Happy New Year!

Well, it's officially 2008! I didn't have a New Year's Eve feast of any sort, but I've been enjoying lots of down to earth home-cooked food at home, prepared by my mom. I'm going to miss it terribly when I leave to go back to school in a few days. So, as far as resolutions go, I guess eating better (not tastier but healthier!) and exercising more always tops the list. I think finding time to cook more of my own meals is also up there. I'm hoping I'll be slightly less busy this semester. And, for a non-food-related resolution, I'm going to work on finding a partner to travel with to China this coming summer. It'll be my last real "free" summer before my life gets sucked away by medical school, so I want to make sure that I get a chance to travel and see my relatives in China that I haven't seen in about 8 years now. Hopefully one of my friends will want to take some time off and have some fun traveling with me :)

Now then, back to the yummy stuff… here's some of what I've been enjoying while at home:

One of my favorite comfort dishes of all time is my mom's noodles with Chinese spaghetti sauce. The sauce is made with ground pork, eggs, and a variety of minced vegetables that happen to be on hand. This time, she added black wood ear fungus, onions, and scallions. Everything is sauteed in a pan with a soy and oyster based sauce, which is very different from Italian spaghetti sauce. It's a wonderful savory brown sauce, and is often done poorly at Americanized Chinese restaurants (too salty, too thick, vegetables too chunky), which is always a disappointment for me. Just imagine, going out and seeing one of your favorite dishes on the menu, only to get something completely different from what you were expecting. This is the reason that I always ask my mom to make me some when I come home :)

Shanghainese people love their soups. We spend hours and hours simmering soups that are full of flavor but still light and refreshing, and we always like to start off our meal with soups whenever possible, as a way to prepare and clean the palette. Soups are unfortunately a luxury I cannot afford at school, as I simply don't have the time to be simmering away on a stove all day, nor do I have a big enough dutch oven. This particular soup is made from simmering water with a young hen (using things such as chicken and beef stocks is such blasphemy in Chinese soup-making). My mom puts lots of sliced ginger in the water, as well as some white pepper. After the soup has simmered for several hours, she puts in some other items such as sliced Chinese sausage and chunks of winter melon. Winter melon is this big green melon with a stark white flesh surrounding a small cavity full of seeds, just like a honeydew. You can find winter melons at Asian supermarkets, where they are usually sold in sections instead of the whole melon. You remove the outer skin and the seeds, and then cut the melon into rectangular chunks to boil in the soup. They are ready when they turn translucent and become soft (they should not have any crunch to them). Winter melon has very little flavor of its own, but absorbs the soup and is very refreshing. Finally, the soup is finished off with salt as necessary, and topped with scallions. It's very simple, but wonderfully appetizing. It really brings out the gentle flavor of the chicken, and is a very healthy soup with all that winter melon to add to your vegetable intake!

My mom made this dish to take to a potluck, and left me a little platter all decorated with a ring of broccoli, how cute! She used flounder filets, which were lightly floured and fried, before tossing with black wood ear fungus, sliced bamboo shoots, and onions in a soy and black vinegar-based sweet and sour sauce. She loves to make this for dinner parties, because it's easy to do but tastes like you spent hours trying to prepare it.

I'm big on both mung bean and soy bean sprouts. The difference is that the mung bean sprouts have no real mung bean left on the ends of them, since they sprout from the beans themselves, whereas the soybean sprouts have that characteristic crunchy yellow bean at the ends. These are great as a main vegetable in a dish, because the crunchy beans really command your attention (whereas the mung bean sprouts tend to be used as a garnish). My mom stir fries them with thinly sliced pork in a soy-based sauce (yes, we like soy…). Just one warning: while mung bean sprouts can be eaten raw, soy bean sprouts should not be. It can lead to diarrhea

Remember the pork liver dish I got in California just a little while ago? Well it's also one of my favorites, and my mom knows this, so she went out and bought pork liver to make for me when I came home :) When she makes pork liver, she likes to make it very simple, without lots of extra vegetables to distract from the unique flavor and texture of the liver. It's made with a brown sauce, that is, you guessed it, soy and oyster sauce based. She also added some sha cha sauce (Chinese bbq sauce) to it, and threw in some scallions for color and contrast. The pork liver was tender and the sauce was at just the perfect flavor and consistency, with a bit of sweetness to offset the saltiness. Mmm delish!

My family is never far from its trusty Shanghai bok choy. I know you've seen it on my Vox a zillion times, but part of going home is eating more veggies too, right? My mom likes to sautee these until they become pretty soft, while I like them a bit more crunchy. Granted, since these are part of the mustard plant family, the rarer the vegetable is, the more likely you will encounter a mildly pungent sting, something 100 times milder than wasabi.

Fried rice is my mom's go-to dish for a quick and easy dinner when she's terribly busy. It's a lot less greasy than anything you'll encounter in a Chinese restaurant, and the rice is more tender, even though we use day-old rice (ever had that dreadful fried rice where the rice kernels are hard and chewy? bad!). We don't use a lot of soy in our fried rice, so it's not dark brown either.

Finally, more soup! This one uses the leftovers we had from our hotpot dinner, which means shrimp balls, fish balls stuffed with ground pork, tofu, and flounder filets. I think we threw in some iceberg lettuce and mung bean sprouts too. Tasty and filling soup, definitely makes a meal for lunch.

Happy new year, and eat well! :)

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