Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lychees: from Jell-O to martinis

I am always pleasantly surprised when I ask my Caucasian friends if they like lychees.  I think this tropical fruit has a very distinct flavor and texture that you either love or hate.  But almost everyone I have asked has said, “Oh, I love lychees!”  Shame on me for underestimating the worldliness of my friends’ palates.

One of my most distinct childhood associations with lychees was when I was about seven years old.  My Uncle Mike was a bachelor in his mid 20s and had invited my family over to


Prior to starting my blog, I tested this lychee martini out on some of my good friends from college.  I was a little nervous because there is a very successful restaurateur in the group.  His scrutinizing palate coupled with his ever present frat-boy sarcasm could be a lethal combo.  However, soon after our party, a lychee martini appeared on his restaurant bar menus.  I'd say that calls for a round of Dragon Lady Martinis.  Cheers!

Serves 2 
4 whole lychees (from the can, found in the Asian section of most supermarkets)
1 cup ice cubes
3 oz. Soho® lychee liquer
3 oz. vodka
2 TB lychee syrup juice (from the can of lychees)

Garnish two chilled martini glasses with two lychees on cocktail skewers.  Fill shaker with ice cubes.  Add the lychee liquer, vodka and lychee syrup juice.  Shake vigorously for 10 seconds.  Pour into martini glasses.

Monday, December 21, 2009

“Just needs a little soy sauce, mom!”

When mom used to make her weekly Sunday dinners for our immediate family 0f 17, it really was a grand affair.  We’d pack the chairs around the round dining room table and feast on no fewer than eight delicious courses of home-cooked Chinese food.  With a gentle flick of the wrist, the spinning Lazy Susan would smoothly float the platter of choice right in front you.  Each time my mom would bring out a steaming hot stir-fry dish from the wok, she would say with a shrug, “Oh, it’s not that good.  I don’t know, it’s just okay.”  Of course, every morsel you tasted was always one of the most delicious things you’d ever put in your mouth.  But it’s a Chinese thing to be modest and humble. 

There’s actually a scene out of Amy Tan’s best selling novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” that reminds me of our family dining ritual.  In the film, when the mom proudly brings out her grand finale dish amidst everyone’s “oohs” and “ahhs”, she demurely says, “Oh, it’s not so good.  Not my best…”  Of course she doesn’t really believe this.  But then the doofus Caucasian boyfriend proclaims, “Oh, that’s okay, all it needs is a little soy sauce!” and douses the entire platter with a bottle of soy.  The room goes silent, the family is frozen with shock, the mom’s mouth is gaping open, and the clueless boyfriend continues to eat the now-ruined dish.  Ever since that movie came out, whenever my mom presents her signature kung pao chicken at the end of an eight course meal, my husband just can’t wait to say, “Just needs a little soy sauce, mom!”  (Ar, ar!)  It was probably an LOL the first couple times he did it.  But now my mom brushes it off with an affectionate, “Okay, okay…”, and my dad just gives him a courtesy chuckle and spins the Lazy Susan. 

My parents have come a long way.  They have a sense of humor now.  And, they’ve really loosened their cultural boundaries.  A couple decades ago, this certainly was not the case.  I should mention that we all married lo fans (that’s Chinese for “Caucasian”, or as we affectionately like to say, “white person”).  It’s hardly an issue now, but 25 years ago it was a huge point of contention.  My oldest sister and her boyfriend John M. (now husband) really had some major ground to break.  After all, they were the first culprits to crush my parents’ dream of having a nice, smart, rice-loving-Chinese son-in-law.  Instead, they got a nice, smart, potato-loving- Irish son-in-law.  (Damn banana-kids!)

I know John M. was truly devoted to my sister because he was practically put through Chinese water torture before my parents finally gave him their blessing.  It was nothing personal.  He was just, well…white.  But they grew to truly love and accept him.  To make a long story short, this is how my brother-in-law puts it…”your parents took a long time to open that door to me, but once they did, they pulled me inside and have never let go.”  (kinda brings a tear to my eye.)  That sentiment can also be taken quite literally, because John M. initially would never even come to the front door when he picked up my sister for dates.  He’d park on the corner and wait for her in the car.  We also had a German Shepard, Dartanian, who ferociously barked at lo fans, but for some reason, didn’t make a peep at Chinese people.  Honestly, no one ever trained Dartanian to do this; he just did it!

My second oldest sister inducted the second lo fan son-in-law into the family.  So by the time I brought my boyfriend (who is now my husband, and whose name is also John) around, my conniving brother Mark would welcome these lo fan-initiating-opportunities with open arms.  Although Mark is 4 years older than me and is a successful business man, he is the biggest jokester I know and often possesses the maturity level of a kindergartner.  The first time John came to dinner at my parents' house, he brought a bottle of wine.  Mark got his hands on it, and taped a fake tag on the bottom indentation of the bottle that read, “To John, From Susie.  Xmas ’88” to make it look like a re-gift.  When he nudged my sister at the dinner table and showed it to her, her eyes popped out of her head with embarrassment for John.  The next time John came for dinner, Mark clinked on his water glass and announced out of the blue, “John would like to make a toast now…in Chinese.”  On another occasion, when Mark tried to teach John some “respectful Chinese phrases” for him to say to my parents, John knew better.  He realized that if Mark tried to teach him to say “Your hair looks nice” to my mom in Chinese, the phrase probably really meant “Your butt looks huge.”

Now that my mom’s family dinners have become fewer and farther between, the upside is it doesn’t give Mark as many opportunities for his antics.  The downside:  we don’t have as many opportunities to feast on the family favorites, like kung pao chicken.  Again, that is the purpose for this blog.  So give this special recipe a try, and let me know what you think.  If you tell me, “It just needs is a little soy sauce,” I’ll hope you are joking.


Prep ingredients earlier in the day, then sit down to a Kung Pao Chicken dinner in 20 minutes!

This Dragon Lady signature dish has a slight tinge of spiciness to it.  But if you prefer more “pow” to your kung pao, add 1 ( or 2 , or 3!) more green Serrano chili to the recipe, or sprinkle in some red pepper flakes during the last 3 minutes of stir-frying.  If you prefer white meat, you can also substitute boneless, skinless chicken breast for the chicken thighs (note:  the breast meat will cook faster than the thigh meat).

Serves 4
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon + 1 tablespoon corn starch, divided
½ cup low sodium soy sauce
¼ cup white wine
1 teaspoon finely grated ginger root (Microplane zester grater works best), or ½ teaspoon ginger powder
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon white pepper
4 garlic cloves
4 green Serrano chilies
6 stalks celery (about 3 cups, chopped)
1 large yellow onion (about 3 cups, chopped)
4 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons black bean garlic sauce (in Asian food aisle of most grocery stores)
¼ teaspoon salt

Steamed white or brown rice

Trim off excess fat from chicken thighs and cut meat into 1/2” pieces.  Place in a shallow bowl.  Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of corn starch on chicken and turn to coat.  In a small bowl, whisk the soy sauce, wine, ginger, sugar and white pepper.  Pour 1/8 cup of the marinade mixture over the chicken and turn to coat.  Set aside.  (If prepping in advance, cover chicken with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 8 hours.  Take out 30 minutes before stir-frying.).  Add the other 1 tablespoon of corn starch to the remaining marinade; stir until dissolved and set aside.

While chicken is marinating, finely mince the garlic and set aside.  Finely mince the chilies

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A post-Thanksgiving tradition: save the carcass!

Many people over the years have asked me what my family eats on Thanksgiving.  Okay, I know we’re Chinese and all, but we’re not aliens.  We eat turkey, just like everyone else! 

We have all the traditional American side dishes and desserts as well, even though my mom likes to remind us:  “Chinese people don’t like pumpkin pie.”  But that’s okay.  Caucasian people don’t like steamed chicken's feet, so let’s just say we’re even. 

One Chinese tradition that mom has blended with our American Thanksgiving traditions is a delicious soup she makes with the leftover roasted turkey carcass.  (I admit, the word “carcass” is not a good visual, but trust me, this is a good one.)  The Chinese


After you’ve enjoyed a delicious roasted turkey dinner, you can still make a hearty soup with the leftover carcass and bones.  Even if you think you’ve carved off every bit of turkey from round one, you will still get enough meat from the simmering process to make this soup.  You can also substitute 2 large roasted chicken carcasses instead of a turkey carcass.  Another note:  depending on how you seasoned your turkey, the saltiness of your broth will vary, so you will need to salt your broth to taste.

Serves 8-10
1 roasted turkey carcass, (original whole turkey ranging 18-22 lbs.)
5 1/2 quarts cold water (22 cups)
2-15 ½ ounce cans of chicken broth (if needed)
1 ¾ cups white rice (such as Niko Niko Calrose, in Asian food section of most supermarkets)
3 cups shredded turkey meat (most, if not all of this, will fall off the carcass when simmering)
6 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons white wine (optional)
2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon white pepper
2 eggs
Salt and white pepper, to taste

In a large stock pot, combine the turkey carcass and water.  Include all the other bones that may have been detached when carving, such as drumsticks, wings and neck.  Cover and bring to a boil over high heat (about 25 minutes).  Reduce heat, simmer, until the bones have started to fall apart, and all the bits of turkey meat have fallen off the bones, about 2 hours.

Remove from heat.  Discard all the bones from the pot, and save all the bits of turkey meat in

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Years ago, I verbally recited this Stir-Fry Beef and Broccoli recipe over the phone to my friend, Wendy P.  I never gave her precise measurements (because mom never game me any), so she would call me every couple months to verify a step.  No need for anymore phone calls, Wendy! 

This easy stir-fry is a refreshing change from your weekday meat ‘n potatoes or pasta routines.  It’s tasty, healthy and quick --- ready in less than 30 minutes (20, if you prep and refrigerate the meat and broccoli in the morning). 

Serves 4-6
1 lb. flank steak
¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 teaspoon white cooking wine (optional)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, peeled
1/2 small yellow onion, cut in quarters and thinly sliced (about ½ cup)
1 lb. broccoli crowns, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup water
3 tablespoons oyster sauce (found in the Asian section of most supermarkets)

Steamed white rice or brown rice
Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce (optional)

Cut flank steak into four equal sections by slicing in half lengthwise, and then slice each of those pieces in half crosswise.  Take each quarter section and cut against the grain, into 1/4 inch slices.  Put the slices of flank steak into a shallow dish. Whisk together soy sauce, cornstarch and white cooking wine; add to flank steak and turn pieces to coat evenly; set aside.  (Flank steak can be prepared up to this point, covered and refrigerated several hours. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.)

Heat vegetable oil in a large wok (or deep sauté pan that has a lid) over high heat.  Add garlic clove and yellow onions; stir-fry until onions are soft, about 3-4 minutes.  Add the flank steak to the wok and stir-fry until the meat is cooked halfway (the meat will look half brown-half red), about 3 minutes; remove meat and onions from wok.

Add broccoli and water to the wok; cover and allow broccoli to steam about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Return the flank steak and all its juices back to the wok along with the oyster sauce; stir-fry, uncovered, for 4-5 minutes.  Serve with steamed white rice or brown rice.  Like it spicy?  Add a dollop of Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce on top!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My inspiration: dinners with Lazy Susan

As a child growing up in Seattle, Washington in the 1970s, I kind of lived a double life.  You see, I am 100% Chinese.  But back then, even though my traditional parents were extremely proud of our culture and heritage, they chose to raise me and my three older siblings in  a community that was predominantly Caucasian.  Mom and dad spoke fluent Mandarin in the house, but we answered back in English.  For eight years, I attended a Catholic grade school where the only other Chinese students were my two older sisters and brother.  My public high school offered a bit more diversity, but I still didn’t have any Asian friends.  In my college sorority, there were 120 girls in the house.  How many Asians?  Seven.  (And that included Jane, our sweet, little housekeeper.)  But despite the lack of diversity in our social circles growing up in Seattle, my parents always taught my siblings and me to take pride in our culture.  To preserve the traditions.  Stay true to our roots.  So even though mom sent us to  school with bologna sandwiches in our lunch bags, we would sit down to a home-cooked Chinese meal around our big, round table, every single night.  

Circa 1968, my parents surrounded by a bunch of bananas.  That's me in the middle.

Complete with a spinning Lazy Susan, just like in the Chinese restaurants, our dining room table was the heart of our home.  It was here where our family of six would gather for a delicious, traditional Chinese dinner that my mother would skillfully whip up, with love, seven nights a week.  Platters of soy sauce chicken, saucy beef and broccoli, stir-fried bok choy, spicy ma-po tofu with minced pork, and of course, rice.  (My dad loved rice, and in his opinion, no meal is complete without an ample pot of steamed white rice.)  It wouldn’t be unusual to have four or five courses like this every night.  Nor would it be considered indulgent to consume three different types of meat in one sitting – chicken, beef and pork, all in one meal.  Yes, Carnivores-R-Us!  My Caucasian friends eating Hamburger Helper just didn’t know what they were missing. 

 Over the years, I did take these Chinese feasts for granted.  I really didn’t know how good I had it until I left for college, and then was suddenly craving mom’s lo-mein noodles after a week of bland, fattening, unhealthily prepared meals at the sorority.  Our cook at the Pi Phi house would “season” a turkey by spraying Pam Non-Stick Cooking Spray all over it (sorry for outing you, Lorna, but that  was  gross).  I would go home every Sunday and chow down on one of mom’s great Chinese dinners AND do loads of laundry – double bonus.  After my siblings and I got married and started having our own kids, we were spoiled with the Sunday Chinese dinner ritual for several years.  But when the headcount of the immediate family topped out at 17 (10 adults, 7 grandchildren), the weekly dinners thinned out to quarterly gatherings.  And then, they were reduced to just Chinese New Year’s dinners, which were eventually replaced with my parents booking a couple round tables at a restaurant in Chinatown.  It simply was just too many people, and therefore too much work for my dear, petite mom.  Her dedication to feeding her large Chinese family has certainly been a labor of love.  She has put in countless hours slicing, dicing, poaching, frying, marinating.  Mom’s tired, and it’s time for someone else to pick up the slack.  To carry on the tradition.  To host the family gatherings.  To honor my mom.  And to ensure her legacy continues.

So that’s the background of my goal:  to share my mom’s wonderful Chinese recipes for all to enjoy.  The problem is….there are no recipes.  All these years, my mom has cooked from the heart, from her head, from her experienced sense of taste and visual measurements of “that looks like enough oyster sauce” or “put in one more handful of green onions.”  Nothing is documented.  Until now.  I am ready to step up to the wok and produce these recipes for you.  For me.  For my family.  For anyone who can appreciate some damn good Chinese food.  Also, to show you that if you’re in the mood for Chinese, you don’t need to order take-out or venture down to Panda Express anymore.  These soon-to-be-documented recipes are simple, healthy and very do-able.  I know because I have mastered them.  To the degree that my husband and two kids have thought they were eating my mom’s cooking, when indeed, it was my own.  But, up to this point, I have only replicated her dishes by carefully following my mom’s verbal instructions, and with her assistance either by my side or via numerous phone calls to her while I’m in the kitchen.  But now I’m ready to measure, record, test, taste, re-test (and repeat, as necessary) each and every recipe, with mom’s help, of course.  All that, my hungry friends, will take place in the Dragon Lady Kitchen.

Dragon Ladies (me and mom), taking a break from the kitchen.