Feasting with Chinese flavors

Mushroom Wontons (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Mushroom Wontons
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The Chinese Year of the Goat begins on February 19. Should this matter to people whose heritage is not East Asian?
It does to us. For a number of years, the arrival of the Chinese New Year has been giving us the urge to go to Chinatown to feast on dim sum and other specialties, and to highlight Chinese flavors at home.
Using even a few Chinese seasonings gives a delicious twist to everyday cooking.
We add fresh ginger, sesame oil and soy sauce to noodles, soups, cooked vegetables and main dishes such as rice with lentils and vegetables.
Recently we attended a pre-Chinese New Year lunch at Melissa’s Produce, where we had a chance to review what we know about Chinese vegetables. The invitations encouraged guests to bring homemade wontons or egg rolls.
JJ Levenstein, who blogs at callingdoctorjj.com, brought egg rolls filled with shredded lamb shanks that she had braised in red wine with hoisin sauce and lemongrass. She also made dessert egg rolls filled with diced sweetened Asian pears mixed with coconut, coconut milk, peanuts and Chinese five-spice powder.
Traditional fried wontons were made by Anita Lau, whose blog is madhungrywoman.com; she filled the wontons with meat seared with garlic, seasoned with savory/sweet Chinese sauce and mixed with stir-fried Chinese cabbage and celery. Blogger Valerie Mitchell of mamalikestocook.com also made sweet egg rolls; hers were filled with cream cheese and dried cherries and drizzled with chocolate sauce.
We prepared mushroom-filled wontons on a spinach salad, garnished with stir-fried mushrooms and red peppers. (See recipe).
Wontons can be made with all kinds of fillings, and can be boiled or fried. They are fairly easy to prepare because you can make them with packaged wrappers, which are available at Asian markets. In the West people think of them as appetizers but in China, except at formal banquets, “they are not usually served as a separate first course,” wrote Martin Yan, author of Martin Yan’s Chinatown Cooking. Instead, they are served with the main course.
Boiled wontons with a meat and spinach filling can be served with a simple dip of soy sauce and sesame oil, wrote the namesake of Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads. With fried wontons, Lin serves a vinegar- and-chili pepper sauce made by mixing 1 tablespoon vinegar and ½ teaspoon chili sauce per person.
Wontons are also delicious in soup. Lin cooks them in chicken broth, transfers them to soup bowls, coats them with a sauce made of sesame oil, light soy sauce, pepper and chopped green onion, and ladles some of the broth into the bowls. For special occasions, she serves wontons in duck soup with snow peas, fresh ginger, sherry and light soy sauce. We like wontons in soups with a variety of vegetables such as Korean radishes, carrots, green beans and spinach.
If you’re preparing wontons for a dinner or party, it’s practical to serve other dishes that are quick and easy to make. Chef Tom Fraker of Melissa’s Produce demonstrated how to make an Asian cucumber salad flavored with hot peppers, sesame oil and sesame seeds. (See recipe.) Another favorite of ours at the lunch was beet and edamame (green soy bean) salad in a dressing flavored with orange juice and rice vinegar. (See recipe.)
We also liked the Chinese chicken salad with carrots, Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts and a sweet and sour dressing made with sautéed ginger, garlic, green onion and chili oil. People sometimes put down this popular salad as “Americanized,” but it apparently deserves more respect; Yan wrote that this Chinese- American classic is now served in Chinese restaurants around the world.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.
Mushroom Wontons on Spinach Salad
This salad of spinach, edamame and water chestnuts is seasoned with sesame ginger dressing and garnished with stir-fried sweet peppers and shiitake mushrooms. You can substitute button mushrooms for shiitake in the stir-fry and in the wonton filling; the wontons are also good in vegetable and chicken soups.
If you prefer to make the wrappers, use ravioli dough and roll it thin with a pasta machine. Cut it in 9- to 10-cm. (3 ½- to 4-inch) squares.
You can fill the wontons a few weeks ahead and store them in an airtight container in the freezer so they are ready to cook when you want them. To do this, place the wontons on a baking sheet lined with wax paper and freeze them. Once they are frozen hard, store them in plastic zipper bags; cook while frozen.
Makes 6 to 8 servings as an appetizer
Mushroom Wontons:
❖ 85 gr. (3 ounces) fresh shiitake mushrooms (about 11 mushrooms)
❖ 110 gr. (4 ounces) button mushrooms (about 5 medium mushrooms)
❖ 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
❖ 1 Tbsp. chopped white of green onion
❖ 2 tsp. minced ginger root
❖ 2 tsp. minced garlic
❖ 1 tsp. soy sauce, or to taste
❖ 1 tsp. Asian (toasted) sesame oil
❖ Salt (optional) and freshly ground pepper to taste
❖ About 25 to 30 wonton wrappers, thawed if frozen
Spinach Edamame Salad with Sesame Ginger Dressing:
❖ 4 Tbsp. Asian (toasted) sesame oil
❖ 4 tsp. rice vinegar
❖ 2 tsp. soy sauce, or to taste
❖ 1 tsp. grated ginger root
❖ ¼ tsp. sambal oelek, chili garlic paste or other hot pepper paste or hot sauce, or to taste
❖ ½ to 1 tsp. sugar, to taste
❖ 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
❖ ½ large red pepper, cut in thin strips about 4 cm. (1½ inches) long (1½ cups)
❖ 8 shiitake mushroom caps, sliced (1½ cups)
❖ 8 cups packed (about 350 gr. or ¾ pound) baby spinach
❖ 2/3 cup shelled cooked edamame
❖ 2/3 cup canned sliced water chestnuts, drained
❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
❖ About 1 Tbsp. chopped green part of green onion (for garnish)
Mushroom wontons: Clean mushrooms and pat dry. Remove stems of shiitake mushrooms; you can save them for making stock. Quarter mushrooms; chop each kind separately with on/off motion of a food processor until very finely chopped.
Heat vegetable oil in a medium/large (25-cm. or 10- inch) skillet over low heat. Add white of green onion, followed by ginger root and garlic, and sauté, stirring, until fragrant, about 10 seconds.
Add both kinds of chopped mushrooms. Mix well.
Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until mixture changes color and is thick and dry, about 3 or 4 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add soy sauce and sesame oil and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add pepper, and salt if needed.
Transfer to a bowl and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 1 day before using. (Makes ¾ cup filling.)
Line 2 baking sheets with wax paper. While shaping wontons, keep remaining wonton wrappers in closed package or cover with a towel to prevent them from drying out.
Put 1 wonton wrapper on a work surface and mound 1 level teaspoon of filling in center. Moisten edges of wrapper with a little water, fold in half over filling and pinch edges together, pressing out excess air around filling and sealing wontons well. Wet 2 corners, bring them together and press firmly.
Transfer to lined baking sheet. Cover with a damp towel to prevent drying. Continue shaping remaining wontons.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil; add a generous pinch of salt, then about ¼ of the wontons. Reduce heat to medium-high so water simmers and cook, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes or until tender but still slightly firm to the bite; check by tasting. Remove with a large slotted skimmer or slotted spoon and drain very well. Transfer to a lined baking sheet. Cook remaining wontons in batches.
To make salad: Make dressing by combining 2 Tbsp. sesame oil with the rice vinegar, soy sauce, grated gingerroot and hot pepper paste in a small bowl and whisk to blend. Taste and adjust for soy sauce, pepper paste and sugar.
Heat vegetable oil in skillet over medium heat. Add red pepper strips and sauté for 2 minutes. Add mushroom slices, sprinkle with salt and sauté, stirring often, for 3 minutes or until mushrooms are tender.
In a large bowl, combine spinach with dressing and about half the remaining ingredients: edamame, water chestnuts, and sautéed pepper and shiitake mixture. Add 1 Tbsp. sesame oil and salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer to a serving platter. Top with wontons and remaining edamame, water chestnuts and sautéed pepper and shiitake mixture. Drizzle with remaining sesame oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and green onions.
Serve at room temperature.
Asian Cucumber Salad
Chili pastes vary in pungency. If you’re not used to hot flavors, you might want to start with 1 teaspoon chili paste.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 2 hot or semi-hot fresh peppers, preferably red, seeded and minced
❖ 2 Tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted
❖ 3 Tbsp. rice vinegar
❖ 2 Tbsp. Asian (toasted) sesame oil
❖ 1 Tbsp. soy sauce, preferably light-colored
❖ 1 Tbsp. chili paste
❖ 2 tsp. sugar
❖ Salt and pepper to taste
❖ 4 small cucumbers, sliced
In a bowl combine the hot peppers, sesame seeds, rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, chili paste and sugar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Put the cucumbers in a serving bowl and pour dressing mixture over them. Mix well and serve.
Beet and Edamame Salad with Orange Dressing
This salad can be made very quickly with packaged cooked beets. Chef Tom Fraker recommends dressing the salad just before serving; otherwise the beets will discolor the edamame.
If you like, substitute 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil and 2 Tbsp. sesame oil for the olive oil. Any extra dressing is good on green salads.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
❖ ½ cup seasoned rice vinegar
❖ 2 oranges, zested and juiced
❖ 1 tsp. sea salt
❖ ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
❖ 450 g. (1 pound) sliced cooked beets
❖ 570 gr. (1¼ pounds) shelled cooked edamame (green soybeans)
❖ Pepper to taste (optional)
To make the dressing, whisk together rice vinegar, orange juice, orange zest and salt. Slowly whisk in olive oil.
In another bowl, gently stir together beets and edamame.
At serving time, spoon edamame and beet mixture onto individual salad plates or onto a platter. Add enough dressing to moisten salad. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding pepper if desired.