- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Martin Yan understands our problem, and he feels our pain. On this morning, he has been back in the United States for less than 24 hours, after 3 weeks in Asia and a 14-hour journey by plane.

He rose early in Chicago to do an interview and appear on TV. In minutes, he will make his way to a local cooking school before heading off to Minneapolis to teach a few more classes. The next day, he will board another jet for the return trip to his home near San Francisco.

Between breaths, he explains the reasoning behind his new book, “Martin Yan Quick and Easy” (Chronicle), the companion volume to a PBS series of the same name, and why this project was envisioned as an assist manual for Americans whose lifestyles seem to be careening nearly out of control. The advice seems particularly fitting for Feb. 9, Chinese New Year, which is on a Wednesday this year, meaning that any at-home celebration on that day will need to be fast and nearly effortless. Mr. Yan speaks quickly, of course.

“I think Americans are more in a rush than other people in other countries. Everything in America is moving fast,” he says.

The good news for Chinese-food lovers, he says, is that “because people are cooking less and eating out more, there are a lot of exotic seasonings becoming available.”

While Chinese cooking prep work can seem laborious, with its long list of sauce ingredients and endless chopping, the actual cooking time is usually brief. So Mr. Yan, who wrote 25 books before this one, decided to make use of some of the Asian convenience products that are arriving on supermarket shelves to speed up dinner preparation.

He says his new book is partly standard procedure and partly a slight reworking of traditional recipes. Many Chinese cooks use convenience ingredients, including bottled chili sauce, plum sauce and sliced water chestnuts to get dinner on the table fast. He has injected them in traditional ways, as well as in newfangled creative combinations.

To fill out a meal, it is considered acceptable to dash out and buy Chinese barbecued ribs or a roast duck. “It’s basically the same as buying a ham,” Mr. Yan says. However, to do that, we would need access to a Chinatown or a good Asian market or deli, and not all of us have that.

So for our Chinese New Year, he recommends a few menus: one for a 30-minute meal, another for 45 minutes and a third for an hour. But we can keep adding dishes as our attention spans and energy allow, remembering, of course, that this is supposed to be a celebration, not a Great Wall-style project.

Meal I

Fast noodle soup using Chinese or Japanese angel-hair noodles

Steamed rice

Sea scallops in sweet chili sauce

Fresh fruit

Tea

Meal II

Fast noodle soup using Chinese or Japanese angel-hair noodles

Pomelo, radish and spinach salad

Steamed rice

Sea scallops in sweet chili sauce

Fresh fruit

Tea

Meal III

Pomelo, radish and spinach salad

Steamed rice

Sea scallops in sweet chili sauce

Spicy soba noodles

Roast duck or barbecued pork from a Chinese deli

Caramelized Asian pears over coconut ice cream or fresh fruit

Tea

Because this year is the year of the rooster on the Chinese zodiac, cooking is appropriate. Roosters are hard-working and confident, requirements for good and expansive cooks, and Mr. Yan’s menus reflect traditional Chinese symbolism.

“Noodles are always served on special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries because noodles are the symbol of long life, everlasting relationships, lasting good fortune,” he says. Also served are lettuce, the symbol of prosperity; pomelo, which is something like grapefruit, for abundance; and round foods, including sea scallops and mushrooms, to celebrate endless supplies. We must always plan enough so that there are leftovers because they also represent an abundant supply of luck and good fortune.

Can we accomplish all this in a scant 30 minutes? Of course, if we are realistic. For fastest preparation, start with steamed rice. If cooking in the rice cooker, set it and forget it.

If cooking stove-top, bring it to a boil, turn down the heat as low as possible, and let simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until puffed and tender.

Begin the noodle soup by bringing a can or two of good-quality chicken broth to a boil. A few minutes before serving (consult package directions to find out the recommended cooking time), add Chinese or Japanese angel-hair noodles and a sprinkling of white pepper. Top off, just before ladling out, with a few drops of sesame seed oil and 1 or 2 teaspoons of chopped scallion, both white and green parts.

While the broth is heating, do the preparation work for the sea scallops and other dishes you might be serving. Set the table. Make the tea. Stir-fry, invite diners to the table, and wish them good fortune and prosperity. Then salute the American/Chinese way of doing things: swiftly, with economy of effort and with great creativity.

What will the highly energized but momentarily tired Mr. Yan do for Chinese New Year? “I will probably take my family and the kids out to a Chinese restaurant because that is a weekday and I don’t think we’ll have enough time to prepare anything at home.”

Sea scallops in sweet chili sauce

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon grated ginger root

1 pound sea scallops

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup sweet chili sauce

2 tablespoons chicken broth

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

To make the marinade, combine lime juice, fish sauce and ginger root in a bowl, and stir to coat evenly. Let stand for 10 minutes. Drain scallops and pat dry with paper towels. Heat a wide, nonstick frying pan or wok over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil, swirling to coat the bottom. When the oil is hot, add the scallops and pan-fry, turning once, until golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan combine the sweet chili sauce and broth. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Transfer the scallops to a serving plate. Drizzle with the chili sauce, garnish with cilantro and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Pomelo, radish and spinach salad

The pomelo symbolizes abundance in Chinese New Year celebrations because the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the word for “to have.” Eating and sharing this ancestor to the grapefruit is like guaranteeing that you and your family will have an abundant life in the new year. Substitute ruby red grapefruit when pomelo is not in season.

DRESSING:

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon honey

3/4 teaspoon chili garlic sauce

SALAD:

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 pomelo, segmented (see note)

2 cups packed baby spinach

3 red radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 (8-ounce) can sliced water chestnuts, drained

cup thinly sliced red onion

2 tablespoons thinly sliced crystallized ginger

To make the dressing, combine vegetable oil, lemon juice, orange juice, sesame oil, honey and chili garlic sauce in a small bowl and whisk to blend. In a small frying pan, toast pine nuts over medium heat, shaking the pan frequently until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Pour onto a plate and let cool. In a large bowl, combine pomelo segments, spinach, radishes, water chestnuts, onion, crystallized ginger and pine nuts. Pour dressing over salad, toss well and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: Segmenting pomelo or any citrus is easier than it sounds. Simply slide the ends off, then hold the fruit with one cut end against the cutting board and slice downward from top to bottom to remove the peel in strips, working your way around the fruit. Cut deeply enough to remove the white pith. Now cut toward the center of the fruit on one side of the membrane. Slice the fruit segment while leaving the membrane intact.

Spicy soba noodles

Japanese soba noodles, made from buckwheat flour and wheat flour, are treated to a spicy dressing here.

8 ounces dried soba noodles

2 cups sliced napa cabbage

teaspoon sesame oil

DRESSING:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoons sweet chili sauce

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon grated ginger root

GARNISH:

1/4 cup sliced pickled ginger

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

2 scallions, julienned

Bring a large pot filled with water to a boil over high heat. Add the noodles and cook according to package directions. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain again. Place noodles in a large bowl, add the Napa cabbage and sesame oil and toss to mix evenly.

To make dressing, combine vegetable oil, lemon juice, soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, turmeric and ginger root in a bowl and mix well. Pour dressing over the noodle mixture and add the pickled ginger, cilantro and scallions. Toss to coat evenly. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 hours. Makes 4 servings.

Caramelized Asian pears over coconut ice cream

Everyone likes ice cream, and there’s no easier dessert to serve. Top it with a warm spiced fruit sauce, one quickly made, and it will doubly please diners as well as the cook.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

2 Asian pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

1/4 cup light rum

1 pint coconut ice cream

Place a wide frying pan over medium heat until hot. Add butter, brown sugar and five-spice powder; cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat to high; add pears and cook until tender, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour in rum. Return pan to heat and set rum aflame (not beneath an exhaust fan or near flammable items). Cook for another 2 minutes; spoon evenly over ice cream and serve.

Makes 4 servings.


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