A feast for the family

February 02,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

While most of the country yesterday was cooking up pots of Super Bowl chili, melting pounds of cheese for nachos, and downing seven-layer dip and other traditional football-watching foods, we used Family Cook Night to produce a massive Chinese feast in honor of the Chinese New Year. L.'s been wanting to celebrate the Chinese New Year for days now, ever since he found out that it started on January 26th, and I've been postponing my promise to cook up a stir-fry for days now, too. "Chinese New Year is my favorite holiday EVER," he stated at dinner exactly one week ago. "Really?" we asked him, because this was the first we'd heard of it. But it is apparently his most beloved holiday--or it became so this year, when his teacher gave out little red pouches filled with pennies to all the third graders in his class. If L. is a fan of holidays involving money and fortune, I'm a fan of all holidays involving Chinese food, traditions designed to bring people together, and recipes that are supposed to set you up with good luck for the rest of the year. On Sunday we loaded up the kids and headed to our favorite Asian market, which was abuzz with shoppers of all kinds. Red and gold streamers and lanterns hung from ceiling to floor, competing with the sad rows of singed, naked ducks (Peking duck is a traditional New Year's food) hanging by the front register to the bakery, and we happily filled our cart with all sorts of colorful foods. For our New Year's feast we decided we'd make our traditional vegetarian stir-fry (most of the traditional dishes centered around fish), and serve it along with some variations of traditional Chinese New Year foods--baked Nian Gao, and a Tray of Togetherness--because how can you NOT put something together with that wonderful name? On the way back from the Asian Market, we stopped at Blockbuster to rent a movie for the kids as a Sunday treat. L. and T. had their hearts set on Mary Poppins, but apparently some other family had, too, so we ended up with Because of Winn-Dixie instead. I love that book, and it's one of L.,'s favorites, as well. We just finished re-reading it for the third time yesterday, and I choked up at all the heart-tugging teary bits, just like I always do. After we unloaded all our Asian Market treasures, I sat down to watch a little of the film with the kids, and before I knew it I had stayed put for the whole thing and it was suddenly 4:00, the counter was littered with bags of bok choy, long green beans, gnarled roots of ginger, bean sprouts, cans of red azuki beans, and I had completely underestimated how long it would take to throw together a Chinese New Year feast. I also hadn't factored in T. piping up calmly, "Mama, there's fire in the oven," while I was chopping up beans. There was, in fact, a small fire in the oven--some of the cake batter had spilled over the pan, and ignited something or other on one of the coils in the oven (oven-cleaning is not one of my strengths--maybe I should learn from this). And while we did salvage the cake, as it turned out, we would have been better off sacrificing it to the dirty oven gods, because it tasted and looked terrible. I'm not sure if this was because azuki beans are just an acquired taste, but no one in the family could stand to have the cake anywhere near them, let alone taste it. I hope the fire in the oven and the inedible cake aren't some dire portents of the kind of luck we'll have in the year to come. The best part of the meal? The stir-fry itself: Stir-fry heaven The "Good Luck Salad" (traditionally it's supposed to have some type of shredded fish on top, but I don't know why you'd ruin a delicious salad with shredded fish): Good Luck SaladPamelos, Asian Pears, and Peaches I finally had an excuse to buy a pamelo, which is traditionally used in this salad. (Pamelo? Pomelo? Even the author of the article on the fruit can't seem to decide how it's spelled. [Ed. note: It's pomelo OR pummelo.]) We also chopped up two Asian pears, and a hard-as-a-rock peach that T. fell in love with at the market. The peach turned out to be very sweet and tasty, and I could write a love poem about Pamelos/Pomelos. But the kids' most favorite part of our Chinese New Year Feast was the bubble tea we made... Bubble, bubble, toil and troubleSweet success! ...and setting the table for the feast, complete with little red paper pouches filled with money. We all got eight pennies inside ours--except L., who gave himself a whopping 50 cents instead. The table