Lin Yutang once wrote that Chinese cooking skills are a direct result of economic necessity: "We eat all the edible things of this earth. We eat crabs by preference and bark by necessity.... We are too overpopulated and famine is too common for us not to eat everything we can lay our hands on."
When you are forced to eat everything you can lay your hands on, bark not excluded, you pretty much have to know what you're doing. What we'll be doing tonight is choosing among three more-or-less oriental dishes.
Our first dish is Moo Goo Gai Pan and my feeling is that it is about as authentically Chinese as Charlie Chan's No. 1 son. The next dish, Shabu Shabu, is an authentic Japanese recipe, simple to prepare and surprisingly good.
And we'll take a look at a way of cooking that originated in the Orient and has become familiar to health-food addicts everywhere - stir-fried vegetables.
The Staples: You'll want the following staples for each dish: rice, Japanese soy sauce, peanut or corn oil.
Shopping List for Moo Goo Gai Pan: Boned chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds); white wine; 1 bunch celery; 1 large onion; 1 green pepper; 1 box frozen snow peas; 1 can water chestnuts; a 1/4 pound of mushrooms.
Shopping List for Shabu Shabu: Beef (1 1/2 pounds, sliced extremely thin); chicken broth (2 cups); 2 lemons; a selection of radishes, spinach, carrots, scallions, Chinese cabbage. And, from a health-food store or oriental specialty shop: 2 bean curd cakes; oriental cellophane noodles; a seaweed flavoring agent called kombu.
Shopping List for Stir-Fried Beans: 1 pound green beans; 1 can water chestnuts.
MOO GOO GAIPAN
Some Time in Advance: Cut the chicken breasts into 1/2-inch cubes and soak in enough white wine to cover them.
Prepare Slightly in Advance: The rice. Follow directions on the box so that rice will be completed at 6:30 p.m. Remove the snow peas from the freezer and allow them to thaw.
6 P.M.: Now for the rest of the meal. Much of the effort that goes into any oriental food is preparation which most often takes the form of slicing and dicing.
Begin by rinsing stalks of celery and slice them thinly. Peel an onion and cut that in paper-thin slices. Dice the green pepper. Drain liquid from the water chestnuts and slice them. Remove the tips from the stems, then slice the mushrooms. Have the defrosted pea pods at hand.
Use a wok if possible, a large frying pan if no wok is available. Place paln over medium-high heat for several moments then add a splash - a 3-tablespoon splash - of oil.
Remove the chicken pieces from the wine marinade and stir them into the hot oil. Stir with a wooden spoon for a couple of minutes, then add the celery, the onion, the green pepper and the pea pods. Keep stirring for a few minutes more as the chicken pieces cook through - they'll be white - and then add the water chestnuts. And the mushrooms. And, after a few more minutes, 3 or 4 tablespoons of soy sauce and the wine marinade. Cook for about 5 minutes more and serve over rice.
As before, we begin by cooking the rice so that it will be ready at 6:30 p.m. And then, once again, we go right into the slicing and dicing. The beef, the Chinese cabbage, the spinach, the scallions, the mushrooms and the peeled carrots, cut into matchstick shapes.
Mix together the chicken broth and an equal amount of water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Then add portions of the vegetables - a handful of the shredded cabbage, the spinach, the carrots, the scallions, the mushrooms and the noodles. If you were lucky enough to find a piece of kombu, add that. Allow this to cook for a few minutes and then add a share of the meat. The meat should boil for just a few minutes. Repeat until all ingredients are used.
Serve this mixture, removed from the liquid, over rice. In a side dish, serve lemon juice and grated radish. In a second side dish, put sliced bean curds doused in soy sauce and mixed with chopped scallions. The side dishes are spooned onto the main dish according to taste.
STIR-FRIED GREEN BEANS
Cut off the tips of the green beans and cut them into pieces. Drain and slice the water chestnuts. Put your wok over a high heat, add a 3-tablespoon splash of oil. When hot, add the green beans. Stir. After a couple of minutes, the water chestnuts.Cook for 2 or 3 minutes more, stirring constantly. Add a third of a cup of water. Cover the vegetables, allow them to steam for 3 or 4 minutes and serve at once.