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Cooking Yiddish & Chinese Chicken Salad

I am still busy cooking American Yiddish food for my next book, "Arthur Schwartz's New York Jewish Food," and I am still looking for memories – oral history, the academics might call it – about the old restaurants, old recipes, our mother's and grandmother's and great grandmother's cooking. If you think you have something to add, please send me the memory at mavensmail@aol.com. I have received wonderful stories about schmaltz (chicken fat), about how it was the yahrzeit glass (the reusable glass that holds a memorial candle) that was the main cooking measuring device in the old days, about bagels, about … well, you get the picture. Anything on farfel, or kasha, or kishka? Funny sounding words, yes? Indeed, I would love to find a Yiddish scholar to help me with the etymology of some words. Any amusing or insightful anecdote is what I am looking for – related to the theme New York Jewish Food, of course.

Many of the old recipes that I am cooking are simply not to our contemporary taste, and I am trying to devise recipes that taste like the old days, but still appeal to us now. I tend to cook and re-cook things over and over again until I get the recipe just right– it's called recipe development and testing – and so I am getting a little tired of eating the basically brown and grey food of Eastern Europe. I can't wait until I start testing some Sephardic recipes. At least the Sephardim have vegetables in their cuisine. The Eastern European kitchen had very few vegetables at its disposal when the big Jewish migration to America took place from 1880 to 1923. My ancestors had potatoes, and cabbage, onions, beets, cucumbers and not much more. Okay, an occasional carrot tzimmes. Now there's an evocative word for you. As for seasonings, besides onions, all you need for Yiddish food is salt, pepper, paprika, and maybe a little ground ginger. A bay leaf. The flavors are limited.

I remember Mimi Sheraton, the food writer, once joking that if you wanted your food to really taste like your Yiddishe mamma's, you need to season with pre-ground white pepper that is at least a year old and has been stored next to the stove. It had a certain taste that freshly ground pepper could never provide.

That's why after three or four days of eating Yiddish food, I must, as an antidote, eat spaghetti with tomato sauce.

The following recipe for Chinese Chicken Salad is not at all a true Chinese recipe. It is from the Brooklyn Diner, the restaurant on W. 57th St. and Seventh Ave., across the street from Carnegie Hall. For that matter, the Brooklyn Diner is not a true diner, although it certainly looks like one. When it first opened about 10 years ago, I thought its flashy diner architecture was misplaced on swanky 57th St., but now it seems to look just right. And it is hugely popular for every meal of the day. Besides this fabulous and very simple salad, the menu offers many ethnic dishes and diner specialties. I particularly love the macaroni and cheese, which is really egg pasta dressed with lots of cream and Parmigiano and glazed under the broiler. The hot dog is something like 15 inches long and a sensational, spicy, crispy-skinned formulation of a frankfurter. The hamburger is great. I love the potted brisket, which (very unkosher) comes with an especially creamy noodle pudding. Okay, there I am, back to Yiddish food. There's no escaping it.


Brooklyn Diner's Chinese Chicken Salad

The Dressing
Makes about 1 quart,
Enough for at least 8 to 12 servings of salad

2 cups mayonnaise
3 tablespoons tahini paste
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons orange juice
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
¼ cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons duck sauce
2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (or 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar dissolved in 2 tablespoons additional soy sauce)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons finely grated ginger root (use the fine side of a box grater)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Colman's powdered mustard
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup cold water, if necessary

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise and tahini until smooth, then add all the remaining ingredients except the powdered mustard and salt. Whisk again, then sprinkle the mustard and salt over the surface of the dressing and whisk again to blend. If the tahini was the very thick kind, you may want to whisk in as much as ¼ cup water to thin the consistency to that of heavy cream.
Refrigerate for at least several hours; 24 hours is even better. The dressing may be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks.

The Salad
Serves 4 to 6

1½ pounds Napa cabbage (1/2 3-pound head)
1½ pounds roasted chicken, off the bone (Brooklyn Diner uses
only white meat; you'll need 2 chickens to provide this much)
1 11-ounce can Mandarin oranges in light syrup, drained (or use 4 peeled,
fresh Mandarins, broken into segments and pitted)
½ cup sliced scallions, using all the white and some green
1½ to 2 cups Brooklyn Diner Chinese Chicken Salad dressing (recipe follows)
¼ cup or more fresh cilantro, in whole leaves

Cut the cabbage in half the long way. Cut out the small core at the base. Cut each half in half again the long way. Slice the cabbage crosswise into fine shreds. You should have about 8 cups. Wash and dry very well. Place in a large salad bowl.
With your hands, pull the chicken into smaller pieces. You should have about 4 cups pulled chicken. Add to the bowl with the cabbage. Add the orange segments, and the sliced scallions. Pour on the dressing and toss well to mix.
Spread the salad on a large platter, serve in a large bowl, or divide between 4 to 6 dinner plates.
Garnish with whole cilantro leaves and serve. (You can also coarsely chop the cilantro and toss some in with the salad, and use some as garnish.)


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