Cooking Vegetables—Chinese Style!
HAVE you been to the food market lately? Then you may have noticed—especially if you live in a large Western urban area—that a change has taken place. Displayed right alongside the familiar cucumbers and carrots may be some not-so-familiar items: bok choy, snow peas, water chestnuts, bean sprouts, gingerroot.
These are Chinese vegetables. Though some cooks may pass these by, the more adventurous ones are purchasing woks (a metal pan for frying) and trying their hand at Chinese cooking. With a little bit of practice, you too can offer some truly exciting meals to your family—and at an amazingly low cost! This is because Chinese cooking makes good use of vegetables. How is this so?
Some Secrets of Chinese Cooking
Westerners often boil their vegetables and discard the water. This, however, is a waste both of flavor and of water-soluble nutrients. The Chinese stir-fry their vegetables. Although the wok is the traditional cooking utensil, you may get satisfactory results with an ordinary frying pan. Stir-frying retains flavor and nutrients, while at the same time giving the barely cooked ingredients a tender, crisp texture that appeals to many. After the food is stir-fried on high heat, a little water or stock is added, the pan covered, and the ingredients simmered briefly. The liquid is then thickened with a mixture of cornstarch and cold water to form a glaze or a sauce. In this way the seasoning clings to each morsel of food as it is eaten.
Seasoning foods is another Chinese secret. Gingerroot, for example, not only adds a delightful flavor but is believed to have medicinal benefits. Its taste can be added in different ways, depending upon your preference. If you wish only a subtle trace of it, heat a few tablespoons of oil in a frying pan and add a slice of ginger. The hot oil causes the flavor of the ginger to be released. You can now remove the ginger and stir-fry your vegetables in the flavored oil.
If you want a stronger flavor, simply retain the ginger as you continue cooking. The ginger slices may even be left in the food when served, although they are not meant to be eaten. Yet a third method is to pare the skin off a piece of ginger that is approximately the size of a sugar cube. Mince the ginger finely, and blend it into the sauce.
Fresh cloves of garlic can also be added to food in these ways, but care must be taken to lower the heat, since garlic burns easily.
Chinese cooking, though, is not strictly vegetarian. Meat and vegetable combinations are the most popular of Chinese dishes. Meat adds further flavor to the vegetables, while the vegetables serve to extend a small quantity of meat. Even if cutting costs is not a major consideration for you, eating more vegetables and less meat is a painless way of reducing the consumption of calories and cholesterol.
The possibilities for meat and vegetable combinations are enormous: beef and broccoli, steak and peppers, shrimp with snow peas, and chicken and mixed vegetables, to name just a few.
Cooking With Chicken
A number of delightful dishes involve boneless chicken, for example, Moo Goo Gai Pan. This is made using a whole, fresh, raw chicken or chicken parts such as breasts or thighs. First, remove the skin, and fry it slowly until the fat is extracted. The grease may be used in frying and is appreciated by the Chinese for its flavor, second only to peanut oil. With a sharp knife, separate the flesh from the bones of the chicken. The bones may be used in soup or to make stock in which to cook oriental-style vegetables. Next, the chicken meat can be cut into uniform, bite-sized pieces.
Marinate the chicken pieces in the soy sauce, wine, and sugar. Stir in the cornstarch, and allow the pieces to stand for half an hour. Heat the grease or oil in a wok or a frying pan, and stir-fry the meat, separating the pieces as they cook. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Add more oil to the pan, and heat it until quite hot. Add the ginger slices and fry them for 30 seconds. Add the vegetables all at once while the pan is still hot. Stir-fry vegetables briefly, which will cool the oil enough so that the minced garlic can be added without burning. Stir-fry for one minute. Add boiling stock, cover, and simmer for one more minute. Uncover the pan and add the next five ingredients. Slowly pour in the cornstarch mixture while stirring, and stop as soon as the desired thickness is achieved. Lastly, add the cooked chicken to the vegetables, stirring just enough to reheat. Serve with steamed rice.
Of course, there is no substitute for trying a recipe if you really want to get the feel of it. Before long, you may be confident enough to try some other exotic dishes.
So try your hand at cooking vegetables the Chinese way. It will give you still another way to express your love for your family. Their appreciative expressions may even move you to increase your cooking repertoire yet more!
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Ingredients for Moo Goo Gai Pan (chicken slices with mushrooms):
For the marinade:
1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken meat
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons wine
1 rounded teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 slices gingerroot (optional)
4 cups bok choy*
1/2 cup sliced celery
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms or 1/2 cup canned mushrooms
1/4 cup water chestnuts
1/4 cup bamboo shoots (optional)
1/4 pound snow peas
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 cups chicken stock
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 rounded teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons wine or sherry
1/4 cup cornstarch blended into 1/4 cup cold water
If bok choy is not available in your area, Chinese cabbage (celery cabbage) may be substituted. Water chestnuts and bamboo shoots may be found in cans on your grocery shelf but, if not, may be omitted without changing the overall taste of this recipe. Sugar-snap peas or any edible-pod peas may be used where snow peas are unavailable.