Welcome the Year of the Horse with a citrusy kick that will not only deliver good flavor right now but also will promise good fortune in the months ahead.
Citrus fruits like oranges, kumquats and pomelos are traditional for the Lunar New Year, which begins Jan. 31 this year. They are used for decoration, given as gifts or snacked on. But cookbook author Grace Young says citrus fruit also has its place in cooking, particularly now when everyone is focused on new beginnings.
“We’re watching our weight,” says the New York City-based author of “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” and two other cookbooks. “We want to eat healthily, and it’s good to have that hit of vitamin C. I think, for a stir-fry, oranges are beautiful.”
Oranges and other citrus are Lunar New Year must-haves because they are rich in symbolism in terms of color, shape and the puns that can be made off their Chinese names, says Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator emeritus of Himalayan art and Chinese decorative art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and author of the book “Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art.”
“It’s the color,” says Bartholomew, speaking of oranges. “It’s the color of gold. People want the new year to bring them money. Have you heard the Cantonese new year greeting? ‘May you explode in wealth.’ People must have these wealth-giving things.”
During the new year, adults will place two oranges, preferably with leaves still attached as a sign of green life, along with red envelopes of money next to the pillows of sleeping children, she says.
Puns are very much the thing. An orange is called “gut” in Cantonese, which ties in with “dai gut,” or good fortune, Bartholomew explained. Pomelo is called “you,” which sounds like the Cantonese word for “to have.” So, households will have one, preferably two, pomelos on hand to symbolize the desire “to have all your wishes come true,” she says. The Cantonese name for kumquat sounds like “gumgut” and is a pun on gold – “gum” – and good fortune – “dai gut.” That’s why candied kumquats are a traditional new year’s treat.
You should have luck finding citrus now because this is peak season.
“Sweet treats are a huge thing for Viet Tet gatherings. You set out an assortment for guests to nibble at tea,” writes Andrea Nguyen, author of “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.” (Tet is the Vietnamese word for Lunar New Year.) “I take a nontraditional route by making candied orange peels for Tet. Being in California, it’s totally apropos and takes full advantage of our seasonal local bounty, which is at the core, the essence, of Viet cooking and Tet.”
12 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1/4-inch-thick bite-size slices
2 tablespoons egg white, lightly beaten
2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1/3 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 navel orange
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 medium green pepper, julienned
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onions
Combine the chicken, egg white, 2 teaspoons cornstarch, 2 teaspoons rice wine and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Stir until the cornstarch is totally dissolved and no clumps are visible. Add 2 teaspoons of the oil; stir to combine. Refrigerate, uncovered, 30 minutes. Combine the broth, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, the remaining 2 teaspoons rice wine and 1/4 teaspoon cornstarch in a small bowl.
Zest the orange; reserve the zest. Remove white pith from the orange with a sharp paring knife. Working over a bowl to catch any drips, carefully slide the knife on either side of each membrane to free the orange segments, letting segments fall into the bowl.
Heat 1 quart water to a boil in a saucepan. Add 1 tablespoon oil. Reduce the heat to low. When the water is barely simmering, carefully add the chicken, gently stirring so that the pieces do not clump together. Cook until the chicken just turns opaque but is not cooked through, about 1 minute. Carefully drain the chicken in a colander, shaking the colander to remove any excess water.
Heat a 14-inch wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the wok; add the ginger and garlic. Stir-fry until fragrant, 10 seconds. Add the bell peppers and red onions; stir-fry until the bell peppers are almost crisp-tender, 1 minute. Add the chicken; sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Re-stir the broth mixture; swirl it into the wok. Stir-fry until the chicken is just cooked through, 1 minute. Stir in the orange segments, zest and any accumulated juices.
Grace Young, adaptation of recipe from “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge”
Pomelo and Crab Salad
1 3/4 ounces dried shrimp, about 1 1/2 cups
2 tablespoons oil
1 garlic clove, finely diced
1 large pink pomelo, or 2 small pink pomelos
7 ounces picked, cooked crab meat
5 mint leaves, sliced
5 perilla leaves, sliced
5 Vietnamese mint leaves, sliced
5 Thai basil leaves, sliced
1 tablespoon fried red Asian shallots
2 teaspoons fried garlic chips
3 tablespoons nuoc cham dipping sauce, see recipe
1 large red chili, sliced
Crushed roasted peanuts
Soak the dried shrimp in water, 1 hour; drain.
Add the oil to a hot frying pan. Add the garlic; cook until fragrant, 5-10 seconds. Add the dried shrimp; stir-fry until crispy and golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from the pan; allow to cool.
Peel and segment the pomelo. Break into bite-size pieces; place in a large bowl. Add the cooled garlic and shrimp mixture, the crabmeat, herbs, fried shallots, garlic chips and nuoc cham. Toss together well. Transfer to a serving dish; garnish with the chili and peanuts. Serve garnished with extra herbs.
Nuoc cham dipping sauce: Combine 1/2 cup water, 3 tablespoons each of fish sauce and white vinegar, and 2 tablespoons sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir well; cook until just below boiling point is reached. Remove pan from heat; cool. Stir in 2 chopped garlic cloves, 1 thinly sliced chili and 2 tablespoons lime juice. Store in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Notes: Grapefruit can be substituted for the pomelo, if necessary. Look for the herbs and other specialty ingredients in an Asian grocery. If you cannot find them, leave them out, the salad will still be delicious.
Luke Nguyen, “The Food of Vietnam” (Hardie Grant, $50)
Candied Orange Peel
60-70 candied peels
6 small or 5 medium blemish-free, thick-skinned oranges, preferably California navels
1 2/3 plus 1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
Trim 1/4 to 1/2 inch from both ends of each orange. Reveal some flesh to make removing the peel easier. Make cuts, from top to bottom and at 1-inch intervals, around each orange. Make sure the knife goes through the peel and pith down to the flesh. Use your fingers to remove the peel from the orange in sections. Cut each section lengthwise into 1/3-inch-wide strips.
Put the peels into a saucepan; add enough water so that they float. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap; refrigerate overnight.
Drain the peels. Return them to the saucepan; again add enough water so the peels float. Heat to a boil over medium heat; then drain. This mellows the harsh flavor of the peels.
Put a wire rack on a baking sheet; place the baking sheet nearby for drying the finished strips. Put 1 2/3 cups sugar and all the water in a wide, high-sided skillet that can accommodate the strips in a single layer. Heat to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the peels; lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until glazed and shiny, 25-30 minutes. Occasionally stir the peels and swirl the pan to ensure even cooking; lower the heat as needed to prevent scorching. During candying, the plump peels will shrink, straighten out and soften. The white pith will turn golden and somewhat translucent.
Use tongs to transfer each strip to the rack, placing them orange side up and not touching. Discard the sugar syrup. Allow the peels to dry until they feel tacky, about 1 hour.
To coat the peels, put the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Drop in a few strips at a time; shake the bowl back and forth to coat them well. Transfer to a plate; repeat with the remaining peels. Store strips in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.
Notes: Scrub the oranges well if there’s a waxy coating on them. Andrea Nguyen suggests dipping the peels in melted dark chocolate if a “touch of decadence” is desired.
Andrea Nguyen, “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors”