Fun Fruits for Chinese New Year

Fruits can be tasty as well as expressive. In China, it's not uncommon, especially around New Year, to find these fruits with natural writing on them.

The only name I know of is "fat choy guo" is Cantonese, meaning lucky or fortune fruits. Growers simply tape a stenciled sticker over the fruit before they're matured to block out light and thus create a natural design. Creative, no?

These fruits are usually displayed at botantical gardens and parks, or sold in produce markets as gifts. This year my parents bought apples to display next to their requisite plate of (design-less) clementines. Last year I blogged about and posted photos of these nectarines I bought in Beijing:

Speaking of clementines, in addition to all the little ones that spring up everywhere in winter, I found this enormous "prosperity clementine" at a supermarket today. As big as a pomelo, it towers over the normal-sized clementines. Since I bought it mainly for display, I haven't tasted to see if it's just as sweet.

 

Roasted Kabocha Squash with Bok Choy Lentil Soup

Pumpkins and squashes are so inexpensive in China, even more than in the US, that I cook with them whenever possible. (At 3 to 5 kuai per medium pumpkin, what's not to love?) Calabaza and butternut are the varieties that appear most in my meals and snacks. But if I'm craving something with even more natural sweetness, I'll pick up some kabocha instead.

Kabocha squash, also called Japanese pumpkin (日本南瓜 riben nangua), has a knobbly green outer skin and yellowish flesh. It's sweeter than even butternut squashes; simple simmering will give you a light toothsome taste, while roasting for an hour makes the sugary juices seemingly burst from their pores. 

Today for lunch, I paired roasted kabocha with a very easy lentil soup with sautéed bok choy. I left the skin on (be sure to wash the outside thoroughly), and roasted the squash in thin slices. At first I just served up the slices on the side, but on my second helping I cut the slices even smaller and threw them in the bowl. Either way, the sugary squash was a nice compliment to the savory, paprika-tinged lentil soup.

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Other heart-warming soups recipes:

Red Lentil and Okra Soup

Winter Melon Soup with Shiitakes and Speck Ham

Tea-Scented Pumpkin Soup

Hot and Sour Soup

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Roasted Kabocha Squash with Bok Choy Lentil Soup

Serves 4

1/2 small or medium kabocha squash
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil for tossing sqush, plus 2 tablespoons for sautéing
1/2 pound dried lentils
1 small red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 to 8 cremini mushrooms, chopped
1 pound bok choy, washed and hard ends sliced off
1 teaspoon paprika

Wash the rind of the kabocha squash. Scoop out the seeds and, wish a sturdy knife, cut the squash into 1/4-inch slices.  Toss the squash in olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Lay the squash slices on a large rimmed baking shee. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, turning the squash over halfway through, until tender and urn the squash over on the baking sheet and roast for about 1 hour, or until tender and golden brown at the edges.

At 25 minutes before the squash is done, bring 2 quarts of water to boil. Add dried lentils, and cook until soft, about 20 minutes. While lentils are cooking, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet. Add onions, mushrooms, and garlic; sauté for 5 to 6 minutes, until onions are translucent and beginning to caramelize. Add bok choy and cook until just wilted, about 2 minutes. Transfer vegetables to lentil pot. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide soup into individual bowls. Serve with kabocha squash slices on the side, or slice squash into bite-sized pieces and add to soup.

 

Brown Butter Pasta with Tatsoi

One of my favorite spur-of-the-moment dishes to make is pasta with spinach. However, in China, it's often hard to find really fresh, crisp spinach in markets. Spinach seems even less appealing when, at the same market, I can find fresher and ridiculously cheaper Asian greens.

I picked up 3 bunches of tatsoi today for the equivalent of 8 US cents (Finally, something affordable in Shanghai.) Tatsoi is easily distinguishable by the thick, dark green, spoon-shaped leaves. With a lightly bitter taste, like Swiss chard, tatsoi is a good green to eat raw in a salad, or tossed in Chinese soups at the last minute.

The mild mustardy taste also makes tatsoi a nice addition to a dish like brown butter pasta, in which the butter is cooked to the point of nuttiness. (I've been making brown butter pasta with some vegetable variation for lunch almost every day last week, and it's hard to tire of.) Today I finished off the tatsoi pasta with fresh sage, parmesan, and squirt of lemon juice for oomph. The fewer ingredients without compromising good taste, the happier my wallet.

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Browned Butter Pasta with Tatsoi

Serves 2

Your pasta of choice, preferably curved or with ridges 1/2 stick unsalted butter Salt and pepper Leaves of 2 to 3 bunches of tatsoi, rinsed 1/2 cup chopped sage Freshly grated parmesan Lemon wedges, optional

Cook pasta to al dente in salted water.

When pasta almost done done, melt butter in a skillet. Swirl the butter in the pan as it foams. (At this point, remove pasta from the heat and drain well in a colander.) When butter begins to brown, toss in pasta and mix to coat with butter. Salt and pepper to taste. Add tatsoi and sage and cook until slightly wilted, about 1 to 2 minutes. Plate and serve immediately with grated parmesan and lemon wedges on the side.

Yangmei, and Making Berry Iced Teas

'Tis the season for blueberries and raspberries in the US, and 'tis the season for yangmei in China. These little purplish red berries with a knobbly surface are all over the indoor and outdoor markets here in southern China, and I'm sure I'll find them in Beijing when I get back. They are also known as yamamomo in Japanese and red bayberry or waxberry in English. A new juice company has rechristened them as "yumberries", since cute names tend to sell previously unknown or odd-sounding foods (calamari, anyone?)

The poor berry has so many personalities that I'll henceforth refer to it as yangmei, as the Chinese has known it for ages. The taste is more tart than raspberries and blackberries, more like pomegranate juice. There's a pit inside the size of a cherry's. They are loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants and make a perfect snack for anyone under the weather, like I am right now.

After reading about the new Yumberry juice that aims to be the new Pom, I decided that the tart and slightly sweet yangmei would be ideal in an iced tea. Besides, little shops around southern China that sell medicinal teas offer yangmei juice as a "cooling" thirst-quencher.

If you can't get your hands on yangmei, you can also adapt the recipe for raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries; just use less sugar. Blueberries would need less cooking time, 10 minutes instead of 15. For yangmei, start with 1 cup sugar to 4 cups fruit while cooking the fruit, and add more later to suit your palate.

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Yangmei Orange Iced Tea (see above on using other berries)

Makes 4 to 5 servings

4 cups fresh yang mei berries (also called bayberries, waxberries, yumberries), rinsed and drained 4 cups water 1 cup sugar, more as needed 3 to 4 bags green tea 1 cup orange juice Ice cubes

Bring water to boil in a large saucepan. Add berries and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Once they start to cook and soften, crush them against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon or heatproof rubber spatula. Towards the end of the 15 minutes, add sugar and stir slowly to dissolve. Remove pan from heat and let stand to cool, about 15 to 30 minutes.

Strain the juice through a fine sieve into a small sauce pot, pressing on the solids. Discard the solids. Bring juice to a simmer. Remove from heat, add tea bags, and let steep for 5 to 7 minutes. Discard the teabags and let cool to room temperature.

In a pitcher, mix together berry tea with orange juice. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Chill in fridge for up to 2 days. Serve tea over ice.