A Chinese meal: sweet and sour, delicate and spicy
Planning a Chinese meal can be very simple, but when done properly it is an art in itself. Dr. Joseph Ruggieri, who lives in Boston's Back Bay, insists that his cooking is very modest. But his knowledge of Chinese food is so extensive that when he invites friends to dinner, the meal is close to perfection.
He suggests choosing dishes that can be made somewhat ahead, the evening before if necessary, so the host can spend time with guests rather than in the kitchen. But his knowledge of this cuisine comes from several years of interest in it.
Dr. Ruggieri started eating at Chinese restaurants for economy as a college student, and he liked the food so much he decided to continue the custom permanently. Today it's not unusual for him to dine on Chinese food two or three times a week. When in New York, Washington, and other major cities, he continues to explore and search out the best Chinese restaurants in those areas.
Dr. Ruggieri's knowledge of restaurants in Boston's Chinatown and those in the outskirts extends to being able to tell by the cooking if the chef has been replaced, and often he can deduce where the new chef has worked.
Despite his lack of interest in cooking, his library of several hundred Chinese cookbooks and a course he took at Harvard on Chinese history, culture, and language suggest a scholarly approach.
We first met at one of Joyce Chen's classes of Chinese cooking. Later, in 1979, when we were both on a food trip to mainland China, his translations of menus were a great help, and he was always a willing partner for seeking out non-touristy places to eat.
For several years, on the Chinese new year, Dr. Ruggieri organized a special banquet with the banquet chef of a favorite restaurant and invited friends to celebrate the holiday.
A banquet is more formal and more complicated than an everyday dinner, he explains. Planning the menu involves not just choosing individual dishes, but relating them to one another and then working out the harmonies and contrasts.
''Whatever the ingredients, whether inexpensive or not, each dish should stimulate the eye, the imagination, and the palate,'' he says.
''Each should be colorful, and if it has no color of its own, it can be garnished with green scallion tops, pink slivers of ham, or yellow egg threads.
''There should be contrasting and complementing flavors such as sweet vs. salty and delicate vs. spicy. Textures, colors, and cooking methods are also considered.
''Cooking methods are most important when you're having guests, because so many dishes can be prepared ahead of time,'' he adds.
The following menu for one of the few occasions when Dr. Ruggieri entertains at home starts with a cold platter. It continues with the basic formula for a simple Chinese meal, which means the cold platter is followed by fish, meat, or poultry, a steamed or stir-fried vegetable, a staple such as rice, possibly a soup, and fresh fruit.
A cold platter is a classic first course for Chinese dinners. Because it is easy to assemble, it is a pleasant change from the usual spring rolls, chicken wings, and barbecued pork.
This cold platter includes Thousand-Year-Old Eggs (also called preserved eggs , which are actually cured for only two to four months, not a thousand years), Smoked Fish Fillets, and Shredded Jellyfish.
There is nothing quite like Thousand-Year-Old Eggs in the Western culinary world, but they are considered a delicacy in China, and when served cut in wedges, they look quite unusual. The white is a transluscent amber color and the yolk is dark. They can be purchased in Oriental groceries.
Smoked Fish Fillets is not actually smoked fish, but it has a smoky flavor and imitates the dark look of truly smoked fish through its color. It is a traditional Chinese dish and is often served as part of a cold platter at a banquet, as a cold appetizer, or as part of a dinner.
Shredded Jellyfish is interesting for its crunchy texture, but the flavor is very bland. Crunchy Shredded Jellyfish 1 package shredded, salted jellyfish 1 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar Coriander for garnish
Wash jellyfish and soak in large bowl of water overnight, or at least 6 hours. Bring fresh water to a boil and add jellyfish all at once to blanch it. Shreds will shrivel.
Remove immediately. Combine seasonings and toss to coat. Arrange on cold platter or serve on separate plate with coriander garnish. Serve cold or at room temperature. Thousand-Year-Old Eggs Allow 1/2 an egg per person Thousand-Year-Old eggs can be purchased in an Oriental grocery.
With flat side of cleaver gently crack, and remove mud coating. Peel shell. Rinse whole egg and remove membranes.
Cut into quarters. Arrange on cold platter and dribble with sesame seed oil. Smoked Fish Fillets 1 1/2 pounds halibut fillets or other white fish 3 scallions, white and green 5 slices ginger root 5 tablespoons dark soy sauce 4 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon of 5-spice powder 1 1/2 cups boiling water 4 cups peanut oil
Cut fish into 1/2-inch slices. Crush scallions and ginger slices. Add to fish. Add soy sauce and mix thoroughly. Marinate 2 or 3 hours or overnight.
Combine sugar and 5-spice powder, then add boiling water and mix thoroughly. Set aside.
Heat oil to very hot and add fish in small batches; fry until dark brown-black. Remove and soak in sugar mixture at least 5 minutes. Drain, cool, and arrange on cold platter. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Note: Five-Spice powder is available in Chinese markets and the foreign foods departments of large supermarkets. Lion's Head 4 cups ground pork 1/3 cup soy sauce 1/2 cup water 1 teaspoon brown sugar 1 teaspoon salt 4 tablespoons cornstarch 2 tablespoons cooking oil 2 pounds Chinese cabbage or Chinese celery cabbage Sauce 3/4 cup chicken broth or water 1 teaspoon sugar 1 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
Combine meat, soy, water, sugar, salt and 1 tablespoon cornstarch in large bowl and let sit 15 minutes. Shape into 6 to 8 large meatballs about the size of a large peach.
Mix remaining cornstarch with 2 tablespoons cold water into a thin paste. Wash cabbage and cut leaves and stems into 2-inch sections.
Coat meatballs with cornstarch paste, using hands for even coating although surface will be rough and sticky.
Heat oil over medium heat and brown meatballs in it, turning carefully, removing to a plate.
Leave oil in skillet and add cabbage. Over medium-high heat, stir-fry for a minute.
Transfer to a 3- to 4-quart casserole. Combine sauce and cabbage and mix well. Add meat. Simmer covered, until soft, about 20 to 30 minutes. Serve hot. This dish can be cooked in advance, then reheated. Menu Cold Platter of Smoked Fish, Thousand-Year-Old Eggs, Pickled Cabbage, Shredded Jellyfish Beef With Red Sweet Peppers served in lettuce leaves with hoisin sauce Tangerine Flavored Chicken served at room temperature Lion's Head, a casserole of pork meatballs and cabbage Sichuan Spicy Shrimp Four Color Vegetables, black mushrooms, asparagus, baby corn, and daikon radish White rice Lichees and Fresh Strawberries