Asked to Prepare a Thanksgiving Side, I Decided to Cook Outside the Oven Box
By Al Giordano
Over many years I’ve politely declined Thanksgiving invitations. Living in a land that doesn’t celebrate the holiday, Mexico, the invitations have come typically from a kind of expat that embeds among other English-speaking expats in a cohort of cultural Apartheid that I’ve scrupulously avoided down here for 22 years. After all, there are nonstop NFL football games on these Thursdays, noon, afternoon and evening. If I’m going to spend the day with gringos, why not with the ones who are paid handsomely to entertain and wow us with their skills? And I confess – don’t shoot me! – I’m not a huge fan of the traditional poultry-sugar-and-starch Thanksgiving menu; not as a diner, nor as a cook.
But an invitation recently arrived via a text message sent to a group of people and I noticed something different this time: It’s not going to be held at the home of a US expat, and most of those responding enthusiastically to the invite are Mexicans.
I replied to its main organizer, a talented US-born musician who had somehow charmed a European into hosting the dinner, and offered to procure a live guajolote turkey (Meleagris Ocellata, a less domesticated cousin of the Meleagris Gallopavo genus and species that typically gets roasted on these occasions).
“I know how to cook a Costco turkey, so I’m sticking with that,” he told me. “But if you like, bring a side dish!”
I wracked my little pea brain wondering what I might prepare, rapidly going through the traditional November holiday side-dish checklist – candied yams, mac & cheese, pumpkin or sweet potato or pecan pies, some dreadful green bean casserole, roast ham, most of it baked uniformly at 350 degrees…. and, no, you will not get me to bring a potato salad to any affair, it’ll never be better than somebody’s auntie made it in their childhood and I’m not one to ever step on auntie’s turf – I rejected each idea at the moment it entered my head.
Suddenly another November Thursday of marathon NFL football games was looking more attractive. Truth is, I normally replicate Chinese restaurant dishes on this date, in memory of many great Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons I enjoyed in New York and Boston (in those years it was annually with the late, great Barry Crimmins, we had this ritual) Chinatowns when I lived up north and likewise avoided holiday invitations. (Not everybody has warm and fuzzy feelings around these dates; if you do opt to go with the fam tomorrow, be kind to your “black sheep” – unless of course they are Trumpers, then remind them that when they pray to “Jesús” how it’s pronounced for the one they really need to thank for picking the food, “Hey-Zeus!”)
Traditions Are Meant to Be Broken (Part I)
Still, learning that my Mexican neighbors have this anthropologist-level curiosity about attending a gringo Thanksgiving meal, a sense of responsibility gnawed at me to not let them get only that version of the damn day. A little Addams Family values and pageantry are always important ingredients! So I looked at the materia prima available in the pantry, fridge and freezer: Quality frozen seafood, leftover smoked ham, terrific fresh vegetables, some hard-to-get-down-here fresh shiitake mushrooms, all kinds of Italian and Asian pastas and noodles and… I spied in the refrigerator door a small jar of Lee Kum Kee XO Sauce that a friend smuggled here on a recent visit.
“XO Sauce” is a fairly recent (1980s) Hong Kong invention made from sun-dried shrimp, scallop, garlic, shallot and oil, and is named after an expensive cognac that doesn’t appear in the actual sauce but bestows on the condiment an uptown reputation. A tiny 2.8 ounce jar costs about ten US dollars but a mere teaspoonful will brighten up dishes – especially seafood plates – with spicy umami taste.
Maybe it would be fun, I thought, to pair XO with its original mother ingredients: shrimp, scallop and – this one doesn’t appear in the store-bought version but traditionally XO also includes or has added to it salt-and-air dried “Jinhua style” pork leg (a process similar to the Italian curing of the same cut for prosciutto). Lets see how it brightens up its own kind! Before rustling up a big serving tin of this stuff and covering it with foil to bring as my side dish, I’d need to make a test batch.
Here is the result. I’ll tweak it with some additional twists on Thursday to bring to dinner.
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I used two small bundles of Cantonese Egg Noodles obtained in a local Asian market – but many kinds of long pasta work for preparing lo mein, including, gasp, spaghetti (you’d be surprised how many Chinese restaurants in the US and elsewhere use exactly that).
The test batch would serve four people as a main course. For Thursday I’ll multiply those two bundles by four and use eight (they come 12 to a pack).
For the test batch I used four large scallops, eight large shrimp peeled (tail-on), cleaned and butterflied, and chopped smoked ham. I also used an egg. For Thursday’s larger plate, again will multiply by four. I may throw in some surimi (imitation crabmeat, made from pollock fish) which people seem to like and adds brightness and color to a dish.
“Lo Mein,” I’ve heard said, translates as “Noodles in Sauce.” The noodles quite literally soak up the flavor of the sauce. For the test batch I used one-and-a-half cups of chicken stock, three tablespoons of oyster sauce, one tablespoon each of light soy sauce and dark soy sauce (if you only have one kind of soy sauce, don’t worry, just use two of that), and one heaping tablespoon of potato starch (corn starch also works just fine), mixed in well to create a slurry effect.
The holy trinity of garlic, ginger and green onion (scallion) are basic to this dish: three or four cloves of garlic, chopped, a thumb sized fresh ginger piece, peeled and minced, and eight scallions (chopping the white parts in small disc-cylinders and the green parts in one-and-a-half-inch shoots). Because this is Mexico and my water comes from a well but stored in an underground cistern, I also disinfected the scallions, one of those layered vegetables in which bacterias love to hide out, since we’ll be sprinkling some raw over the final plating).
After the holy trinity you can pretty much use whatever you have hanging around, emphasizing a variety of colors. I used carrot, mung bean sprouts, shallot, red onion, shiitake mushrooms and asparagus tips. On Thursday I’ll add julienned red and yellow bell pepper which bring more bright and happy colors to the dish and some ingredients that I’ll pick up in the big city on Wednesday: snow pea shoots, bok choi, Chinese cabbage and perhaps some other fun additions if I find them.
Canola (or another high temperature cooking oil such as peanut or safflower) and sesame oil (to keep the noodles from sticking and add flavor).
Sesame seeds and scallion slices.
Other Ingredients to Aid in the Cooking:
Rice wine (such as sake or xiao xing) or if that’s not at hand any dry white wine will do. A splash helps cook the mushrooms and also helps deglaze the pan prior to making the egg strips. White Pepper. Salt (only a pinch or so to help open the pores of vegetables while they sautée but take care not to add more because the dish already has salty seafood plus soy, oyster and XO sauces). And, duh, XO Sauce.
Traditions Are Meant to Be Broken (Part II)
I’m a great believer that there is no one “correct” way to make any dish. The most important thing is that it be fun. If the chef is having fun the diners likely will too.
That said, even having fun we all can and do screw up dishes sometimes, especially unrehearsed ones (thus the need for the test batch before serving for a gathering). Technique is almost everything in cooking and timing is most of the rest. Experience brings knowledge that some vegetables, for example, cook faster in a wok or frying pan than others. In a lot of Asian cuisine and one-pot meals the order the ingredients are added really matters.
If you’re still getting that part down, here’s a convenient vegetable stir-fry table (scroll down in the link to see it and consult the times in the second column). I go a little farther than the chart in that my experience tells me that carrots also deserve a little more time on the heat, too.
The foolproof way to not screw it up, at least in my kitchen, is to cook in portions then remove the ingredients from the heat (make sure to slightly undercook each as they will still continue to cook slowly from the leftover heat (unless one is “blanching” – par boiling then tossing into ice water to stop the cooking process – something that should usually be done if spinach or another thin leafy green is part of the recipe).
But enough kitchen philosophy! Let’s get cooking… First I like to prepare the kitchen (mine overlooks the living area) by washing any dishes in the sink, clearing and cleaning all surface work areas, picking the knives I’ll need and sharpening each…
The small serrated knife is great for getting the skin off onions, shallots and garlic, also for peeling and slicing ginger. The medium sized chef’s knife is for almost everything else. and the large meat cleaver is great for crushing garlic and for mincing it along with ginger and shallot after they’ve been initially sliced.
Preparing and cutting the vegetables comes next. With the mung bean sprouts, remove the flower and the root. What are left are what chef Jet Tila calls “silvers!” (I borrow some of my technique from his video recipe for Chicken Lo Mein, which is worth a look before you do your own version.) I also love this “krinkle cut” knife which I use for potatoes, zucchini and in this meal, the carrots. Kids of all ages agree that squiggly vegetables are more fun.
Once I have all the vegetables prepped I prepare the “egg paper,” heating just a little bit of cooking oil in a smooth round nonstick pan, sopping up any excess with a paper towel, lowering the heat and allowing a beat egg to harden as one unit, then flipping it briefly and removing the egg pancake to a cutting board to cool. Once cooled, roll it up and cut it into strips. Then cut the strips to size – an inch, maybe a bit longer, for a lo mein.
Next, prep the proteins!
For shellfish, which takes almost no time to cook, it’s important to pat each piece dry: any moisture when put in the hot pan will only prevent the sear from forming and making it pretty. Add some shakes of white or black pepper (or both) over the seafood, but no salt, they contain enough saltiness already.
Today we’re going to wok the shrimp and scallop together with the ham, which, too, is already salty. In the upper left corner of the second image you can see it has been cut asymmetrically (in different shapes and sizes, more triangular than square) which I think gives an ingredient a more of a rustic look on the plate. (With ingredients that have to cook uniformly it is best to make each cut roughly the same size, but since the smoked ham has already been cooked, it doesn’t matter in this case.) By frying the shellfish together with the pork, the fat from the meat helps coat and flavor the seafood – think of your favorite shrimp and pork shumai dumpling and how great the combo tastes – and also note that I do slice the scallop pieces uniformly – added to the pan 30 seconds after the shrimp they will cook only very briefly, for less than a minute, before removed from the heat.
Here is everything laid out for easy stovetop cooking as we fire up the wok or pan…
The noodles have been soaked in hot tap water, rinsed, and replaced with more hot tap enough times (four or five) so that the cloudy “dust” is rinsed out and the water is clear, in which the noodles sit for ten or fifteen minutes. Drain the water and splash on some sesame oil. Mix so the oil coats and flavors and, importantly, keeps the noodles from sticking together. (You can see to your left of the noodle bowl the package and presentation they came in.)
Ingredients, above, clockwise from the lower left outside: the green of the scallions in shoots, the scallion whites in disks, the sauce mix (see ingredients above), asparagus tips, shiitakes, mung sprout “silvers,” minced shallots, minced ginger, red onion, minced garlic, crinkle-cut carrots and in the middle, our proteins.
The garlic and ginger goes first into two or three tablespoons of cooking oil, fried until fragrant and soft, and then quickly removed together with the oil and put aside.
Now we fry up the vegetables, in order of length it takes to cook: Shiitakes with shallots first, a quick shake of salt to open the pores, adding a splash of rice wine after about a minute. Once the wine has cooked off add the carrots. About a minute later add the asparagus tips, and a light shake of salt, for about 30 or 40 seconds, until bright green. Then remove everything from the heat into a bowl. (Remember that they will continue to cook slowly there as they are still hot, so be careful not to overcook them.)
Then fry up the onions in a largely dry pan with minimal oil and a sprinkle of salt, add the whites of the scallions and the already cooked minced garlic and ginger.
Now we’ll add the noodles and then – first stirring the sauce so the starch is mixed evenly – slowly pour in the sauce!
When that sauce hits the heat and starts to simmer the starch will quickly begin to thicken. If it is thickening beyond the desired liquidity to be absorbed, with its flavor, into the noodles then slowly add a bit more stock and/or water from the sides of the pan so it heats as it hits. Simmer it all for a minute or two until the noodles have absorbed most – but not all – of the sauce and then re-add your vegetables and your proteins, mixing it all beautifully together.
Now, finally, here comes your master stroke: one heaping teaspoon of XO Sauce for this amount in the photo (about four servings), more if you are cooking more volume, of course. (You can also add some chili-garlic paste at this moment depending on your taste. A half teaspoon of Sriracha or Vietnamese Huy Fong paste, my personal favorite, never fails to liven it all up up. And if, like me, your guests and you actually like the flavor enhancing marvels of MSG, mix a tablespoon of that into your sauce before adding it!
Plate it, sprinkle with scallions and sesame seeds, and there you have it: Lo Mein in XO Sauce!
Check in here later in the week for photos of the large-scale version I’ll rustle up for the multitudes on Thursday.
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