Cooking in the movies

13 Nov

four seasons

We are on a weird nostalgic 1970s/80s California cooking and gourmet revolution kick. There’s a scene in Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons movie (1981) where the husbands in a group of married friends are cooking Chinese food for their wives at a cabin. They make a big show out of having packed proper woks, obsessively sourcing Asian eggplants and fresh ginger root. Rice noodle sticks explode into a cloud and the men are nearly smoked out of the kitchen trying to get the oil to a proper cooking temperature:

“The oil’s not hot enough. You cannot cook Chinese food properly unless the oil is 480 degrees. It’s a scientific fact.”

“Who said that, Einstein?”

“Newton. Isaac Newton, inventor of mu shu pork.”

The scene takes up only a few minutes of the movie but it has stuck with us all these years. Thanks daytime television. The group’s excitement and pleasure over their exotic creation of Chinese chicken salad, rice and eggplant makes us appreciate the exploding gourmet food trends and cooking craze of the 1970s and 80s. It makes us imagine the treasures to be found at Williams and Sonoma, New York’s Silver Palate, Berekely’s Chez Panisse, in the pages of Gourmet magazine, but especially inside Barbara Tropp’s China Moon Cafe:

STIR-FRIED SHRIMP WITH FENNEL, LEMON AND ANGEL-HAIR NOODLES

The shrimp and the marinade:

1 tablespoon egg white
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or quality dry Sherry
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 pound medium (25 to 30) shrimp, shelled and deveined

The sauce:
1 1/2 cups unsalted chicken stock
1/8 cup Chinese rice wine or quality dry Sherry
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon Chinese chili sauce (Koon Yick Wah Kee brand recommended)
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon cold water

The noodles:
1/3 pound Chinese egg noodles (or any thin, fresh pasta)
1 1/2 tablespoons chili oil
The minced zest from half a lemon

The vegetables:
3 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 small yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch-thick rings
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips
1 cup 1/4-inch-thick slices fennel bulb
4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
4 teaspoons minced garlic
2 slim scallions, the green and the white part cut in very thin rounds
1/2 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes
The julienned zest from half a lemon
2 teaspoons thinly sliced rings of hot fresh chili pepper, such as Fresno or Serrano (optional)
2 cups 1/2-inch-thick strips of Napa cabbage

The garnish: Fennel sprigs 2 scallions, the green and the white part cut in very thin rounds.

1. Mix together the ingredients for the marinade in a medium-sized bowl until thoroughly combined. Add the shrimp, toss so they are coated with the marinade, cover and refrigerate for 8 to 36 hours.

2. Whisk together all of the sauce ingredients, except the cornstarch and water, in a large bowl and reserve. Whisk together the cornstarch and water in a small bowl and reserve.

3. Bring four cups of water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan over high heat, then remove from the heat and add the shrimp. Leave them in the hot water just until they turn pink, about 20 seconds. Drain and reserve.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the noodles and stir to separate, then cook until al dente. Drain, run under cold water to cool them and drain well. Toss in a large bowl with the chili oil and the minced lemon zest. Reserve.

5. Heat one tablespoon of the peanut oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until nearly smoking. Stir-fry the onions just until they turn golden at the edges, about one-and-a-half minutes. Add the bell peppers and stir-fry until they become slightly limp, about two-and-a-half minutes. Add the fennel and stir until it begins to turn limp but is still crisp, about three-and-a-half minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a plate and return the skillet to the heat.

6. Add the additional oil to the skillet and, when the oil is nearly smoking, add the ginger, garlic, scallions and hot chili-pepper flakes and lower the heat to medium so they foam without browning. Cook just until they release their fragrance, about 30 seconds. Add the lemon zest and the hot pepper slices, stir, then add the Napa cabbage and stir-fry until it becomes glossy and is slightly cooked, about 30 seconds. Add the cooked noodles and stir-fry just until they are hot, about two minutes, then add the cooked vegetables and toss until all of the ingredients are mixed. Increase the heat to high and add the sauce mixture. Cover and bring to a boil, then add the shrimp and toss until they are incorporated into the mixture. When the mixture returns to a simmer, add the cornstarch mixture and stir, then cook just until the sauce becomes glossy and slightly thickened, about one minute. Transfer to a serving platter or bowl, garnish with the fennel sprigs and scallion rings and serve immediately.

Yield: Four servings as a main course.

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