January 31, 2012

Kung Hei Fat Choy! Chinese New Year, New York City style.

This past Sunday, I welcomed in the 'Year of the Dragon' in New York City's Chinatown. I have to thank Elaine, The Gourmet 'Girl,' for my current obsession with all things Chinese. Through our friendship, she has opened my eyes and palate to a wonderfully rich culture of fabulous art, music, colorful and elegant clothing and people. And, of course, let's not forget the food.. Ah... the food.

We always start our Chinatown sojourn early in the morning, making our way through the shops, fresh produce stands, fish markets & butcher shops with their Peking Ducks hanging in the windows.After strolling Mulberry and Mott Streets, we end up at one of the area's best spots for Dim Sum, Sunshine 27 Restaurant, on the Bowery.


Now, the first sign that this is the place to be, is the fact that it's filled with locals and those Chinese tourist who know where to find the best their culture has to offer. That said, if there were possibly 10 of us Caucasians in a dining room of over 200, it was a lot. So, rule of thumb: when experiencing the cuisine of another culture, go to where the locals go.

Sunshine 27 is a large, bustling restaurant serving Dim Sum, Hong Kong style, with carts. Parties are often seated together at communal tables and the camaraderie is amazing. If you are not a Dim Sum aficionado, sitting with those who are familiar with the cuisine is a great way to learn. As the carts come around, you are offered choices of Shumai, Shrimp Dumplings, and yes, for the more adventurous, Chicken Feet in Black Bean Sauce.
 
Now, here is the best part; we sat for over an hour, were stuffed from the food and pot of fresh tea served to every patron and when the bill came, it was a mere $15.00 for two. Dim Sum can be a great family value in this economy, while at the same time, exposing your kids to an historic cuisine, culture and people.
 
After our Dim Sum feast, we head over to the Golden Steamer Bakery, on Mott St., to pick up Pork Buns and other traditional Chinese sweets. Then, as the crowds start to swell in anticipation, we find a spot amongst the throngs of tourists and residents alike, to view the Chinese New Year's parade.

Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar. The origin of Chinese New Year is itself centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories with significant Chinese populations, such as China, Indonesia, Tibet, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and also in Chinatowns around the world. It marks the end of the winter season. The festival begins on the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar and ends with Lantern Festival on the 15th day. Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar, the Chinese New Year is often referred to as the "Lunar New Year." We have just come out of the Year of the Rabbit (2011), with this, (2012) being the Year of the Dragon. Next year (2013) will be the Year of the Snake.

Dim Sum
 
The unique culinary art of dim sum originated with the Cantonese in southern China, who over the centuries transformed yum cha (drink tea) from a relaxing respite to a loud and happy dining experience. In Hong Kong, and in most cities and towns in Guangdong province, many restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning. It is a tradition for the elderly to gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises.

Literally meaning "to touch your heart," dim sum consists of a variety of dumplings, steamed dishes and other goodies, much like hors d'ouvres served in traditional French restaurants.
Eating dim sum at a restaurant is usually known in Cantonese as going to "drink tea" (yum cha), as tea is typically served with dim sum.
 
There are common tea-drinking and eating practices or etiquette that Chinese people commonly recognize and use. These are practiced not only during dim sum meals but during other types of Chinese meals as well. It is customary to pour tea for others during dim sum before filling one's own cup. A custom unique to the Cantonese is to thank the person pouring the tea by tapping the bent index finger if you are single, or by tapping both the index and middle finger if you are married, which symbolizes 'bowing' to them. 

Some popular types of Dim Sum

Shrimp Dumpling or Hargao
Delicate steamed dumplings with whole or chopped-up shrimp filling and thin wheat starch skin.

Jiǎozi or Potsticker
Northern Chinese style of dumpling (steamed and then pan-fried jiaozi), usually with meat and cabbage filling.

Shumai or Pork Dumpling
Small steamed dumplings with either pork, prawns or both inside a thin wheat flour wrapper. Usually topped off with crab roe and mushroom.

Bāozi or Bao
Baked or steamed, these fluffy buns made from wheat flour are filled with food items ranging from meat to vegetables to sweet bean pastes

Cheung Fan or Rice noodle roll
Wide rice noodles that are steamed and then rolled. They are often filled with different types of meats or vegetables inside but can be served without any filling

Pheonix claws or chicken feet
These are chicken feet, deep fried, boiled, marinated in a black bean sauce and then steamed.

Lo Mai Gai
Glutinous rice is wrapped in a lotus leaf into a triangular or rectangular shape. It contains egg yolk, dried scallop, mushroom, water chestnut and meat (usually pork and chicken).

There are a few more varieties of Dim Sum, but I thought I'd start you off today with the most popular and most common. I hope you have learned a bit today and I have piqued your interest in exploring Chinese culture and of course, Dim Sum. If you have never experienced the magic that is your local Chinatown, plan a trip and spend a leisurely Sunday strolling through ancient culture, art and cuisine. You'll be glad you did.

As always,

Bon Appetit!

Lou

January 22, 2012

Mise en place...as important in life as it is in cooking...

This is the first in a series of posts coming this year designed to simplify the art of cooking gourmet in your own home. I hope you learn from them, enjoy them and share them with your foodie friends. In today's post, we will cover the first step for any aspiring cook or chef: Mise en place.

If you are a chef, foodie or just someone who knows their way around a kitchen, you have probably heard the term 'Mise en place'. For the novice or at home cook, this may be a term that is foreign to you, which it actually it is. It is one of the first lessons learned by culinary students, it is that important a concept. Many home cooks who struggle with complicated recipes, more often than not, simply have these difficulties because they do not apply this simple method. So today, let's look at its importance, both as it applies to cooking, and, how that translates to life.

Definitions

First, let's define the term;  Mise en place, pronounced miz on plas, is a French phrase that literally means "putting in place." It is also defined by the Culinary Institute of America as "everything in place," referring to 'set up' in commercial kitchens. It refers to organizing and arranging the ingredients. You will find and be amazed to learn that once you apply this technique to your own cooking, rather than the lack of culinary acumen you once attributed to yourself, in most cases, it is simply the lack of this critical first step that is to blame. I promise, your whole world and opinion of yourself as a cook or chef will rise to new heights once you start employing 'Mise en place' to every recipe you attempt to tackle. (yes, even the simple ones)

Preparing the mise en place ahead of time allows you to cook without having to stop and assemble items, which is most desirable in recipes with time constraints, but should be applied to any and all your cooking endeavours. If you are a new cook, or aspire to be competent in the kitchen, you can relate to getting flustered (I, your humble Gourmet Guy did as well) when trying to read the recipe with ingredient-caked hands, or while in the midst of mixing or sauteing. You get food on the book, yourself, run back and forth from the recipe to the stove top or cutting board, etc. etc. etc Employing 'Mise en place'  will elimate your frustration, ease any difficulty in interpreting a recipe and allow you the true joy of creating a culinary masterpiece just like the 'big time' chefs.

Mise en place in practice.

Recipes should be read through completely, before you ever start actually cooking, for necessary ingredients and equipment. Ingredients are then measured out, washed, chopped, and placed in individual bowls. Equipment, such as spatulas and blenders are prepared for use and ovens (or pans) are preheated.


It is this simple 'secret' that allows all of our favorite restaurant or TV chefs to make it look so stress free and easy, even when they are preparing art on a plate. Of course proper technique is also, if not just as, important to your success with complicated recipes, but this is step one (1) in bringing your cooking experience to the next level. You will appreciate the ingredients, the process and the results with a newfound delight, while your family and friends will think you are secretly attending culinary school on the sly. Stay tuned to Kitchen Rap and feel free to share these posts with friends, as we will cover such things as proper knife skills, sauteing, grilling, etc., in later posts here throughtout the coming year.

Now I did say at the beginning, that Mise en place can also be applied to life. Not much of a stretch really: Create for yourself your recipe for success, be it personally or professionally. Gather the neccessary components (ingredients) such as resources, friends, skills or career opportunities. Add the ingredients, execute your recipe, methodically, calmly and stress free, then assemble the dish. Either way, cooking or living, you'll be amazed at the delicious results that you yourself are capable of. All it takes is a little Mise en place.

As always my friends,

Bon Appetit

Lou