Norma Chang served up a trio of quick-fix Chinese dishes at the Kingston Library on Saturday, December 18. Chang, the “Travelling Gourmet,” grew up in Jamaica and mainland China and settled in New York City. Along the way, she became a food service worker, caterer, food columnist and author of cookbooks “Wokking Your Way to Low-Fat Cooking” and “My Students’ Favorite Chinese Recipes.” She now lives in the Hudson Valley and teaches cooking classes across the tri-state area, touting healthy eating, swift preparation and minimal cleanup.
“My mission on earth is not to clean,” she told our class.
Her mission is to educate. Stationed behind three Farberware stainless steel electric woks, Chang taught us how to make Lemon Chicken, Ham & Eggs Fried Rice and Stir-Fry Cabbage — and much more. Program advertisements promised tips on flexibility, practicality, time-saving and creativity, which became our first lesson. After personally distributing a recipe sheet to each class member, Chang encouraged us not to mind it.
“I do not follow my recipe. Everyone can follow a recipe. But when I’m in the kitchen, if I’m in the groove, then maybe I’ll experiment. I could say I have ADD,” she said.
It can’t be an official diagnosis. One tine of Chang’s approach to 30-minute meals is preparing ahead of time. To prepare the breast meat for Lemon Chicken days before service, Chang suggested pounding chicken flat in a Ziploc bag, to contain contaminants, and freezing the meat between two sheets of plastic wrap. Layers can be stacked on a cookie sheet in the freezer; just don’t skimp on the wrap or they’ll be hard to separate. This method makes it easy to add an extra helping to a meal when mother dearest shows up unannounced 10 minutes before dinner. Chang would never turn a guest away: just pop a chicken breast out of the freezer and add it to the cooking sauce before adding your thawed, seasoned pieces.
“Put that in the sauce first and serve yourself that piece. You already know what it’s supposed to taste like. You will be so pleased with yourself to pull it off like that. Little things make me happy,” said Chang.
An emphasis on serving guests well seems to be Chang’s key to the art of entertaining. If an insufferable foodie at your table remarks that there’s something different about your dish, take it in stride. (“Say, ‘Whoa, I’m so impressed that you can tell!’ Make the other person feel good.”)
For the cabbage dish, made with sliced ginger cured in dry white sherry, take extra care in removing the intense flavoring before service. (“But for family, look out for yourselves.”)
Chang encourages her students to ask questions, which led to a detailed discussions of soy sauce, sesame oil, salt and rice.
“What’s the difference between white and brown rice?” said a man in the front row.
While Chang cooked Ham & Eggs Fried Rice, we had a lesson: When the husk is removed from rice, you have brown rice; the bran and rice germ are still on it. When that rice is milled, removing the bran and germ, you have white rice, which has, essentially, zero percent nutritional value. That’s why white rice is often enriched — with synthetic nutrients. (“But don’t take my word for it. Go check it out,” said Chang.) Beyond white and brown, there are multifarious types of rice: short-, medium- and long-grain, glutinous (sticky) rice, aromatic rices like Basmati and Jasmine, which smells like popcorn when it’s finished cooking — even black rice.
“I personally dislike long-grain brown rice. Chew and chew and chew mouth is tired by the end of the meal. I personally don’t like to work harder than I have to,” said Chang.
She favors a mixture of medium-grain brown, black glutinous and brown glutinous rices for the best mouthfeel. Medium- or short-grain rice chews softer than long-grain rice, which packs loosely. These diverse types can typically be found at the health food store.
In China, a traditional banquet ends with fried rice, and the soy sauce used to flavor the dish never colors the rice, as is common in the United States. There are two common types of soy sauce to use: light soy sauce, as in light in color (not “lite,” made with lactic acid to decrease sodium); and dark soy sauce, which contains molasses and is more potent. Switch to dark soy sauce and 1 t. in place of 1 T. light will get the same flavor and decrease the sodium by two-thirds — and, apparently, meet American aesthetics. Apparently, Chang’s experiments with dark soy sauce fried rice got her son up in arms. “‘Since when do you use dark soy sauce for fried rice? Why would you tamper with tradition?’” Chang quoted her son. Maybe she was hosting an American guest? (“Family, look out for yourselves.”)
Dark or light, Chang uses Pearl River Bridge Superior brand and Diamond Kosher Sea Salt, which has less sodium per serving than Morton’s.
To our batch of rice, Chang added toasted slivered almonds and dried cranberries. Sesame seeds, cashews, macadamias or pignoli could replace the almonds, or join them at your command. Scrambled egg, ham, fresh carrots and scallions, and frozen soybeans finished the dish. (Soybeans are called maodou, or “hairy bean,” in Chinese, because of their fuzzy pods.) Turkey was offered as a good stand-in for the ham, especially at holiday time. Just mind your terminology.
“Please don’t say it’s left over — it’s precooked,” said Chang.
At the session’s end, we lined up for heaping samples of all three dishes — heavenly, healthy incarnations of my favorite Chinese fast food fare. The taste made it impossible to pass up the opportunity to buy both of Chang’s cookbooks at the special student price of $15 (usually $26.50). She signed them, “Happy wokking!”
“When you’re a happy cook, you make happy meals,” she said.++
For more information on Norma Chang or to purchase her self-published cookbooks, visit Luv2Wok.com.
The Kingston Library is located at 55 Franklin Street. For upcoming programs, visit the Kingston Library online at www.kingstonlibrary.org.