With the unusually warm autumn this year in New York City, the sudden cold snap and snow rudely reminded us that winter has arrived and Christmas is just around the corner. Which also means that chestnuts are in season and plentiful at the Chinatown curbside vendors. Seduced by one beautiful display, I lightened my wallet and brought home a bagful. Now the only task was to peel them in preparation to use in a recipe. Well, that is precisely the problem!
Today is the autumnal equinox and that means summer is officially over. But with the unusually warm weather we’ve been enduring lately, it doesn’t feel like autumn at all. (What global warming?) Farmers’ markets throughout the city are still selling tomatoes, and Harlem watermelon vendors are still hawking this summer fruit at their sidewalk stalls. Last weekend I was delighted to find some wonderful looking celtuce, a summer vegetable, in Chinatown and thought that it was not too late to make soy-pickled celtuce.
How to celebrate the First Annual “National Dumpling Day” was a problem until I was invited to be a guest judge for the 12th Annual Chef One Dumpling Eating Contest, which is one of the highlights of the 2015 Chef One NYC Dumpling Festival. This year’s festival will be held from noon to 5pm on September 26th in Manhattan’s Sara D. Roosevelt Park (at Houston Street next to the Bowery branch of Whole Foods).
Today is the Qingming Festival (清明節) when Chinese families all over the world visit ancestral tombs to pay respect by cleaning them. Despite being one of the three major holidays celebrated by the Chinese, very few in the West understand its significance. It is such a vital holiday that controversial for hire tomb sweeping services are now available for migrant workers who are unable to return to their ancestral homes during this festival.
A week ago Friday the night after yuanxiao (元宵), which is on the fifteenth day or the last day of the formal Chinese lunar New Year celebration, I’d invited a few of my blogger friends over for dinner. For months, if not years, I’d been promising them I would cook one of my Chinese feasts, but had not fulfilled this pledge. This last eighteen months I’ve been so pre-occupied with writing my cookbook that I had neglected them. So I made it up to them with a “Spring Awakening Dinner.”
Last year at this time I was frantically trying to complete the manuscript for my upcoming cookbook. With the deadline looming I did not have the time to cook a family Chinese New Year dinner. But the book, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking, is now finished and will be published this fall, so I am back making a Chinese New Year banquet for the family.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “This could be the biggest snowstorm in the history of New York City,” and governor Andrew M. Cuomo said, “This is going to be a blizzard. It is a serious blizzard. It should not be taken lightly.” The national media, which is centered in New York City, was calling this Snowmageddon 2015 or Snowpocalypse 2015. The subway in the city was shut down and a travel ban was imposed overnight on Monday of January 26th. That was the kind of caution and hype being doled out for an impending winter storm — our first major one of the season. I was quite excited by the prospect of a day of forced indoor activities.
When it comes to holiday celebrations, Warren and I are traditionalists. For Thanksgiving, a New England turkey dinner, accompanied by oyster stuffing, pan gravy, mashed potato and orange cranberry sauce, is the undeviating menu. For Christmas a prime rib roast or a ham would be added as we host a larger crowd. Lately though, there’s been grumbling by the family that we should be more modern and innovative with our Christmas dinner. But how does one inject creativity into a classic Christmas dinner? I decided to search for an answer in my Chinese cooking tradition.
In Singapore during the 1960’s, drinking milk meant reconstituting white powdery dried milk that came in a large can. The powder needed to be dissolved in hot water, and no matter how vigorously it’s stirred, the result was always slightly gritty with a rather bland taste. “Fresh” milk, which came in a triangular pyramid-shaped paper carton, was expensive and only available in the few exclusive supermarkets. I remember its taste was closer to what we now get in an UHT milk rather than the fresher taste of U.S. milk. It was considered a luxury and we would indulge only occasionally.
My Chinese zodiac sign is the wooden horse, and since this is the year of the wooden horse I’m not surprised I’m starting out the year with a busy schedule. For the first time in a very long while, I did not make a family Chinese New Year dinner at home. But I do have very good reasons for this lapse. First of all I’ve been busy with the manuscript for my upcoming book, which is now due in the spring that I was supposed to have completed last fall. Then I was asked by my very good friends Amy and Romy at Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn to help them develop a Chinese New Year menu for their restaurant. And just two weeks before Chinese New Year, through my wonderful friend Wendy Chan, Ron DeSantis at Yale University dining services invited me to put together a home-style Chinese New Year dinner for the students.