Kitchen Wit & Wisdom: Chinese New Year is celebrated with food

Chinese New Year is the longest and most important celebration in the Chinese calendar. Often known as the Spring Festival, it began this year on Jan. 31 and will run to the Lantern Festival on Feb. 15.

In China, the new year is a time of family reunion. Family members gather at each other’s homes for visits and shared meals. Most of the dishes served during Lunar New Year are symbolic of something positive and hopeful. Chicken and fish, for example, symbolize happiness and prosperity, especially when served whole. Dishes made with oranges represent wealth and good fortune because they are China’s most plentiful fruit. Noodles represent longevity: therefore, they should never be cut! Duck symbolizes fidelity, while eggs signify fertility. Bean curd or tofu, however, is avoided because its white color suggests death and misfortune.

Another popular Lunar New Year dish is jiaozi, dumplings boiled in water. In some areas of China, coins are placed in the centre of jiaozi. Whoever bites into one of these dumplings will have an exceptionally lucky year.

At Chinese New Year celebrations, people wear red clothes, decorate with poems on red paper, and give children “lucky money” in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck. The fireworks that shower the festivities are rooted in a similar ancient custom.

Today I have two lucky Chinese recipes you can try for a prosperous year to come. Happy new year to all our Chinese friends.

Pan-Fried Pork and Cabbage Pot Stickers

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup water

1 lb. lean ground pork

1 Tbsp. dry sherry

1 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 Tbsp. Asian sesame oil

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. finely chopped fresh ginger

1/2 lb. Napa cabbage, trimmed and finely chopped (about 2 cups)

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 cup water or lower-salt chicken broth

NOTE:  If you don’t have time to make the dough from scratch, you can substitute round dumpling wrappers, available in Asian markets and in the produce sections of well-stocked supermarkets.

To make the dough: Sift the flour into a bowl. Gradually add 1/2 cup cold water, mixing with a wooden spoon until a shaggy dough forms. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and springy, about 5 minutes. If the dough feels stiff as you work, add a little more water 1 Tbsp. at a time, but don’t exceed 3/4 cup total. Put the dough in a clean bowl, cover it with a towel, and let it rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Put the rested dough on a lightly floured surface and knead it for 2 minutes. Divide the dough and shape each half into a 12-inch-long cylinder that’s about 1 inch in diameter. With a serrated knife, cut each cylinder crosswise into 24 rounds. Lay the rounds on a lightly floured surface and flatten with the palm of your hand to about 1/4-inch thick. Sprinkle flour lightly on the pieces to prevent sticking. With a rolling pin, roll each slice into a 3-inch round about 1/8-inch thick. Pinch the edges of the rounds to make them thinner than the middle. Arrange the rounds in a single layer on a lightly floured tray or baking sheet and cover with a towel.

Make the filling: In a large bowl, combine the ground pork with the sherry, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, ginger and 2 Tbsp. cold water. Add the cabbage and mix until thoroughly blended.

Fill the dumplings. Put about 2 tsp. of the filling in the middle of a wrapper. Brush the edges of the dough with a little water. Fold the wrapper in half and pinch the edge in the middle of the rounded part of the half-moon. Make two small pleats in the wrapper surface closest to you on either side of the pinched middle by gathering the dough and folding it over onto itself. Point the pleats toward the middle of the dumpling. Seal the pleated and unpleated sides by pinching along the top.

In a 12-inch nonstick pan, heat 1 Tbsp. of the oil over medium-low heat. Arrange the dumplings in the pan, pleated side up, starting from the centre and radiating out, with the sides of the dumplings just touching. Cook the dumplings until the bottoms are lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Add the water or chicken broth; cover the pan and cook over medium heat until all the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes.

Uncover and drizzle 1 Tbsp. oil around the inside edge of the pan. Fry the dumplings until the bottoms are golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Loosen the dumplings around the edges with a spatula, and then set a large serving plate over the pan. Wearing mitts to protect your hands, quickly invert the pan. Serve the dumplings fried side up.

Variations: You can vary this filling by substituting spinach, scallions, or bok choy for the cabbage.

General Tso’s Chicken

1/2 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup water

1-1/2 teaspoons minced garlic

1-1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger root

3/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1/2 cup hot chicken broth

1 teaspoon of seasoned salt, no MSG

3 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, uncooked, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces

1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil

1/2 cup of soy sauce

1 teaspoon of ground pepper

1 egg, beaten

1 cup cornstarch

4 cups of vegetable oil (for the deep fryer)

3 Tablespoons of toasted sesame oil

2 cups of chopped green onions

1/4 cup of red chili pepper paste

First make the sauce. In a large bowl combine 1/2 cup cornstarch and 1/4 cup water. Mix together. Add the garlic, ginger, sugar, 1/4 cup soy sauce and white wine vinegar. Then add the chicken broth and the seasoned salt without MSG.  Stir all of the ingredients together until the sugar dissolves. Then refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the cleaned, uncooked chopped chicken, 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, 1/2 cup soy sauce and the pepper. Stir in the beaten egg. Add 1 cup of cornstarch and stir until the chicken is evenly coated. Divide chicken into small quantities and deep fry in 4 cups of vegetable oil in a heavy skillet or deep fryer at 350 degrees F until crispy. Drain the chicken on paper towels.

Place a small amount of oil in the wok and heat until it’s hot. (Here’s a tip: Be careful not to burn the oil and never use soap to wash your wok. Just coat with some oil before putting it away.) Add the green onions and the red chili pepper sauce, then stir-fry briefly. Reduce heat to medium.

Now remove the sauce from the refrigerator, stir and add the sauce to the heated wok. Reduce the heat to low and add the fried chicken and cook until the sauce thickens and all the flavours are combined, usually 5 minutes.

Serve with brown or white steamed rice. This is a really delicious dish and your family and friends will be impressed.

Cathi Litzenberger is The Morning Star's longtime food columnist, appearing every Wednesday and one Sunday per month.

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