Eat Well and Honor the Year of the Dragon

Chinese Stir-Fry in Lettuce Wraps

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

January 23rd launches the Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year because it starts on the first day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar. Food plays a key role in festivities, symbolizing hope for long life, prosperity and good luck. Lovers of food would not want to miss eating in honor of the Year of the Dragon.
If you haven’t been invited to a Chinese New Year banquet, honor the holiday with this stir-fry served in lettuce wraps. It’s a riot of colors, textures, flavors and even temperatures with the warm stir-fry, cold crisp lettuce and crunchy nuts and noodles. Starting with lean ground meat streamlines the prep.

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

No food on the Chinese banquet table is without specific symbolism and meaning for the New Year. Many are eaten because their names sound like words associated with good fortune and wealth or because they resemble money. The word for lettuce sounds like growing luck and lettuce looks like green paper money so lettuce dishes are common.
I rarely deep fry food but puffing threads of thin bean or rice noodles in hot oil is so easy and entertaining that it’s worth doing occasionally. They are the perfect garnish for these wraps or a Chinese chicken salad. I fry them in my smallest saucepan or the center of a wok, pressing the noodles into the oil with my spoon to submerge them, thus using as little oil as possible.
If you’re ambitious about creating more of a feast, grab a good Chinese cookbook. (I mostly use Martin Yan’s books because I know from working for Martin that his recipes are straightforward, authentic, and well- tested.) Include a noodle dish, as noodles symbolize long life and Chinese dumplings which bring good fortune because they look like the money once used in China. Add lobsters to bring life and energy to the New Year and represent the Chinese dragon. A fish portends good luck and prosperity; serve it whole to represent the wholeness and fullness of life. If you’re not up for steaming a Chinese New Year cake (sweet things of course, indicate a sweet life) make dessert a bowl of colorful citrus: tangerines for luck, oranges for wealth and grapefruit or pomelo for abundance.

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

I’ve only scratched the surface of the great diversity of Chinese New Year foods, their rich symbolism and traditions around gathering family and friends to make and eat them. Fortunately the celebration continues for fifteen days, through February 9 this year, so there is time to explore and taste more. If the cooking daunts you, a quick route to a New Year feast is a reservation at a good Chinese restaurant.
Chinese Stir-Fry in Lettuce Wraps
To save time you can use a ready-made Chinese plum or sweet and sour sauce instead of the Spicy-Ginger-Orange Sauce.
1 tablespoon grape seed, peanut or other vegetable oil
1 pound lean ground turkey, chicken or beef
1 tablespoon grated or finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
2 teaspoons finely chopped or pressed garlic
1 cup diced red bell pepper
1 cup diced carrot
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
Cooking Sauce:
1/2 cup sodium-reduced chicken broth
1 tablespoon sodium-reduced soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
To Serve:
Spicy Ginger-Orange Sauce, recipe follows
12 large leaves crisp lettuce (romaine, butter or iceberg) or nappa cabbage
Chopped roasted peanuts or cashews
Fried bean thread noodles, optional (recipe follows)
Coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
Hot cooked brown rice
1. Prepare the Sauce and fry the bean thread noodles, if using. In small bowl, stir together ingredients for cooking sauce. Place near stove.
2. Heat wok or large deep skillet over high heat. Swirl oil into wok. When oil is hot, add turkey, ginger and garlic; cook for a couple of minutes, stirring and breaking meat into bite-size pieces, until meat is browned. Add bell pepper and carrot; stir and cook for about 1 minute. Add Cooking Sauce; stir until sauce boils and thickens and meat is cooked through. Remove from heat. Stir in green onions.
3. To serve, spoon turkey mixture on a lettuce leaf, drizzle with sauce and sprinkle with nuts, noodles and cilantro. Fold lettuce leaf around filling and eat out of hand. Serve with hot cooked brown rice. Makes 4 servings.
Spicy Ginger-Orange Sauce: In small saucepan combine 1/4 cup orange juice concentrate, 1/4 cup water, 3 tablespoons catsup, 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon brown sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons sodium-reduced soy sauce, 1 1/2 teaspoons grated or finely chopped peeled fresh ginger and 1 teaspoon cornstarch. Stir and cook over medium heat until mixture boils and thickens. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha or Chinese chili-garlic sauce.
Fried Bean Thread Noodles: Place 1 ounce thin bean thread or rice stick noodles in a 1 gallon size plastic bag and snip with scissors into 2 to 3-inch lengths. Have a slotted spoon or Chinese mesh strainer with a long handle near the stove along with a platter lined with paper towels. Heat about an inch of oil in a wok or small saucepan to about 375°. (To see if oil is hot enough, drop a noodle in the oil – it should puff up immediately.) Drop a small handful of noodles into the hot oil and press down with the slotted spoon to completely cover with oil. The noodles will puff immediately. Remove with the spoon and place on the platter to drain. Repeat with remaining noodles.
Copyright © Lorelle S Del Matto 2012

lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.


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