Chinese food is one of the most popular choices in the Western world for dining out. More people, however, should benefit from cooking Chinese dishes in their own kitchens. I hear all sorts of reasons why even those fond of the flavors of Chinese food hesitate to prepare it at home: “I don’t have time for endless chopping”; or “I don’t have a wok”; or “my stovetop doesn’t have a high flame like in Chinese restaurants” to get the high heat for stir-frying.
Chinese cooking can be quick and easy. Although it’s true that small pieces of meat and vegetables are most suitable for stir-frying, there’s no need to assemble a long list of ingredients or chop large amounts of food. You don’t need a wok either; a sturdy skillet is just fine, used over the high heat available in the average kitchen.
Since many classic stir-fries start out by deep-frying the meat, some people are concerned about having to use a lot of oil. For the menu below, however, only a little oil is needed. Yet it still has that flair that makes Chinese cuisine so popular.
The meal begins with a light salad appetizer of greens garnished with smoked or poached fish and seasoned with an Asian vinaigrette. According to my friend Nina Simonds, author of Chinese Seasons
, the Chinese often top their salads with meats or seafood and use light, pungent dressings. To make a celery salad with spicy peppercorn dressing, she cooks thin celery slices for only 30 seconds in boiling water, then dresses them with a blend of toasted ground pepper, sesame oil, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and minced gingerroot.
For an easy main course, I cook lean boneless chicken breasts in a sweet and sour sauce, which keeps the chicken moist as it cooks. The sauce is based on a sweet and sour sauce I learned from Chinese cooking teacher Mei Lee. It is a beautifully simple formula that’s easy to remember – equal parts of ketchup, sugar, vinegar and soy sauce mixed together – ideal for quick, low-fat cooking. The sauce also keeps your shopping list brief, as it’s made of common pantry ingredients.
You can stir-fry just one or two vegetables as a side dish, like the red pepper and green onion recipe below. Stir-frying is such a popular technique for preparing vegetables because it cooks them speedily, imparts an appealing caramelized flavor and retains their vibrant colors and crisp texture.
The perfect partner for the chicken and vegetables is Chinese style steamed rice, which is fat-free. When you’re trying to keep the calorie-count modest when you’re dining out, remember to request steamed rice. Even at fast-food Chinese restaurants, where fried rice is presented as the “standard” accompaniment, there is often a pot of steamed rice on the back burner.
If you prefer fried rice with Chinese entrees but want an alternative that is easier and lean, make a compromise dish at home – prepare steamed rice with a few extra elements, like the Jade Rice with Mushrooms below, so the rice isn’t plain.
Chinese people prefer long-grain rice, wrote Helen Chen in Chinese Home Cooking
, because it cooks up light and fluffy, in contrast to the Japanese, who like short-grain rice, which is softer and stickier. In northern China, people used to eat wheat more often “because of the difficulty of growing rice in their cooler and drier climate. With better transportation rice is now served at every meal, although wheat remains popular.” Chen recommends storing rice in a covered container in a cool, dry dark place and notes that it keeps indefinitely.EASY CHINESE CHICKEN DINNER
• Smoked Fish with Greens and Sesame Oil Dressing
• Speedy Sweet and Sour Chicken
• Jade Rice with Mushrooms
• Sweet Pepper and Green Onion Stir-fry
• Pineapple, Asian Pears, Lychees or Seasonal FruitSMOKED FISH WITH GREENS
AND SESAME OIL DRESSING
Use any kind of smoked fish. If you prefer, substitute cooked fresh fish; mix it with a little of the dressing before setting it on top of the greens.
For low fat dressings, rice vinegar is a good choice because it is mild and you can use more vinegar and less oil.
2 to 3 tsp. Asian sesame oil
1 tsp. vegetable oil or additional sesame oil
11⁄2 to 2 tsp. rice vinegar
1⁄2 tsp. soy sauce
a few drops hot sauce, or to taste, or cayenne pepper
pepper to taste
3 cups romaine lettuce, torn in bite-size pieces
1 cup mixed baby lettuces or red cabbage
1 cup smoked salmon or other smoked fish in small pieces
In a small bowl whisk sesame oil with vegetable oil, vinegar, soy sauce, hot sauce and pepper. Mix romaine with baby lettuce in a serving bowl, add dressing and toss. Serve greens topped with fish.
Makes 4 servings.SPEEDY SWEET AND SOUR CHICKEN
Essentially a mixture of four ingredients, sweet and sour sauce is one of the fastest sauces to make and matches well with a variety of meats and vegetables. If you have leftover roast chicken or turkey, heat them and top them with hot sweet and sour sauce for an almost instant entree.
For a super-speedy supper, serve the chicken with plain steamed rice and cooked broccoli.
570 gr. boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1⁄4 cup sugar
1⁄4 cup white or red wine vinegar
1⁄4 cup ketchup
1⁄4 cup soy sauce
1⁄4 tsp. Asian hot sauce or other hot sauce, or to taste,
or freshly ground pepper (optional)
11⁄4 tsp. cornstarch
Trim visible fat from chicken and cut meat in 2.5-cm. cubes. Heat oil in a heavy saute pan or wok. Add chicken and saute over medium heat, stirring, 1 minute. Cover and saute 3 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Meanwhile, thoroughly mix sugar, vinegar, ketchup, soy sauce and hot sauce. Add to pan of chicken and mix well. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat 5 minutes or until chicken is tender. Chicken is done when color is no longer pink; cut into a thick piece to check.
In small cup blend cornstarch and 1 tablespoon water. Add to simmering sauce, to center of pan. Quickly stir into remaining sauce. Heat until bubbling. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.JADE RICE WITH MUSHROOMS
For a change from unseasoned steamed rice, make this flavorful version of steamed rice instead. The recipe is inspired by Helen Chen’s version of jade rice, a Shanghai dish of steamed rice with chopped dark green bok choy leaves, which Chen makes with spinach instead. She cooks chopped Chinese sausages with the rice; to add flavor while keeping the fat low, I use mushrooms instead.
Chen advises always using a heavy-bottomed pot to steam rice and recommends her mother’s trick if you do scorch your rice: “Uncover the pan for a few minutes to release the steam, place a piece of bread over the rice, and put the lid back on. The bread absorbs much of the burned flavor. Discard the bread before serving.”
100 gr. mushrooms, sliced
75 gr. to 100 gr. spinach leaves, rinsed thoroughly
11⁄3 cups long-grain white rice
22⁄3 cups chicken broth, or broth mixed with water
Combine mushrooms and 1 cup water in a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Remove mushrooms with a slotted spoon. Return water to boil, add spinach and bring to a boil. Boil 30 seconds. Rinse in cold water, drain and squeeze out the water. Coarsely chop the leaves and combine with the broth in a blender or food processor. Blend until spinach is completely pureed.
Combine the rice, spinach mixture and mushrooms in the saucepan. Bring to a full boil over high heat. Cover and cook over low heat 15 minutes or until just tender. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.SWEET PEPPER AND GREEN ONION STIR-FRY
To keep the fat low, I begin by stir-frying the vegetables and finish cooking them in the sauce.
Chili paste with garlic is a classic Chinese flavoring that happens to
be a great shortcut ingredient, so there’s no need to chop garlic and
hot peppers. You can substitute Yemenite s’hug.
2 red bell peppers
1 green bell pepper
4 green onions
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1⁄2 tsp. Chinese chili paste with garlic, or more to taste
2 tsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. chicken broth or water
Cut peppers in strips 1 cm. wide. Cut any long pieces in half
crosswise. Cut wide end of green onions in half lengthwise. Cut onions
in 2.5-cm. lengths.
Heat oil in heavy saute pan or wok, add peppers and saute 2 minutes
over high heat. Cover and saute 4 minutes over medium heat, stirring
often. Add chili paste, green onions, soy sauce and broth. Cover and
cook 1 or 2 minutes or until peppers are tender. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.Faye Levy is the author of
30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes.