The Chinese New Year began recently with the Year of the Dragon – an especially lucky year in the 12-year cycle of the animal zodiac.
Our attitude to dragons is still hooked to the rather Freudian legend of Saint George’s slaying of the dragon to save the fair maiden, a distinctly suspicious tale as far as I’m concerned.
Any fair-minded Chinese would immediately assume from it that the dragon was trying to save the fair maiden from St George, a much more likely circumstance.
The Chinese think dragons are rather cute, as well as powerful aids to good fortune, and anyone born in a revered dragon year is regarded as an innovative, passionate person – characterful, confident and fearless.
That sounds much better than being a goatish Capricorn so I’m switching signs immediately.
Here are some excellent dishes that celebrate the Year of the Dragon, starting with a Chinese master stock which can be used and restored over and over again by cooling, straining, and refrigeration – the kind of stock you would find in any good Chinese kitchen.
With it you can tackle scores of dishes, cook a whole chicken or reinforce a dish of noodles for one.
Chinese master stock
3 – 4 litres water
500ml soy sauce
500ml Chinese cooking wine (or dry white wine)
300g brown treacle sugar
A handful of dried naartjie or orange peel
A 5cm piece of cinnamon
2 pieces of star anise
A 5cm piece of fresh ginger, sliced
A tbs of peeled and crushed garlic cloves
1 In a large pot, bring all the ingredients to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Test-fly it with a whole chicken, to make an outstanding dish.
2 Clean and trim the chicken, submerge it in the simmering stock and bring back to the boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, turn it over and simmer for another 3 minutes. Take the pot off the heat, cover and let it cool in the stock.
3 Cool and strain the master stock and store covered in the fridge or freeze it. You can dilute portions of this stock to suit any simmered or braised dish. Reinforce it with fresh flavourings you like.
Pork hocks with caramel sauce
This is the all-time favourite of Australian chef Neil Perry. His boast is that the hocks become so tender you can eat them with chopsticks.
2 pork hocks
2 litres master stock
1 cup brown treacle sugar
½ cup water
8 green chillies, seeded and chopped
2 tbs of fresh ginger cut into very thin strips
100ml Chinese or Thai fish sauce
Juice of 2 limes
4 cups vegetable oil.
1 Gently simmer the pork hocks in the master stock for 3 to 4 hours.
2 Remove and drain well.
3 Refrigerate the hocks overnight if time permits. Remove meat from bones.
4 Make the sauce by putting the sugar in a pan with half the water and boil until the sugar caramelises.
5 Add the chillies, ginger and remaining water. Stir to prevent sauce from sticking or solidifying.
6 Add the fish sauce and lime juice.Simmer, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Keep warm.
7 Heat the oil in a deep pot or wok and deep-fry the pork meat until golden brown.
8 Remove and drain on paper. Serve with the chilli-tingling, sweet-and-sour and salty sauce. Serve with rice.
Chicken Stir-Fried with Pak Choi (Chinese cabbage)
2tbs vegetable oil
2 skinned chicken breasts cut into thick strips
1 crushed garlic clove
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 star anise
A red chilli, seeded and chopped
A handful of mangetout (or thawed frozen peas if you’re desperate)
2 pak choi heads with stems separated. (Pak choi is in the shops now. If you can’t find it, use finely chopped white, inner leaves from an ordinary cabbage.)
6 spring onions, sliced at an angle
100g brown mushrooms, sliced
4 tbs soy sauce
2 tbs balsamic vinegar
A handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
A tbs of chopped dill
A tbs chopped chives
1 In a big pan or wok, heat the oil over medium high heat.
2 Add the chicken strips and cook, lightly tossing them for 3 – 4 minutes, until the meat turns white and is almost cooked through.
3 Add the garlic, ginger, star anise and chilli. Cook on for half a minute.
4 Add the mangetout or peas, pak choi or cabbage, spring onions and mushrooms. Stir-fry on for another 3 – 4 minutes until lightly cooked.
5 Finish with the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs. Stir together until mixed and serve immediately with rice. For two.
Whole Szechuan Fish
Snapper, soldier – any firm-fleshed fish is suitable for this excellent Dragon Year dish. These quantities will deal with a whole fish or two fish totalling around 1.75kg.
3 tbs rice wine or dry white wine
3 tbs chopped fresh ginger
½ tsp salt
Vegetable oil for deep-frying in a wok or pan
4 spring onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 red chillies, seeded and chopped
A cupful of button mushrooms, finely chopped
A cup of master stock or water
3 tbs soy sauce
1 ts brown sugar
2 tbs black rice vinegar – or red wine vinegar
Chopped dhania (coriander)
1 Score the cleaned and scaled fish at 3cm intervals down to the bone.
2 Mix wine with a tbs of ginger and the salt.
3 Rub the mixture thoroughly into the fish, especially the slits, and leave to marinate for 30 minutes.
4 Fill the pan or wok with oil to a height of 3cm and heat to medium. Lower the fish into the hot oil. Cook five minutes each side or until browned on both sides. Drain on paper and keep warm.
5 Remove oil from wok, leaving 2 tbs.
6 Heat oil to hot and stir fry together the spring onions, garlic, ginger, chilli briefly. Add mushroom, rice wine, stock, soy, sugar and vinegar. Bring to boil.
7 Add fish and cover with the stir-fried mixture. Bring back to a simmer then reduce heat and cover while cooking slowly for 10 minutes.
8 Move fish to a serving plate.
9 Mix cornflour with a little water and stir thoroughly into the sauce until it bubbles and thickens.
Pour over the fish and garnish with the dhania.
Serve with rice.