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Chinese New Year Guest Post: If You Build it They Will Come

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For whatever reason, I’ve never really taken to Chinese food, and therefore I don’t cook it around the house. I have friends at work who rave about stinky tofu in Queens and other friends who go crazy for Dim Sum in downtown Manhattan, so I know it has its virtues. My friend Mark Satlof, a music and entertainment publicist and father of two boys, is so obsessed with Chinese food that he built a wok in his kitchen of his house. When he offered to write a guest post about cooking Chinese food for the family, I eagerly took him up on it. As it turns out, he has a recipe for what was a staple around the house when I was a kid (though my mom never made with such flair, I’m sure). And if you read to the end of his post, you’ll learn an insider's tip for watching the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown, which is coming up in a week or so. Mark is on Twitter at @msatlof, and without further ado, 
here's his guest post:

I dreamed I would cook Chinese food a couple times a week -- at least, but probably more -- when I sketched out our new kitchen in 2001. I wanted to make it to semi-pro wok slinger, like those guys you see behind the counter at the fast food take out Chinese joints in our neighborhood in Central Harlem (but with better recipes), cooking in a whirlwind of dipping, frying, throwing, tossing and in just a few minutes, done. I put a corner in the kitchen with a built in counter top wok burner -- 15,000 Btus -- a larder for Asian ingredients and drawers and cabinets for chopsticks, pots, platters, strainers, steamers and spatulas. That October, our first son, Leo, was born. I wasn’t stir frying every night, but I got to the “wok corner” many weekends and during the week here and there. 

I began collecting Chinese cookbooks, studying them, as I was heading towards fifty or so, for the recipes I’d cook  -- regional styles, multiple methods, a panoply of exotic ingredients. For a while, I kept it up, a bit, stopping in Manhattan’s Chinatown on my way to work in Brooklyn for groceries; slicing meat and vegetables before leaving in the morning; getting home in time to get the rice going and the meal made.

Eli, our second son and last child, was born in 2004.  Dads, Moms, you can guess what happened next. Two little kids suck up your time and energy and my Chinese chef fantasy took a hit. Then, all of a sudden, the boys were growing, developing their own culinary tastes and food quirks. Not the way I’d want it, though. They are picky eaters (one of them eats no bread). Each has a minimalist roster of a few dozen foods they will eat. The overlap is minimal (plain pasta, hot dogs, carrots, chicken nuggets and fries. And, luckily, for the Chinese chef, plain white rice and soy sauce). Neither eats much with flavor or sauces (no ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, gravy) or mixed foods like stews or even rice or pasta with other ingredients. This makes Chinese stir fries losers in multiple ways.

The kids’ food habits do not encourage the Dream. But following a half dozen years of trial and error, I’ve developed one Chinese menu that will get everyone at the table something they will eat. My wife, Dana, and I will eat it all. Eli will wolf down as many potstickers, bought frozen at Prosperity Dumpling, on Eldridge Street, as I cook. Leo will be happy with the one green vegetable he eats in quantity, string beans, dry fried in oil with garlic and a sprinkle of salt.  They both will eat the beef part of Beef and Peppers.

The wok stays cold for long stretches and most of the cookbooks are in storage now. One that is still on the shelf and is dirty, wrinkled and soy sauce stained from use, is Ken Hom’s "Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood." Our fail-safe Traditional Pepper Beef is adapted from Hom, upping the proportion of soy and oyster sauce to provide a deeper, if saltier, flavor.

For the last several years, we’ve made it to Manhattan’s Chinatown for the Chinese New Year parade. This year it is scheduled for Sunday, February 17th. I have never found a map of the parade route but here is a secret: Eldridge Street between Division and Canal is prime viewing and not too crowded. You can pop up a block to buy dumplings from Prosperity, find a stand in the neighborhood for green beans and peppers, and then at home try this for your picky kids.

Traditional Pepper Beef

Adapted from Ken Hom's "Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood: 150 Delicious Chinese Dishes for Today's American Table."

For the marinade:

  • ¾ lb flank steak
  • 2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1 tsp Asian sesame oil
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cornstarch

For the main dish:

  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tbs fermented black beans (optional, don’t sweat if you don’t have any. If you don’t use black beans add some salt in its place, ½ tsp)
  • 1 red, 1 green, 1 yellow pepper seeded and cut into 1” pieces. (or whatever combination of peppers you have on hand)
  • 1/4 cup reduced-salt chicken broth or water
  • 1 tbs Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tbs oyster sauce
  • 2 tsp asian sesame oil
  • cooking oil

Cut steak into thin slices 2 inches wide by ¼ inch thick. Mix with marinade ingredients in a bowl or plastic bag. Let sit for 20 minutes or longer.

Heat wok or deep pan, add two or three tbs peanut or other cooking oil, stir-fry beef until pink is just gone. Turn heat off, remove beef and drain then blot with paper towel. Leave about a tbs of oil in wok.

Reheat the wok, toss in the garlic, onions and fermented black beans (if you are using). Cook a couple of minutes until onions soften. Add peppers, cook for a minute, then add chicken stock (or water), rice wine, soy sauce, sugar and black pepper and cook for two minutes. Pour in oyster sauce, mix well. Add beef, toss around for a minute. Add a little more stock or water if the dish looks too dry. Add sesame oil, turn out on a platter and serve hot.

Note: Swap out the vegetables in any combination, for variety.

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