February 2, 2011

Chinese New Year

This year we ring in 4709, the Year of the Rabbit, on February 3rd. The Lunar New Year is celebrated by Chinese descendants and other Asian cultures throughout the world. In China, it’s two whole weeks of celebrating! Rich with symbolism and delicious foods, it is a great holiday to introduce to your family. It is also flexible for interpretation, which makes it great for allergy-affected families and cooks of all skill levels!
The hallmark of this holiday is a reunion dinner on the eve of the new year. The foods chosen represent wishes of good health and fortune. Whole steamed fish and chicken, and green stocky vegetables are common dishes served. Here are several food ideas to help you ring in an auspicious, allergy-free year of your own!

Noodles - Keep them long and uncut to symbolize long life.

Egg noodles such as e-fu noodles are often braised with mushrooms.

If you suffer from egg or gluten allergies, fear not -- you can still have your noodles and long life, too! There are a variety of noodles made from starch of rice, sweet potato, mung bean, yam, buckwheat (gluten-free, I hear), and potato. As usual, read the ingredient labels to make sure that no offending allergens have been added.
I recently tried this recipe for stir-fry cellophane noodles, a noodle made of mung bean and potato starch. A bonus was it was fairly quick and simple – I was able to turn out a tasty and auspicious meal with my two boys running circles around the kitchen!

This recipe is flexible for changing out meats and adding more vegetables. I substituted about ¼ lb ground turkey (marinated with about 1 tsp. soy sauce, 1 tsp. cooking wine, and dash of sugar and salt) for the crab, and stirred in ½ of a chopped green bell pepper after cooking the turkey thoroughly. I left out the egg completely. Next time, I will try adding 1 whole chopped red bell pepper for texture and color and some sliced mushrooms.

Gluten allergy? You can always substitute wheat-free soy sauce such as Tamari in recipes that call for soy sauce.
Fish or seafood allergy? You can substitute any lightly marinated cooked meat for the crab. You can substitute soy sauce in place of fish sauce. And vegetarian oyster sauce is available.

Chao Nian Gao (Stir-Fried Sticky Rice Cake) – When translated, “nian” has two meanings: “sticky” and “year”, the latter of which makes this a popular choice for a Lunar New Year dish.

Nian gao is often prepared as a baked or steamed dessert using glutinous rice flour, brown sugar, water, and sometimes milk, butter, or egg. Nian gao is also available in pre-made ovals or sticks. They are made of rice, salt, and water. Nian Gao are labeled as rice ovalettes or sticky rice cakes in Asian supermarkets. They are well known in both Chinese and Korean cooking and may be found in fresh or frozen in vacuum-sealed packages or in dry form that requires overnight soaking before use.

Here is one idea from Malisa’s Food Blog on how to make with your own stir-fried nian gao.

Like other Chinese noodle recipes, the seasoning for chao nian gao can be tweaked. Aside from the MSG, I really like Malisa’s recipe because it includes Chinese cooking wine and sugar which help to nicely balance out the salty flavors. You can easily substitute types and quantity of meat and vegetables to suit your tastes. I like broccoli and bok choy as substitutes.

Another way to spruce up your chao nian gao is with black bean sauce. If you can get to an Asian supermarket, try finding fermented black beans. It is easy to make, tastes much better, and I’ve never found rocks in my homemade sauce like how I always do in store-bought sauce. I’m a fan of making my own sauce using a bit of corn starch, soy sauce, a little sugar, minced garlic, warm water, and fermented black beans. Here’s a more complete black bean sauce recipe:

Jiaozi (Dumplings) – These morsels, which resemble the nugget-shaped money of ancient China, are eaten to ensure wealth and prosperity. They are also a quick and easy dish to make especially if you have a team of hands to help!

Here is a solid, basic recipe for making your own pork dumplingsOur family does not eat pork so we have always used ground turkey or chicken meat. If I’m short on time, I use a package of ground turkey (usually they weigh in at 1.25 lbs) and a 16-oz. pack of frozen chopped spinach (defrosted) for the meat and veggies. Chopped chives, shredded carrot, and corn make for nice fillings. The grated ginger and sesame oil are must-haves!

Egg allergy? Egg is a critical ingredient in dumpling wrappers so if you are buying them, be sure to check the ingredients. So far I have only found one egg-free variety, a potsticker wrapper made by New Hong Kong. Please note, that I haven’t served this to any egg-allergic friends so I cannot vouch for whether they are truly egg-free. If you have egg allergies in your family and have used New Hong Kong potstickers or another brand with success, please let us know! I have also found an egg-free wrapper recipe from AllergicKid’s blogspot. Wrappers aside, in the filling mix you can substitute a mix of 1T ground flaxmeal + 3T water for the egg, or simply omit the egg altogether.

Gluten allergy? Try Angela’s Kitchen potsticker recipe for wrappers. And remember to use wheat-free soy sauce in your filling! Homemade wrappers sound like a fun task for the whole family. I will be sure to report back if/when we try one of the above recipes!

Spring Rolls (Egg Rolls) – The long golden appearance of these resemble gold bars thus symbolizing good fortune.
Spring rolls are another great food for interchanging ingredients. Steamy Kitchen has a wonderful, traditional recipe along with instructions on proper rolling and how to avoid soggy egg rolls. I love spring rolls but since I try to avoid deep-fried foods, I adapted a recipe for baked spring rolls. I stir-fried the vegetables until somewhat softened and drained them on a pan lined with paper towels. I cooked a batch at 350 degrees and another at 400 degrees. Both took forever and still didn't get the rolls as crispy as I would like. Next time I will try 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Egg or gluten allergy? Make sure to use a safe wrapper such as a Vietnamese spring roll wrappers made from rice flour, water, and salt. Remember to substitute wheat-free soy sauce whenever needed!

Lettuce Wraps – The Chinese word for “lettuce” sounds a lot like “luck”.
Lettuce wraps or “cups” are another fun treat because of the allure of eating with your hands. AllRecipes.com (love that site!) has a good standard recipe. We used ground turkey and tempeh instead of beef and the results were yummy!

As you’ve gathered by now, there is no shortage of changes of vegetables and meats in many Chinese dishes. Most of the time it’s all about the marinade and the sauce! Hoisin sauce is key to this dish. If you are going gluten-free, you can make homemade hoisin sauce.

Oranges and Tangerines for display and dessert – The Chinese words for orange and tangerine sound similar to wealth and luck, respectively. Try to find these fruits with green leaves intact – they symbolize longevity.

Sweet-wise, the feast before the Lunar New Year often features deep-fried treats, sweet nian gao (steamed or fried), or buns (bao) for desserts. Trays of candied dried fruits are also put out for snacking. Carefully check ingredients as Chinese desserts may contain ground nuts, peanut oil, condensed milk, milk powder, and egg. My experience with freshly prepared Chinese sweets and buns is that labels can be incomplete so I avoid them altogether because of our milk and peanut allergies.

Oranges and tangerines are beautiful and sweet this time of year. They make a deliciously safe and healthy way to end your meal.


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