Her take on this Christmas: Chinese

I don't know how busy you were in the kitchen this past year, but for me, 2012 seems like a year in which I never stopped cooking.

Forgive me, then, if I've decided to go on strike for Christmas dinner. Instead of cooking a ham and roasting a turkey with all the trimmings, as called for by McKay family tradition, I'm ordering in Chinese.

It might seem weird -- a complete cop-out, even -- for a food writer not to cook for her family on this biggest of family holidays. But just between us girls (and boys), I'm kind of tired of the whole cooking thing. Chinese food, which everyone loves, seems a reasonable solution.

Seeds were planted when the terrific "The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home" (Ballantine, Oct. 2012, $30) landed on my desk earlier this month. Packed with 80 of the most popular takeout recipes -- everything from starters such as shrimp toasts to classics such as Orange Chicken and Moo Shu Pork -- it made me soooo hungry. (You can't crack it open and not start drooling!) Then I thought: Most of my non-Christian friends are perfectly happy to go out for noodle and rice dishes on Christmas Day -- Chinese restaurants are usually the only non-fast food places open -- so why not follow in their footsteps?

It's not that I don't like to cook, because I do. But it'd be nice to be served, too.

In addition to the daily grind of getting something tasty onto the table each night for my husband and kids, I've had the delicious (but sometimes exhausting) pleasure of testing and photographing more than 100 recipes for the PG's Food & Flavor and Magazine sections. I also did several cooking demonstrations at March's Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show, and in September, spent six hours blending milkshakes at the Steel City Big Pour.

Outside the office, I cooked pasta for my daughter's cross-country team, made appetizers for neighborhood cookouts, grilled at tailgates and, like so many of you readers, prepared big, multi-dish family meals for all the major holidays: Easter, Father's Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Son No. 3 graduated from high school this year, too, and to celebrate, we threw a large graduation shindig in our backyard that had me baking, mixing and cooking on what turned out to be the hottest, sweatiest days of the year.

An even bigger milestone was my dad's 90th birthday in September, for which my six siblings and their families, plus many friends and neighbors, made their way to my house for a fancy buffet dinner.

Most recently, I threw a holiday cocktail party for some fellow writers and a handful of neighbors and I've also been furiously baking cookies for the kids, all five of whom will be home for Christmas.

Like I said, I'm ready for a little time off in the kitchen.

Maybe you could use a break, too. Or perhaps you just want to change things up a little this year, and offer your holiday guests something that surprises. I say go Chinese, and offer some favorite takeout recipes -- tested, of course -- that everyone's sure to love.

Garlic-Chile Eggplant Sticks

PG tested

If you can't find Asian eggplant (the long skinny ones) globe-shaped eggplant is a perfectly fine substitute.

  • 1 pound Asian eggplant or regular eggplant

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic

  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

  • 1/2 teaspoon dried hot chile flakes

  • 3/4 cup water, or as needed

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce

  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar or black vinegar

  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Trim and discard the stem ends of the eggplant. Cut eggplant into 2- to 3-inch lengths, then vertically into about 3/4-inch-thick wedges or sticks

Set a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over high heat. When pan is hot, after about 1 minute, add oil and rotate pan to spread. Add garlic, ginger, chile flakes and eggplant. Stir-fry until eggplant is lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Add water, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and salt. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until eggplant is tender, 6 to 8 minutes. (If all water evaporates before eggplant is done, add 2 to 3 more tablespoons.)

Transfer eggplant to a serving dish, and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 4.

-- "The Hakka Cookbook" by Linda Lau Anusasananan (University of California Press, Oct. 2012, $39.95)

Chinese eggrolls

PG tested

How can you have Chinese for dinner and not start with eggrolls? I used ground pork, but you could just as easily use ground chicken or double up on the veggies.

  • 1 tablespoon peanut or

  • vegetable oil, plus more for frying

  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic

  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

  • 3/4 pound ground pork

  • 1/2 pound shrimp, diced (optional)

  • 1 cup thinly sliced Napa cabbage

  • 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce, plus more for dipping

  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • Package egg roll wrappers

Heat wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add peanut oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add garlic and ginger, and stir fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add pork and shrimp and stir fry until no longer pink, about 2 minutes.

Add cabbage, mushrooms, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar, and stir fry until veggies are wilted, about 1 to 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from pan, and cool.

Fill and roll the egg roll wrappers: Working with 1 wrapper at a time, place wrapper with one corner of the diamond closest to you. Place 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of the wrapper. Roll the corner closest to you over the filling. Brush the top corner with water. Fold in the sides of the wonton and continue rolling the egg roll up until it is closed. Press to seal, set aside, and continue with the remaining ingredients.

In a skillet set over moderately high heat, heat enough oil to come about 1/2-inch up the side of the pan, and saute the egg rolls until golden brown on all sides, using tongs to turn them. Drain on paper towels. Serve when cool enough to eat, if your kids can wait that long, with extra soy sauce, duck sauce or hot Chinese mustard for dipping.

-- Gretchen McKay

Cold Sesame Noodles

PG tested

  • 12 ounces dried Chinese egg noodles or spaghetti

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, divided

  • 2 teaspoons white sesame seeds

  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic

  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

For sauce

  • 3 tablespoons tahini or other sesame paste

  • 2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil

  • 2 tablespoons white rice vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons chili sauce

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper (optional)

  • 3 tablespoons water

  • 1 cucumber, halved, seeded and julienned

  • 2 carrots, julienned

  • 2 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced

Bring large pot of water to boil and cook noodles until al dente (firm), or minimum amount of time according to package directions. Drain immediately, rinse with cold water and drain again. Put noodles back into original pot or a large bowl, toss with 1 tablespoon peanut oil and set aside.

In a small dry pan, toast sesame seeds for about 1 minute, or until lightly brown and aromatic. Transfer to a dish and set aside.

Heat remaining 1/2 tablespoon peanut oil in a small pan over medium-low heat. Gently cook garlic and ginger until just fragrant, 30 to 40 seconds. Remove from heat and set aside.

Prepare sauce: In a medium bowl, combine tahini, peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, chili sauce, sugar and Sichuan pepper (if using). Add water and whisk until mixture is smooth. Stir in cooked garlic and ginger.

Pour sauce over noodles, add cucumbers and carrots, and toss. Transfer to a large bowl or deep serving dish and sprinkle the top with sesame seeds and scallions. Serve at room temperature or chill in fridge for 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Serves 6 as an appetizer.

-- "The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home" by Diana Kuan (Ballantine, Oct. 2012, $30)

Pineapple Chicken

PG tested

How good is this chicken? Good enough that my father called me up to say "Thanks!" when I gave him the leftovers. It's sweet and tangy as expected, but also extremely light. If you don't like peppers, substitute another quick-cooking veggie such as broccoli or snow peas.

For marinade

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce

  • 2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry

  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

  • 3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

  • 1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil

  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped

  • 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

  • 2 teaspoons cider vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • 1 cup chopped fresh pineapple, tossed in 2 teaspoons sugar, or 1 cup canned pineapple chunks, drained

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Marinate the chicken: In medium bowl, combine soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. Add chicken and stir gently to coat. Let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes.

Heat wok or large skillet over medium heat until a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact. Add peanut oil and swirl to coat the bottom. Cook onions and peppers for about 1 minute, until onions are translucent and aromatic. Add chicken slices and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, until no longer pink on the outside but not yet cooked through. Stir in cider vinegar and soy sauce. Add pineapple and cook for about another 2 minutes (1 minute for canned pineapple). Add salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to plate and serve.

Serves 2 to 3 as a main course.

-- "The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home" by Diana Kuan (Ballantine, Oct. 2012, $30)

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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