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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cantonese Spicy Chicken Salad and Happy Chinese New Year!

by Michelle

"May your life be free of worry and fear
Instead, may you have happiness,
Good health and success all year!"

   Living in San Jose, California was a boon for a girl who loved food but had lived a pretty sheltered food lifestyle. When I transferred from Phoenix to San Jose in 1995 with my employer at the time, a multi-billion dollar global distributor of electronic components, I did not know that the big tech boom was about to be a tidal wave. I surfed that Big Kahuna until the market crashed in early 2001.

   To illustrate how quickly the joy ride came to an end, based upon my sales performance for the prior year, I won a coveted all-expense-paid trip for my husband and me. We vacationed in Lanahi, Hawaii, at the very same secluded hotel where Bill and Melinda Gates were married. The trip took place in mid-March. Linda, newly relocated to San Jose from the Santa Ynez Valley, stayed with our daughter, Maddie, for a few days, while Jay and I took a luxury trip of a lifetime to Maui.

Linda and Maddie playing around in 2001.
   A few short weeks after that, the market fell so fast and so hard that I was part of a second round lay-off three months after the rewards trip. Major companies in the Silicon Valley followed suit and it seemed as if more people were out of jobs than there were working. The people that stayed employed, I was to find out later, often wished that they had been laid-off early on because they were working horrendous hours and were under constant pressure to perform even better.

   After a long summer of contemplating our options and hoping that the market would recover and the people of the Silicon Valley would get back to work, the next blow was devastating and would alter the course of lives. On September 11th, my husband awoke me in the morning. Through my waking haze, I heard him say that something was happening in New York, probably a terrorist attack. I recall putting my robe on over my nightgown and sleepily walking down the hall and into the living room where I proceeded to watch the TV for the rest of the day, intermittently weeping and trying to wrap my head around the fact that in those hours of the twin towers falling—life as we knew it, was no more. Not regular churchgoers, I still remember that Jay and I, along with Linda and Maddie went to a local chapel to pray that evening.
   Everything about my life shifted and changed. No one needed a crystal ball to foresee that there would be no tech recovery in the short term. The blinding reality is that my husband and I were carrying too much debt and too many monthly expenses, including a mortgage, car payments, private pre-school tuition and a nanny we could no longer afford. Thankfully, about a month later—by the hair on our chiny-chin-chins—we sold our four bedroom ranch-style house with the big grassy yard, two apricot trees and a gigantic cherry tree. We returned to Arizona, albeit not Phoenix, but Tucson, which made all our Bay Area friends scratch their heads in confusion and wonder what we were thinking. When you live in Silicon Valley, one develops flat world thinking. To even consider leaving is to believe you'll fall off the edge of the world if you drive too far east, south or north. I might as well have said we were moving to Tijuana. It would have elicited the same reaction most likely.

   In the end we ditched the mortgage, a car payment, and private school, but kept Barbara, our nanny, because we loved her and she helped keep our environment stable for my daughter during the transition from one state to another. Barbara is from Germany and she was in the United States for a one year stint as an au pair. (Barbara is a reader of this blog, so if you are reading this right now, my dear, know that our family holds you in our hearts, and we will continue to love you for evermore). Linda opted to stay on in San Jose and try to make a go of her new and promising career at Whole Foods Market.
   Upon arriving in Tucson, I took my time settling in to our temporary home that we rented for one year. Four months passed before I found a new job in software sales. We located a Montessori school for our daughter and discovered that a charter school is free, as in no charge. My husband and I felt like we hit the lottery. The private Montessori school in California was nearly $800 a month for preschoo-aged children! Our Arizona rent was a quarter of our California mortgage. Honestly, everything is cheaper in Arizona, including groceries, gasoline, and entertainment. We slashed our expenses and started over. We learned to appreciate the beauty of the desert once again, in more ways than one, beyond the aesthetics of the land.

   However, living in Northern California, had opened my palate to a world of food. In the melting pot of the diverse region, I could dine on any type of global cuisine within a ten minute drive of home. And I did. I still recall that when I made the transition initially from Arizona to California in 1995, I went from an office of 35 people, to a huge building with hundreds of people. There were multiple sales teams and I happened to report to a woman, the only female manager. The rest of my team were all men. On the first day I arrived at the office, the guys offered to take me to lunch. We drove a quick couple of minutes down the street and parked in front of a dingy white shack of a building. A rickety screen door was the gateway into a smokey dining room with faux wood tables and cheap chairs that didn't look so new anymore. A lone ceiling fan was slowly spinning to keep the air moving in a room absent of air conditioning. Surely, I am being hazed, I thought to myself. Ever the good sport, I gamely sat down on the minimally padded chair at a round table that featured a lazy Susan to help a party to eat family-style. I calmly waited for the guys to laugh and say, "Just kidding". But, alas, they weren't joking. Menus were produced and the guys started excitedly talking about what to order. It slowly occurred to me that we were staying, and I dumbly scanned the menu. My co-worker Rob turned to me and with a big smile plastered on his face asked me to trust him. Sure, why not, I thought. I've known you for about an hour. Game on. The food is awesome, he said. This place will be one of your favorite places to eat, the others chimed in. The team collectively ordered for the table. When the plates and steaming bowls of food began to arrive, I started by timidly tasting the various dishes and then quickly transitioned into full on pleasure eating, gulping down the tamarind noodles, vegetable curry with fried tofu and chicken satay. In the span of about five minutes, I became a true believer. Sure enough, the guys told me no lies, eating at Chez Sovan was a regular destination, and we'd arrive early before the daily crowds descended upon the place to devour the restaurant's Cambodian specialties.

   Not long after the experience at Chez Sovan, I was introduced to sushi. I felt like a country bumpkin eating raw fish for the first time and having the guys gauge my expressions to see how well I was liking the unfamiliar fare. It took awhile to get the hang of chop sticks and learn the menus. Practice makes perfect though. I probably ate sushi once, if not twice, a week. Spicy tuna rolls went down the hatch just fine and there are times when I crave wasabi ever since. On a particularly cold day, it was collectively decided by the group that soup was in order, which would typically mean Vietnamese Phở at a no frills bustling place in Fremont. Instead, I was introduced to Komatsu, where we ordered Udon soup that featured a poached egg nestled in with the vegetables, protein and noodles. I was utterly surprised and delighted by the egg and began dropping an egg into my servings of soup at home. 

   We also ate at Indian buffets for lunch where I'd scoop up extra helpings of the mint sauce. When in Sunnyvale, we'd head to Tao Tao Cafe to order the famous Chicken Salad tossed in a Chinese hot mustard vinaigrette. In the early evening, if we met at Tao Tao's for happy hour, we'd order the rather stiff Mai Tais that are served in a wide-mouth rocks glass with a whole wedge of pineapple and a speared slice of orange topped with a maraschino cherry. I've fashioned my own Mai Tais after their more traditional recipe which doesn't even remotely compare to the awfulness created when purchasing a store bought mix. I consumed Cuban, Mediterranean, German, and Thai along the familiar cuisines of Italian, Mexican and French. There is so much I miss about living in the Bay Area—especially all the varied restaurants for differentiated eating experiences.

   I retain a fair amount of nostalgia for my Silicon Valley days. As much as I love Arizona, there are times I would love to pack up and move back to Northern California where I could be close to my sister and the ocean and also be within an easy driving distance of San Francisco. Almost every time I visit Linda, who ended up staying in the North Bay, but just moving even farther north to Sonoma County—we visit Chinatown whether the sun is shining or the sky is pouring down rain, or we are feeling rich or poor. And even though many of the shops carry similar merchandise and tourists clog the main artery of Grant Avenue, we always manage to have a great time and find unique items that fit our budgets. And while I can't replicate the Chinatown experience at home, I can whip up some of my favorite Chinese food using pans and utensils that I purchased at my favorite kitchen store, The Wok Shop and carried home, one way or another. While I can no longer call California home, at least I am always welcome to visit my sister. She is the thread that pulls me back. When we are together we remember the good old days wandering the old familiar places while making new happy memories.

Cantonese Spicy Chicken Salad

Tao Tao menu description:
Shredded chicken
green onion
crushed almonds
cashew nuts
shredded lettuce
fried rice vermicelli

   My husband could not recall ever dining at Tao Tao Cafe, so he had no preconceived ideas on how the salad should taste. And, my how the time does slip by—when I did the math in my head—I realized 14 years have passed since I last ate at Tao Tao Cafe. Undoubtedly, I remember taking bites of delicious, salad while intermittently sipping a kick ass Mai Tai made from good rums and freshly squeezed tropical fruit juices. When I asked Jay what he thought about my interpretation of the salad, his feedback was that he'd like a sweet component thrown in, such as chunks of pineapple or mango. (Or, a Mai Tai on the side for me, I thought.)
   If you are strictly Paleo, you'll want to substitute the rice noodles with something crunchy. Thinly sliced almonds would probably do the trick. Otherwise, if you are gluten-free, or anyone else, frying the rice noodles is worth the time and effort. It's nice having that bit of subtle texture in every bite.

2 cups coconut oil
2 ounces rice stick noodles, such as vermicelli or celophane

1 whole roasted chicken, shredded

Mustard Vinaigrette:
2 Tbsp dry Chinese mustard
3 Tbsps water
2 Tbsps coconut aminos (Paleo), or Tamari (Gluten-Free), or soy sauce
2 Tbsps rice vinegar
2 Tbsps roasted sesame oil
1/2 cup olive oil or avocado oil
1 to 2 tsps honey syrup, or to taste
a few grinds of black pepper
sea salt, to taste (I only needed 1/4 tsp when combined with coconut aminos)

6 cups shredded napa cabbage, or iceberg lettuce, or romaine, or a combination
4 scallions, white and green
1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves (stems removed and discarded) or Italian Parsley leaves
2 Tbsps toasted sesame seeds, white or black
1 cup roasted cashews, added at last minute

1. Prepare the greens and toss in a bowl. Refrigerate until needed.
2. In a wok, heat coconut oil to 375°F. Separate noodles so that you can work with small batches. I had to use a serrated bread knife to cut the slab of noodles into fourths. Add the noodles to the hot oil. I didn't want to play the guessing game so I used my instant thermometer to verify the temperature. If you do not have a thermometer, you can gauge the heat through a little trial and error- the noodles will puff within a few seconds, if not, the oil needs to be hotter. Flip the noodles over an lightly fry. This procedure takes no longer than 60 seconds, or less, for each 1/2 ounce of noodles. Drain the noodles on paper towels. Repeat with remaining noodles. Crumble noodles with your fingers.

Add 2 cups coconut oil to a wok and heat to 375°F.
The noodles cook very quickly; only about 30 seconds per "side".
3. Blend together the dry mustard and water. Add the tamari or coconut aminos, rice vinegar and toasted sesame oil. Whisk in the olive oil or avocado oil. Sweeten to taste with honey syrup. Grind some black pepper over the dressing and whisk again. Taste. Add a little sea salt, if needed.
4. Toss together the chicken and half the vinaigrette.
5. Just before serving, toss the chicken together with the salad greens,scallions, herbs, and sesame seeds. Lightly mix in the fried rice stick noodles. Garnish with cashews.

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