Countdown to Chinese New Year's Eve

Okay, I know that December 31 is not the beginning of Chinese New Year, but somehow, it became a Dowd family tradition to have a homemade Chinese feast on New Year's Eve. Traditionally, New Year's Eve is a silly non-holiday- it alternates between maudlin and downright dangerous. Since my husband and I have only been to one New Year's Eve party in 32 years of marriage, Chinese New Year became a way to entice our teens, 'tweens and adult children to hang around on New Year's Eve (it sometimes works!)

So what do we have every New Year's Eve? There are staples like Hot and Sour Soup and homemade egg rolls (a lot of trouble but so worth it) both recipes we have gotten from Cook's Illustrated. A recipe called Twice Fried Beans which are really only fried once, but are delicious and spicy; steamed dumplings, and some delectable sesame chicken wings that are really incredible whenever you make them. We also usually make staples such as "Peanut Butter and Worms" from the Jeff Smith cookbook The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines (this is a great resource for good Chinese food recipes) and beef and scallions and/or chicken and cashews (depending on how many guests we are having). Making Chinese food at home is very labor intensive, but so totally worth it and you can make extra and freeze (egg rolls and dumplings) for a night when you crave Chinese food but don't have the time to make or the money to buy!

We make it into a real event- we spread a tablecloth over our coffee table, pull the cushions and pillows from all over the house, and eat at our low table with chopsticks and everything! I have always wanted to make my own fortune cookies with personalized fortunes inside, but somehow have never gotten around to it- but I think it would be a real hoot! We top the evening with fireworks in the backyard to ring in the new year, and of course watch the ball drop with Dick Clark.

Since everyone in our family loves Chinese food, I always have plenty of help. Bridget is the Hot and Sour Soup maven- her soup is better than any local take-out. She always makes a large batch because leftovers are great when the kids come home from school. Molly helps fill and fold the dumplings (kids love any job that lets them put their hands in food- just be careful with raw meat!) Chinese New Year means a messy kitchen and lots of chopping, but it is worth it. Don't feel like trying more than one dish at a time? Choose a dish to try and then fill out the rest of your Chinese meal with your favorite take-out. It is the experience that counts as much as the food. Show your kids where China is on the map. Have a Chinese trivia game to encourage children to learn about China's history and culture and even give prizes to make it more fun and festive. Play Mah-Jong. It all contributes to the experience and the fun!

I have made these recipes so many times that I don't measure everything, and besides, I want you to play with ingredients. There are lots of great cookbooks with recipes for Chinese foods, so don't be afraid to try (I personally never do Chinese on a weeknight because of all the steps involved). Most decent-sized cities will have an Asian market where you can find many of the ingredients and many dishes can be made with ingredients that you can find in the international aisle of your supermarket. Make a New Year's resolution to be more adventurous and try cuisines of the world- and start with your own family's version of Chinese New Year!

Twice Fried Beans
(Serves 6 as part of a Chinese meal)

1 1/2 lbs of fresh green beans with ends removed
1 lb reduced fat or lean bulk sausage
1/2 cup brown bean paste
1 tbsp sugar
juice of 1 lime
1 tsp chili and garlic paste (add this a quarter tsp at a time till you get to the spiciness you want)

3 cups vegetable or peanut oil for frying

Heat oil until a cube of bread browns easily, but doesn't burn. In several batches, fry beans until skins blister, but don't let them brown. Remove from hot oil and drain on paper towels. Meanwhile brown the sausage in a pan, breaking up the meat, until all pink is gone. Add brown bean paste, sugar , lime juice and chili paste to taste (my family likes hot, but you may not want yours quite so hot. Once sauce is the way you like it, stir in the beans and keep hot until serving.

Sesame Wings
(serves 6 as part of a Chinese meal (or two servings for my husband!))

3 pounds of chicken wing drumettes (wings with tips removed and cut apart at the joint)
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sherry
2 tbsp sesame oil
1/2-1 cup of cornstarch
1/3 cup sesame seeds

3 cups vegetable or peanut oil for frying

Defrost chicken drumettes and combine soy sauce, sherry and sesame oil. Marinate wings overnight. when ready to serve, pour wings and 1 cup marinade into large bowl. Add cornstarch 1/4 cup at a time, mixing until a light batter clings to the wings. Mix in sesame seeds. Fry wings 4-5 at a time in hot oil until golden brown and remove to paper towels to drain. A little work but well worth it (you can use the same oil that you used for the green beans)

Steamed Dumplings

Makes enough dumplings to serve an army (or the Dowds). You can freeze premade dumplings before cooking or freeze the filling to fill dumplings later.

1 package wonton wrappers
1 lb reduced fat sausage or ground pork
1 quarter sized piece of ginger chopped very fine
4-5 scallions chopped
1 tbsp of soy sauce
1 tbsp of sherry
1 small egg beaten

Mix all ingredients except wonton wrappers together n a quart sized ziploc bag and smoosh (a technical culinary term) together to combine ingredients. Put a scant teaspoon of filling on middle of each wrapper, dampen edges with water, fold over and seal (you will be left with a triangle, then moisten the two long ends of triangle and seal together (result looks kind of like a hat). If you want to freeze for later, put on a cookie sheet and freeze then transfer to Ziploc bag. To cook, I use a bamboo steamer from an Asian grocery which holds two layers, but you can use any steamer, just keep dumplings in a single layer and steam 15-20 minutes (I am always cautious with pork). Another way to cook is to put a little oil in a large frying pan, brown dumplings lightly, then add 1/2 to 1 cup water and cover and lower heat until all water is gone. Serve with a dip of soy sauce, Thai chili sauce or a mixture of soy sauce and a little chili-garlic sauce to add heat. These are habit forming!