The Chinese New Year begins later this month. Not only does it usher in the Year of the Snake, it is also an occasion to cook and eat Chinese food. But Carrie Lee and Gaylord Nelson don't need a reason to cook Chinese.
Their freezer and cupboard always hold the makings of some Chinese dish: egg roll skins, the dough for steamed dumplings, water chestnuts, vermicelli. And the refrigerator has a container of everlasting hot radish relish that is served on the side with almost everything - principally for those who like their food as fiery as possible.
The Nelsons" long-time interest in Chinese food comes from a Chinese brother-in-law who got them hooked. As easily as some people whip up hamburgers for supper, Carrie Lee Nelson makes chicken and walnuts.
Some men bake bread for relaxation: Sen. Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, makes ho-tzes instead. Often on a Sunday afternoon he would bring the television set into the kitchen and watch the football game while he rolled out the dough for the dumpling-like dish.
But with the advent of many good neighborhood Chinese grocery stores even he has given up making his own dough. The skins, which are time-consuming to make, are readily available in many shops and Nelson said they are almost as good as what he can make himself. Certainly a lot less trouble. But he has found only one kind that he likes. They are packed in ordinary white butcher's paper, are called "Covers for 'Egg Roll' (Wet Packed)" and are manufactured by Chung Wah Noodles Mfg. Co. in Washington.
The most remarkable aspect of the Nelsons" Chinese cooking, however, is the fact that Mrs. Nelson has little sense of taste or smell. (For Christmas this year her husband gave her a timer so that when she left the kitchen she would have something to remind her of food she had left cooking. Unlike most other people, Mrs. Nelson can't smell food when it's burning.) Somehow, this has not affected her ability to combine all but the subtlest of flavors in Chinese cooking. She improvises, improves on written recipes, creates her own, with the best of results. She is at a loss to explain how she can tell if most things work together. Only with the subtlest of taste nuances will she ask a friend to check her out.
The senator's ho-tzes , pronounced "ho tsa," are in constant evolution. When he began making them they contained only ground beef, green onions and soy sauce. Today bean sprouts, celery, green pepper and occasionally ginger are added. They are served with a mixture of equal parts soy sauce and vinegar.
After the first bite is taken, opening one end of the ho-tze , the soy-vinegar mixture is poured in. Since it has a tendency to leak out the other end a plate is essential. Ho-tzes can be made ahead of time, fried in a heavy skillet with a little oil and kept hot in the oven. Only recently the Nelsons discovered that leftover ho-tzes were just as good as those freshly made. They were reheated by frying in oil after they had been refrigerated several days.
When the Nelsons were married, she didn't know how to cook anything. To hear her tell it, she "didn't know if a 5-minute egg meant counting the time you opened the refrigerator or just the boiling." For the first seven years of their married life Mrs. Nelson continued a nursing career and did little cooking. But she spent many evenings with her sister-in-law, Janet, and her Chinese husband, Carl, in Madison, Wis. So the first kind of cooking she ever learned was Chinese, mostly the fiery foods of Szechuan and Hunan. That was 30 years ago when the most adventuresome Americans were just beginning to eat the Cantonese-style Chinese food, mildly seasoned and often sweet and sour, or chop suey, which isn't even Chinese.
The cooking Mrs. Nelson learned was from the pinch-of-this, pinch-of-that school. Carl would tell her to "put in whatever you like."
She said at first she "moved rather slowly into things like dried mushrooms." Remember, Mrs. Nelson said, "I grew up in Virginia and I hadn't even eaten much rice."
Today the Nelsons eat Chinese food at least once a week. And where they would only serve a dish or two of it at dinner parties, now they often have a completely Chinese meal for company.
Last year the Nelsons gave a 12-course Chinese dinner for 10 people. Several of the dishes were cold and were prepared in advance. All the chopping, slicing and cutting that constitutes most of the work in Chinese cooking was done ahead. That left only the last-minute cooking of several dishes. But without help, putting on such a meal alone, as Carrie Lee Nelson did, is a tour de force. There was only one hitch: The 12-course dinner became an 11-course meal because one of the dishes lay forgotten in the refrigerator. It made a fine supper for the Nelsons the next evening.
Today it is not difficult to buy even the most exotic Chinese ingredients in Washington, but back in Madison in the '40s, everything had to be ordered from Chicago. 'We got Kikkoman soy sauce by the gallon from there," she said. At that time no one had even heard of it."
Today even Madison has places to buy Chinese groceries. As for Washington, it is no longer necessary to go to Chinatown for tree ears, hoisin sauce or vermicelli. They are almost as close as your neighborhood store and while Chinese restaurants are equally as common, the food never becomes boring. You don't have to be Chinese to like eating it every night. FRIED CHICKEN WITH WALNUTS (Serves 4 as part of Chinese meal) 1 pound skinned and boned chicken breast meat 1 egg white 1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 slices fresh ginger, minced 6 tablespoons oil 2 cups walnuts, toasted 1 tablespoon dry white wine 3 tablespoons soy sauce 1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
Toast walnuts at 300 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut chicken meat in 1/2 inch cubes and mix with egg white and 1 tablespoon cornstarch and ginger. Stir fry in hot oil in wok or skillet for 3 minutes, until chicken changes color. Add wine and soy sauce. Cook 2 or 3 minutes then add cornstarch and water mixture and walnuts. Mix well and stir to heat through. Serve over steamed rice. SPRING ONIONS WITH FRIED PORK (Serves 2 as part of Chinese dinner) 1/2 pound pork, shredded (use shoulder meat) 5 tablespoons oil 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon dry white wine 1 pound green onions 1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix pork with soy sauce and wine. Wash onions and cut into 2-inch lengths. Heat oil and saute pork; when it begins to brown, add onions and salt. Mix well and cook onions until they just begin to give off juice. Serve over steamed rice. SHREDDED BEEF WITH CHILI PEPPERS (Serves 6 to 8 as part of Chinese meal) 1 pound loin of beef, shredded 3 tablespoons soy sauce 3 tablespoons dry white wine 1 teaspoons minced garlic 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger 6 tablespoons oil 3 chili peppers, seeded and shredded 1 cup shredded carrot or cucumber
Mix beef with soy sauce, wine, garlic and ginger. Allow beef to absorb mixture. Heat oil; add chili peppers and then beef can carrots and fry briefly, about 3 or 4 minutes. Serve over hot steamed rice. BONELESS CHICKEN IN LEMON SAUCE (Serves 6 as part of Chinese meal) 1 three-pound chicken, cut up 2 eggs, beaten 1/4 cup cornstarch 1/2 cup flour Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 teaspoons 5-spice seasoning powder Oil for deep fat frying 1 cup chicken stock 1/4 cup rice wine or dry sherry 1 tablespoon soy sauce 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice Salt and pepper to taste 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water Sliced lemon
Bone chicken and cut meat into 1-inch pieces. Combine the beaten eggs, cornstarch and flour. Season with salt and pepper, 5-spice powder and beat until smooth. Dip chicken pieces in the batter; then fry in deep fat until golden brown and tender. Drain chicken on paper towels and keep warm.
Heat stock; add wine, soy and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and simmer a few minutes. Cook the stock with cornstarch and water mixture, until it thickens. Add deep fried chicken, stir and simmer very gently for 2 minutes. Transfer to warm platter and garnish with sliced lemon. HO-TZES (About 12 pieces) 1 pound lean ground beef 4 tablespoons soy sauce 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped 1/2 green pepper, coarsely chopped 1/2 small can water chestnuts, coarsely chopped Peanut oil
Cook the beef with the soy sauce, stirring to break up, until it is done. Drain off excess fat. Add the vegetables and cook 2 to 3 minutes at the most. They should be barely cooked.
Cut the dough into 7-inch rounds, using a plate of that diameter as a guide. Place about 3 tablespoons of filling on each wrapping. Using finger, wet edge of dough with water. Fold dough in half and pinch edges to seal tightly. Then pleat edges for better closure. Heat one tablespoon peanut oil in skillet and cook each ho-tze until golden brown on both sides. Keep warm in 200-degree oven by placing finished ho-tzes directly on oven rack. Do not pile on top of each other as they are likely to stick. For leftover ho-tzes, reheat by frying again in skillet.
Other vegetables Sen. Nelson Uses include celery, Chinese cabbage and bean sprouts. He says a rule of thumb for the vegetables is that they should never constitute more than half the mixture. HOT SOUR SOUP (4 to 6 servings) 4 dried Chinese mushrooms 2 squares (3 inches each) fresh bean curd 1/2 cup canned bamboo shoots 1/4 pound cooked chicken meat 1 quart chicken stock Salt and white pepper to taste 1 tablespoon soy sauce 2 tablespoons white vinegar 2 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with 3 tablespoons cold water 1 egg, lightly beaten 2 teaspoons sesame seed oil 1 green onion, finely chopped
Let mushrooms soak in warm water for 30 minutes. Drain and shred mushrooms with knife. Drain bamboo shoots and bean curd and rinse in cold water. Shred. Shred chicken meat. In a heavy, 3-quart pot combine the chicken stock, salt, soy, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and chicken. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low; cover pan and simmer 3 minutes.Add bean curd, pepper and vinegar and bring to boil again.Stir in cornstarch mixture, mixing until soup thickens. Slowly pour in beaten egg, stirring. Remove soup from stove; ladle into tureen or serving bowl. Stir in sesame seed oil and sprinkle with green onion. SMOKED CHICKEN PEKING STYLE (Poor Man's Peking Duck) (Serves 6 as part of Chinese meal) 1 1/2 tablespoons Chinese peppercorns 1 1/2 tablespoons salt 1 (3-pound frying chicken) 1/2 cup soy sauce 2 tablespoons dry sherry 5 cups water 2 green onions, cut in 2-inch sections 3 slices fresh ginger, (1/3 inch thick) 1 tablespoon star anise 3 tablespoons floor 3 tablespoons black tea 3 tablespoons brown sugar 6 to 8 Chinese pancakes 6 to 8 scallion brushes Hoisin sauce
Mix together Chinese peppercorns and salt. Fry over low heat in dry frying pan until salt is brown and peppercorns are dark and have taken on a fragrance. Rub this mixture on the skin and in the cavity of the chicken and refrigerate overnight. Combine soy, sherry, water, green onions, ginger and star anise. Bring to boil. Put in chicken and turn heat to medium. Cook with each side of the chicken down for 10 minutes. Then turn off heat completely and let chicken cool in sauce with cover on for 20 minutes.
Use grill with a cover. Light charckoal and let heat until a gray ash forms. Make a tray of heavy duty aluminum foil. Sprinkle flour, black tea and brown sugar on tray. When charcoal is hot, put tray directly on it. COver with grill rack and put chicken on rack. Cover and close all vents. Let chicken smoke 20 minutes. Chicken should be well browned.
Cut into small pieces. Serve as you would Peking duck with brushes made of the white part of the green onion, steamed pancakes and hoisin sauce. Remove meat and skin from chicken. Place in hot pancake with hoisin sauce and scallion. Fold up and eat with fingers.