The Ultimate Chinese New Year Dinner Slideshow
On the Chinese New Year's Eve, a traditional family activity is to prepare Chinese dumplings together. It is customary to sneak a coin into one of the dumplings, and one lucky person gets the dumpling with the coin, which means good luck for the rest of the year.
Dumplings can be made far in advance. Kingsley says they can be frozen for up to six months, so you may want to consider making a few batches to thaw and pop into the steamer throughout the year whenever you need small bites on the fly, not just for Chinese New Year.
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Line bamboo steamer baskets with parchment paper or blanched cabbage leaves to keep items from sticking to the bottom. If you're using cabbage, blanch for about two minutes.
"Originally eaten by Buddhists in Chinese culture, this dish is served in most Chinese households the first few days of the New Year," says Farina Kingsley, author of several cookbooks on Chinese cuisine. Also known as Buddha's Feast, the name "Luo Hon Jai" translates to "the 500 disciples of Buddha." Each of the ingredients in this dish has a specific meaning; for example, black moss (fat choy) symbolizes wealth.
Noodles are typically consumed during the Chinese New Year celebration because they are a symbol of longevity. They should be eaten in one fell slurp, without breaking the noodle.
When using dry noodles for stir-fry, you'll want to parboil them "until pliable like fresh noodles," says Kingsley — two minutes will do. If you're using fresh noodles for a stir-fried dish, you can skip the parboiling step.
When making a stir-fried noodle dish, the sauce generally gets added at the end of the stir-frying process. But how can you tell when the noodles are done? Kingsley says that they are ready to serve when they have absorbed all of the liquid.
For some simple substitutions, try adding roast duck, shredded beef tenderloin, or steamed chicken to the noodles, or make it spicy with the addition of hot chile oil or fresh red chiles.
Kingsley has a few pointers here. First of all, a lot of people end up with sauce that's just too "goopy." The culprit is too much cornstarch, she says. A little goes a long way — for example, the sauce for her fish uses only about ½ teaspoon cornstarch per 5 tablespoons liquid.
In keeping with the Cantonese style of cooking, Kingsley likes to use a mixture of light (not to be confused with low-sodium) and dark soy sauces when making sauces for her noodles. Light soy sauce, she says, is there for the sodium, but dark soy sauce adds depth of flavor and a slight sweetness. Use them in a ratio of 1:1. If you can't find light and dark soy, then tamari is a decent substitute.
Lastly, she's a big fan of toasted sesame oil, which can really wake up flavors in sauces.
This simple side dish is a great accompaniment for noodles and steamed fish.
Stir-fry watery greens like bok choy twice. After the first time, drain off all liquid in a colander, pat the greens dry, wipe out the pan, and heat fresh oil. Stir-fry again. This will keep the greens from turning soggy and losing flavor.
Although this recipe calls for fish fillets, if you want to stick to tradition, you may want to try serving whole fish. Kingsley says that whole fish symbolize "longevity, fertility, and good luck."
When steaming whole fish, lightly score the skin on both sides and cut a line down the back to allow steam to escape as it cooks. Otherwise, the fish may explode.
The last thing you want to happen when steaming food is to, well, run out of steam. So when you're setting up your steamer basket, place a penny at the bottom of the wok when you fill it with water. Then, place the steamer basket on top. When the water runs low, you'll hear the penny clink, and you'll know it's time to add some more water.
When steaming whole fish, you want to arrange the fish head-to-tail to use the space inside the basket optimally. Make sure they're lying in a single layer; if you place them too close together or on top of each other, the air won't circulate.
You can also steam fish using the oven. Place the fish in a single layer on a baking sheet, cover with the sauce, cover with foil, and place into a 425-degree oven. Measure the thickness at the thickest part of the fish, and cook for seven minutes per inch.
Cooking times are helpful as a guideline, but part of learning how to be a better cook is to follow your instincts. Here, Kingsley says that whole fish are done when the eyes turn opaque and the scored flesh begins to separate into visible gaps.
If you really feel squeamish about serving whole fish and would rather work with fillets, make sure to purchase fillets that have skin on. Otherwise, they will fall apart after cooking when transferred.