for your next special occasion, whether it's Chinese New Year, Superbowl, Valentine's Day or the Academy Awards, get started now by preparing and storing: Pickled Ginger, Ginger Syrup, Ma-La Oil, and Spicy Citrus Chili Oil.


  1. Confucious say "this post very ambitious for those who read it." Wow...this will take setting aside a week of planning, shopping, combining. Think I may leave this one as a "read only". You guys are amazing and I envy your family who gets to eat your food. I thought I was pretty good until I started reading your blog. ;0

  2. Morning, Zoe! I'm definitely a tinkerer in the kitchen. I should have been better at science in my younger years because I have become aware of my devotion to making infusions across multiple categories: fruit liqueurs, flavored oils, herb vinegars and syrups. I get an intense sense of satisfaction looking at the jars, with all their various hues, lined up on the pantry shelf or stored happily in the refrigerator, ready at a moments notice. I find that the compound flavors add interesting elements to recipes that I could not achieve otherwise. Locally, I love to shop at 17th St. Farmers Market that specializes in Asian ingredients, so it fortunately allows for one stop shopping, which I typically do on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday I get to work early with strong coffee and loud music fueling my actions. My labors are complete by early afternoon leaving me with a sense of satisfaction for the rest of the day and every time I pull a pantry item off the shelf or from the refrigerator to use at a moments notice. The homemade pantry items last well for months, if not longer. I've had chili oil that was good for a year in my refrigerator. Let me count the ways how much I adore drizzling homemade chili oil on potstickers. Maybe I can eat that for breakfast! Anyhoo, that's my additional 2-cents on the subject, and as Juliette says, that's all I have to say about that... for now! Have a great day!


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