The intricately carved vegetables were missing. There was nary a soup in sight. And where was the Peking Duck?
The buffet spread prepared last month by members of the Organization of Chinese American Women to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Support Center -- Washington's oldest and largest management resource for nonprofit organizations -- was bare of all but the homiest of Chinese foods: sweet and sour cabbage, marinated broccoli and bamboo shoots, noodles and spring rolls, among other savories.
Unlike a traditional Chinese banquet, where courses are both numerous and complex, and often prepared by a master chef, this feast was created as it would have been by the Chinese home cook, whose goals are "simplicity and speed -- and not too much preparation," explained Julia Chang Bloch, founder of the OCAW and coauthor with Elaine Louie of the organization's "Chinese Home Cooking."
Appropriately, it was from the pages of the cookbook -- with its emphasis on efficiency and the use of easily obtainable ingredients -- that the menu for the fete was developed; most of the recipes can be made in less than 45 minutes. Many of them can be prepared ahead and reheated prior to serving. Margot Wei, the dinner's organizer, readily divulged the source of the modern Chinese cook's inspiration: "The microwave oven is great for Chinese food -- except egg rolls, which don't properly crisp."
As director of training for OCAW's English and job training classes for Asian refugees, Wei has used food to further the economic standing of her pupils. In the past three years, and with the initial aid of the Support Center, she has groomed and placed 77 students in various food service positions around the city -- but outside Chinatown, where the students would not be encouraged to use their foreign language skills. The students have been so successful in their jobs that demand from area hoteliers and restaurateurs for graduates has far exceeded their numbers, Wei claims. In fact, she was unable to recruit any of them to assist with the Support Center's celebration: They were all working, she happily reported.
To order a copy of "Chinese Home Cooking," the sales of which benefit OCAW's programs, send your request and check ($11.45 includes postage and handling) to the Organization of Chinese American Women, 1525 O St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.
The following Express Lane recipe, adapted from "Chinese Home Cooking," lends an Oriental flair to pork meatballs. All the home cook will need on hand are sugar and oil prior to a dash through the market.
Express Lane list: ground pork, Chinese celery cabbage (bok choy), scallions, fresh ginger, soy sauce, cornstarch, rice
BRAISED PORK MEATBALLS WITH CABBAGE (Makes about 10 meatballs)
1 1/2 pounds ground pork
6 scallions, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup cold water
2 tablespoons oil
2 pounds Chinese celery cabbage, cut into 2-inch pieces
Rice for serving
FOR THE PASTE:
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 cup water
2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Mix the pork, scallions, ginger, soy sauce, sugar and cold water. Using a fork, mash the ingredients together, over and over again, for 5 minutes. (This tenderizes the meat.)
In a separate bowl, prepare the paste. Divide the pork mixture into 8 meatballs. Heat the oil in a skillet large enough to fry all the meatballs at once. Using your hands, dip each meatball into the paste, coating it completely. While the meatballs may seem awfully moist, they will hold their shape once fried. Put each meatball into the hot oil, and brown on all sides.
Mix the sauce ingredients, and add to an enameled pot or casserole. Place the meatballs in the sauce. Bring the sauce to a boil, cover and lower the heat. Simmer for about 30 minutes.
At this point, you may wish to put the meatballs in the refrigerator overnight, to serve the next day. Alternatively, remove the meatballs to a plate, using a slotted spoon. In the bottom of the pot, place the Chinese celery cabbage. Return the meatballs to the pot, placing them on top of the cabbage. Cover the pot and simmer for another 30 minutes. If the gravy looks too thin, thicken it by dissolving 1 tablespoon cornstarch in 1 tablespoon water and adding it to the sauce. Serve with boiled rice, if desired.