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Chinese Food Recipes for the Holidays

For many Americans who don't celebrate Christmas, "it's traditionally been a challenge finding a good meal on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day," says NPR's Neal Conan. "In many places, most restaurants are closed on Christmas. So for many Jewish-Americans, the only place to go out for a hot meal was a Chinese restaurant. But what started as a quest of desperation soon turned into an annual Christmas tradition -- and many Jewish-Americans recall fondly the annual pilgrimage to their local Chinese restaurant."

Joining Talk of the Nation host Conan to discuss this merging of ethnic cultures -- and its affect on American cuisine -- are two cooking experts. Joan Nathan is author of Jewish Cooking in America. And Chinese-American chef Ming Tsai is chef-proprietor of the Wellesley, Mass., restaurant Blue Ginger, and author of Blue Ginger Cookbook.

Ming -- winner of the James Beard Foundation's award for Best Chef in the Northeast in 2002, and star of shows on TV's Food Network including East Meets West -- shares recipes for two of his signature dishes: mushroom and leek spring rolls and red-cooked duck. The recipes are reprinted with permission from Blue Ginger Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 1999).

Mushroom and Leek Spring Rolls with Mint Dipping Sauce

Says Ming Tsai: "These rolls are a Blue Ginger favorite, developed after a stay in France, where I took my postgraduate degree in leeks. Such a great onion! The rolls are easy to fill and form. Just make sure to drain the filling thoroughly to ensure a dry, cohesive mixture and to seal the rolls well with the egg wash so they won’t break open during frying."

Makes 10 rolls

2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more for frying the rolls

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger

2 serrano chiles, stemmed and finely chopped

½ cup hoisin sauce

2 cups thinly sliced shiitake mushroom caps

2 large leeks, white parts only, well washed and julienned

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 cup chopped scallions, white and green parts

1 cup bean threads, soaked in warm water to cover until soft, 10-15 minutes, drained well and cut into 2-inch pieces

1 1-pound package lumpia/menlo wrappers or egg roll or spring roll wrappers

1 egg beaten with ¼ cup water, for egg wash

Heat a wok or skillet over high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the pan. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, ginger and chiles and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Do not allow the aromatics to burn. Reduce the heat to medium, add the hoisin sauce and cook until it loses its raw bean taste, about 3 minutes. Add the shiitakes and leeks and cook until soft, about 6 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper to taste, transfer the mixture to a strainer and with a large spoon press the mixture well to drain it thoroughly. Cool.

Transfer the filling to a medium bowl and add the cilantro, scallions and bean threads. Stir to blend.

Dampen a kitchen towel. Place 5 wrappers on a work surface with 1 point near you and cover the remainder with the cloth to prevent drying. Place about ¼ cup of the filling on the wrappers just above the near corners. Bring the corner nearest you up over the filling and roll halfway; brush the edges with egg wash, then fold in the side corners and continue rolling to enclose the filling completely. Roll as tightly as possible. Cover with the cloth and allow the rolls to rest, seam side down; this permits the egg to set. Fill and roll the remaining wrappers, cover and allow the rolls to rest at least 2 minutes.

Fill a fryer or medium pot one-third full with the oil and heat to 350 degrees over high heat. Add the spring rolls 4-6 at a time and fry them until golden, turning as needed, about 5 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Slice the rolls on the diagonal and serve hot with the dipping sauce.

Mint Dipping Sauce

Makes about ¼ cup

¼ cup fresh mint leaves cut into thin ribbons

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ cup soy sauce

Juice of 1 lemon

In a small bowl, combine the mint, sugar, soy sauce and lemon juice. Stir to dissolve the sugar and serve.

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Red-Roast Duck With Baby Bok Choy

Ming Tsai says, "This spectacularly fragrant duck dish celebrates Chinese red roasting and French confit making. A red roast, which is in fact a super braise, derives its special character from the use of dark soy sauce (the source of the duck’s ‘red’ color), Shaoxing wine and rock sugar. The duck, red roasted until its meat is velvet, ends up confit-like, but without the stewing in fat that preparation entails. I’ve added baby bok choy and some chile heat to the duck, which underline the dish’s Asian origins and ensure that people who eat it will be very, very happy!"

Serves 4

1 bottle dry red wine

2 cups Shaoxing wine, or 1 cup dry sherry

1 cut dark soy sauce

3 cups soy sauce

4 cups water

1 large duck, about 6 pounds

2 boxes (about 3 pounds) rock sugar, or 2 cups dark brown sugar

1 5-inch piece fresh ginger, cut into ¼-inch slices

1 whole head garlic, unpeeled and halved horizontally

2 bunches scallions, white parts sliced into 3-inch lengths, green parts sliced

1/8 inch thick

2 star anise

4 Thai bird chiles

2 cinnamon sticks

8 baby bok choy, halved and cored

1. In a large, deep pot, combine the wines, soy sauces, and water. Bring to a boil over high heat and add the duck. If the liquid doesn’t cover the duck, add more water. Bring to a boil again, then reduce the heat and simmer, skimming the liquid until no more scum forms, about 30 minutes.

2. Add the rock sugar, ginger, garlic, long scallion pieces, star anise, chiles, and cinnamon sticks. Stir to dissolve the sugar and taste the liquid for sweetness. It should be pleasantly sweet; if not sweet enough, add more sugar. Place a second pot or stainless steel bowl half-filled with water into the first to keep the duck submerged and simmer until the duck is very tender and almost falling from the bone 2 ½ to 3 hours. Do not overcook or the meat will come apart. During the last 10 minutes of cooking, add the bok choy.

3. Using a large-mesh spoon, carefully remove the duck and bok choy to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm Strain and skim the stock, return it to the pot, and reduce it over high heat until lightly syrupy, about 20 minutes

4. Transfer the duck to a serving platter and surround it with the bok choy. Glaze the duck with the sauce, garnish it with the scallion greens, and serve.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Neal Conan
Award winning journalist Neal Conan was the final host of Talk of the Nation, which broadcast its final show on June 27, 2013.