My concerns about the Chinese New Year had nothing to do with the coronavirus. My fear was that nobody would invite me to celebrate the holiday.
I’ve grown accustomed to the annual feast that includes such flourishes as firecrackers and the dragon dance. It started when I befriended Nancy Lee, a New York City restaurateur, who pulled out all the stops for the New Year at her Upper East Side restaurant Pig Heaven.
The celebration lasted a week and featured Nancy, at least eight costume changes, as well as a supporting cast of employees, customers and a belly dancer. I’m not sure what a belly dancer has to do with the holiday. But she was certainly celebratory. And the food was excellent, too.
While Pig Heaven still exists Nancy no longer owns it. I can’t tell you whether they celebrate Chinese New Year or not. If so, I haven’t been invited and it’s hard to believe anybody could bring the passion, color and calisthenics to the occasion that Nancy did. She’s a former Taiwanese professional basketball player who still tours with her team.
So it was with relief and excitement when friends Carrie Chen and Stanley Cohen invited my wife Debbie and me to their Chinese New Year celebration at their home in Copake, New York.
I wasn’t expecting the flourishes Nancy Lee brought to her version of the holiday. But based on previous experiences with Carrie’s cooking I suspected I was in for one of the better culinary events of the season.
Carrie owned Casana Tea House in Hillsdale, NY where I attended a tea ceremony that featured not only excellent teas and a Zen-like atmosphere but also vegetarian spring rolls with mashed potato filling and succulent chicken dumplings, half steamed, half fried. All cooked by Carrie.
She now owns The Barrington, a luxury B&B in downtown Great Barrington, MA.
And hospitality runs in her family. Her aunt is Cecilia Chiang, the legendary 100-year-old founder of San Francisco’s Mandarin restaurant.
Carrie, who is consulting with her aunt about opening a restaurant and writing a cookbook using local produce with Chinese herbs – I think we can all agree that upstate doesn’t suffer from an excess of good ethnic restaurants -- spent two full days in the kitchen preparing for Chinese New Year.
And it showed. The meal included five appetizers and eight entrees served communal style. That was in addition to vegetable spring rolls and spicy turnip cake hors d’oeuvres. I’m disappointed to report that because I was yacking I missed the turnip cakes but I vowed not to make that mistake at dinner, even as I endeavored to do my small part to help keep up the conversation in a group that included some talented conversationalists.
I won’t go through all the dishes since that would only make you despondently hungry. Suffice it to say that the cold baby cucumber salad, marinated in rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and sugar and then garnished with red bell pepper set a lively tone for the meal. And the warm chicken and kale dumplings couldn’t have been more succulent when you dipped them in the accompanying Szechuan oil.
Come the main courses, I was informed that the smoked duck that sat atop the sticky rice stuffed with egg yolk, pork sausage and mushroom was merely meant for flavoring. But it seems a sacrilege to let a duck, smoked or otherwise, go to waste and I’m pleased to report that I made the right move by tearing off a piece to complement the rice.
However, I’ve been educated by my children that I should suffer at least some guilt for consuming meat. So I was able to scrub my conscience clean with the next entrée that made its way down the table – delicious sautéed Chinese baby bok choy with caramelized king oyster and shitake mushrooms.
That would have sufficed for dinner. But we were only getting started. Other dishes included sautéed sweet peas with shrimp, steamed branzino, and lion’s head. For those, like me, who are unfamiliar with the dish it’s a tasty deep fried pork, turkey, mushroom, water chestnut, garlic and ginger meatball finished with Chinese cabbage in a light broth. Did I mention that there was also braised short ribs and stir-fried rice noodle cakes?
I could swear I also spotted a chicken but by that point in the evening I was too stuffed to put in any effort to direct it towards my end of the table.
Dessert should be uplifting to help rally you for the journey home and it did. I was smitten by the simple beauty and delicacy of the black sesame rice ball and birds nest soup. The bird was a Swallow Swiftnet, which fashions its nest employing its own saliva. I don’t know whether Carrie’s version included saliva, said to boost the immune system, improve skin tone and serve as an aphrodisiac, and I wasn’t going to pry.
By that point in the evening Carrie had rolled out her copy of the I Ching and was divining guests fortunes. She may have just been playing the good host but she seemed particularly impressed by my prospects for the coming months.
I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. Except during Chinese New Year.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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