I have an awesome family. I don’t say that often enough and we’re all Anglicised enough to try to maintain a stiff upper lip and not actually say that to each other’s faces but I want to let it be known to all that I think my family are awesome and I love them very much. Another good thing about being related means that we all have a shared love of food – be it cooking, baking or eating. I’ve already blogged about how food played an important part in our lives growing up, so I always look forward to whatever family gatherings we have and in particular, the chance to cook a slap up meal for everyone. The arrival of YML and her family prompted such a gathering so it meant a busy few weeks planning and cooking.
The emphasis for the meal wasn’t so much grand, banquet-style dishes like I did for Chinese New Year where I focussed on traditional Hakka dishes or ones with meaningful titles, but rather dishes that perhaps YML wouldn’t already cook at home (YML is a very good cook), or dishes our parents used to cook for us kids whilst growing up. There were inevitably some mandatory dishes – We needed to have soup. YML loved soup when we were younger (to the point where we used to pretend to fight over who could eat the dried longan meat in the soup), therefore we needed to have soup. There was also how my Dad, for really special treats, would buy live crabs and cook them in a ginger and spring onion sauce so I thought that would be a good dish to evoke childhood memories (and if I couldn’t get crab, I could always use lobster). Another dish that I have fond memories of (which included YML) was pickled mouli stir-fried with some fish. I remember how The Mothership would buy (what seemed like) tonnes of mouli and then peel and chop them into batons. It was then our job (as kids) to rub the batons with salt until all the water came out before the mouli was then (sun) dried and then kept in jars with some sort of pickling liquor (I’ve never found out what goes into the liquor) for a few weeks. The result is something which should be crunchy (as you’ve removed the excess water) and slightly pickled – Perfect to go with pan-fried fish. Sadly, we don’t make it anymore so that was out of the question. However, we also used to have a lot of pickled mustard greens (with fish) when we were kids, so I opted to cook some pan-fried sea bass and cook that with pickled mustard greens and tofu puffs. One final dish selection from our childhood was chicken braised with shiitake mushrooms which again, was something we all loved as kids and our appetite for it now is no less diminished as adults.
The other dishes were ones which I didn’t think YML would necessarily cook so much at her home; Dong Po Pork was top of this list, as was beef rendang. These 2 dishes were ones I’ve only started to cook in recent months and have always been well received every time I have done so, therefore they were included into the mix. Another dish I wanted to do were some steamed spare ribs with ginger, garlic and black beans. It’s not a grand dish but something I think we all like and is a nice accompaniment to plain rice. Wary of how we have very little greenery, we needed to have some vegetables of some sort; I thought about cooking a plate of chinese vegetables but then thought about stir-frying some mange tout with a seafood of some sort (be it prawns or scallops). There were other dishes I thought of cooking; stuffed bitter gourd and/or tofu, fish maw with pig’s liver for example but this was meant to be fairly laid-back so it was very much a wait-and-see-how-things-are-on-the-day affair.
Quite a few of the dishes could be cooked a day or two before so they would only need re-heating on the day which would help save the all-important space on top of the stove (and I wouldn’t be horribly rushed or have to spend all day in the kitchen). The other dishes were ones to be cooked last-minute so that would also mean shopping for ingredients at the last possible moment. It was with this in mind that I came up with going to the Wholesale Market the day before, it would mean having to get up stupidly early but I knew that it would also bring back memories of going with my Dad when we were kids. So early in the morning, YKL and I headed to the Wholesale Market and given it was 7am, we were suitably grumpy. A visit to the fish market resulted in 3 lobsters and a Kg tub of scallops. We hadn’t realised just how much cheaper produce was here – 3 reasonably sized lobsters cost us £30 when you’re probably looking at paying slightly less than that for 1 lobster in a restaurant. We also picked up 1kg of scallops, a box of mange tout and a couple of boxes of cherries. It was a good trip and I was pretty much set for cooking the following day. One of my favourite quotes of the day was from Paul later that evening whom, when trying to get Daniel to look at the lobster said: “Come and talk to your dinner”
Another late request was wontons for Daniel; YML had told me a few days previously that he particularly loves wontons and noodles in soup – Especially with the addition of peas, carrots, broccoli or sweetcorn. Well I couldn’t ignore any of this, right? I mean, we actually have a kid who likes vegetables and it’s not very hard to make wontons after all. This meant that on the day of The Feast, we had to go to the Indoor Market to pick up some belly pork and some prawns for the wonton filling. I’ve learnt from previous experience not to put anything like coriander or too many spring onions in the filling when kids are involved so it really was a very basic wonton filing. The belly pork was skinned and cut into smaller chunks and the prawns were peeled and de-veined. After that, it was blitzed it in the food processor with an egg white to bind the mixture together before I seasoned it with some fish sauce and white pepper. Finally, some finely chopped spring onions were added and the mixture was kept in the fridge for all the flavours to come together before we made them into wontons.
The Dong Po Pork, beef rendang and chicken with shiitake mushrooms were all made a day or two in advance so I only needed to reheat them. Fortunately, they were also dishes which retained their heat very well so once they were heated through, I only needed to cover them and keep in a warm place whilst I got on with everything else. I then got to steam the spare ribs; the ribs themselves had already been chopped and kept in a basic marinade (salt, light soy sauce, white pepper, shaoxing wine, ginger, garlic and cornflour) so it only needed some additional ingredients based on what I felt like cooking. I did think of cooking them with preserved plums (or plum sauce) but in a spectacular shopping and memory meltdown, I completely forgot to buy both preserved plums or plum sauce. So, I retreated to the classic black beans and chilli. Once the ribs were cooked through, I could keep them in the steamer and move aside to free up space on the stove top.
Now I like to think that I’m reasonably brave when it comes to cooking and not particularly squeamish. I have no problem with offal (eating, preparing or cooking) and I’m absolutely fine with cooking live crustacea by dropping it into a pot of boiling water or something. Indeed, I’m also fine with splitting a live lobster in half lengthways (the result to having to prep and cook 1 too many lobster thermidors). However, my Dad used to say how you needed to (literal translation) “poke the lobster with a chopstick to get all the pee out”. I wasn’t too sure about this so consulted with my sister W, whom I like to treat almost like a culinary encyclopedia and ask about culinary techniques. She confirmed that you needed to get an implement like a chopstick and stick it into the lobster via the anus “all the way up” so that once you pull the chopstick back out, the urinary tract would empty. As I was feeling (unusually) quite girly, I got Wendy to do the deed to the first lobster and sure enough, a fair bit of murky reddish-brown liquid came out.
Still not entirely comfortable with the idea of sticking a chopstick into a lobster, I offered YML the chance to do it as she had mentioned how previously, she had no idea how to cook or prepare a live lobster and ended up chasing it round the kitchen. This was her chance of culinary redemption (!), so upon instruction from W, YML set about the task with brutal efficiency – To the point where she wasn’t convinced by the amount of liquid that came out from one lobster so repeated the act.
Once that was out of the way (and the lobsters probably well stunned by now), I duly set about portioning off the lobsters. Let me just say that when the tail section still flaps even though it has been severed from the head, it’s still quite freaky – As YKL discovered when she was portioning up the lobster.
Without any time to dwell on what just happened, I forged ahead with the other dishes; For the pan-fried sea bass with pickled mustard greens and tofu puffs, I first de-scaled and cleaned out the fish before cutting it into 2 and salting them lightly for about 20 minutes to firm up the flesh. The salt is then rinsed off before patted dry so that it’s ready to pan-fry. Add a few slithers of ginger to some hot oil in a wok before carefully lowering the fish into the oil, you immediately want a sear to crisp up the skin before lowering the heat to a medium-high so that you cook the fish through without burning the skin too much. Avoid the temptation to move the fish about too much otherwise you’ll risk breaking the delicate skin – You want a crisp crust on the outside but the flesh inside still soft and yielding. Turn over and repeat for the other side. Whilst the fish was searing away, I chopped the pickled mustard greens (which are easily found in Chinese supermarkets) into thick strips and quickly rinsed under the cold water tap as there have been times when the brine wasn’t rinsed off thus overpowering the dish. Once the fish is cooked through and has a crisp crust, remove from the wok and set aside whilst you get on with the rest of the dish; The chopped pickled mustard greens need to a drained before flash-fried in a dry wok with a knob of ginger which has been smashed. Continue stir-frying until most of the moisture has evaporated, and as odd as this may sound, add some water and the tofu puffs before returning the fish to the wok and covering with a lid. After a few minutes, check that the tofu puffs as soft before checking the seasoning and thickening the sauce with a cornflour slurry. Take great care not to break anything when mixing everything together and plate up.
Only a few more dishes now, firstly the lobster in ginger garlic and spring onion sauce; The portioned up lobster is dipped into cornflour (or the flesh side of it at least) and given I don’t have a deep fat fryer and didn’t want to heat a load of oil in the wok, I pan-fried them in batches until they were cooked and kept aside in a warm place whilst you get on with the sauce. A few knobs of (peeled) ginger are sliced thickly and garlic is smashed and roughly chopped, top and tail the spring onions and chop into 1-2 inch lengths. Heat some oil in a wok and add the ginger and garlic, stir fry the ginger and garlic for a short while so that the flavours are released without burning then chucking in the white parts of the spring onions. Add a liberal amount of Shoaxing rice wine (you can’t have too much) and after about 30 seconds to cook off the alcohol, add some stock or water and a dollop of oyster sauce. Bring this mixture to the boil and add the remaining green parts of the spring onions before checking the seasoning and thickening with a corn starch slurry. Return the cooked lobster and mix well, cooking for a couple more minutes. Now, I made a rookie mistake and didn’t cook the lobster through at the initial pan-frying stage so it ended up taking much longer as I tried to cook the lobster in the sauce (and overcooking it because I was paranoid about giving my family food poisoning). The result was that I had overcooked the spring onions (which I also didn’t put enough of into the dish).
Whilst this was all going on, I also go to cooking out the wontons and making Daniel’s wonton noodles. The wontons themselves were already made and only needed to be cooked in boiling water and Daniel’s noodles were already blanched so were about ready to be served. I ladled some soup into a small saucepan and added some peas and sweetcorn (I checked with him that this was OK – It was), once it came to the boil the noodles were added and finally the cooked wontons. Empty into a bowl and we had a very happy 7 year-old 🙂 (I’ve since tried this myself and have to admit that he’s got a point: Adding sweetcorn and peas to wonton noodles are indeed, very tasty).
Finally, I quickly stir-fried some scallops with mangetout but didn’t manage to get any pictures of that so not really worth writing up in any detail.
So that was it, all dishes out and we all cramped around the table and tucked in. I’ve always maintained that seeing my family enjoying themselves whilst eating food I’ve cooked for them all will be enough for me. I did take a breath to savour the moment whilst everyone was tucking in and it was good to have my family together (or at least most of them). Cooking this feast wasn’t anywhere near as stressful as at Chinese New Year because the dishes this time were technically less demanding, but it was still thoroughly enjoyed by all and I had a great time preparing and cooking it. Besides, if you don’t enjoy yourself when cooking for those you love, what’s the point?
You can view more pictures on Flickr