I think I’m done with eating! It’s the 3rd day of the Lunar New Year celebrations and because day 1 fell on a Sunday we have an extra day off. So we’ve literally been having massive meals for the past 4 days (we start off the reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year). This is the season of many gatherings, lots of loud and noisy conversations and endless feasting. I took the risk of hosting this year…in the beginning it was just for my brother’s family, then the in laws, then kid#2 invited some overseas exchange students over as well. I confess I was really nervous because cooking for CNY can be a little exacting. This is the one occasion that proud homemakers show off their culinary and baking skills. It is also an occasion when expensive ingredients like abalone, scallops, fish maw, sea cucumbers and prawns take center stage, which means you pretty much don’t want to mess up the cooking!
I’ve always loved the flavors of Chinese New Year. I grew up in a Hokkien family, an ethnic group from the south of China. Hokkien or Fujian food focuses on the original fresh flavors of food (鲜味）and braising is one of the common ways of cooking. Growing up, it was one of my aunts who dominated the kitchen in my Hokkien paternal grandfather’s household. CNY meals featured hearty dishes like braised pork belly, meatballs with chinese cabbage, braised sea cucumber, abalone with Chinese spinach and longevity noodles. Here I’ve recreated the braised sea cucumber dish – I confess I’m thankful to be able to access frozen sea cucumber (so much easier to cook with than dried sea cucumber that has to be painstakingly rehydrated and cleaned).
I think growing up I remember loving the CNY meals but being completely oblivious about how much skill and hard work went into preparing the feast. This time cooking for almost 20 people made me a little stressed as I made the effort to do most dishes from scratch. I ended up overcooking and overestimated the portion sizes. This was because at Christmas I was taken off guard because some of the crowd were young teenagers with massive appetites. The food I had prepared disappeared so fast; those few teens were like a flock of locusts decimating every edible thing. It was a little embarrassing. So I wasn’t going to be caught out at CNY where it is actually a thing to have leftovers. Leftovers are supposed to be auspicious as they predict that the year will be abundant and that you will have more than enough! But it also meant that our fridge is now filled with enough leftovers for another week at least.
I think braised mushrooms and sea cucumber are one of my favorite CNY dishes because I love fatt choy which is a kind of photosynthetic bacteria which, when dried, looks like black moss. Spread into a dish the fatt choy looks like tiny strands of hair that should gross most diners out but I confess does nothing whatever to a Chinese soul…after all, as a race we are supposed to eat any animal whose back faces the heavens, in a complete nose to tail fashion. Chinese started sustainable eating millennia before it became fashionable! Anyway this is a dish that graces most tables during CNY as the ingredients are usually luxury items. In this recipe I added scallops as well as abalone, but truth is, the dish can be cooked with just sea cucumber and mushrooms.
The thickened gravy in this dish is usually made with a slurry of corn starch, but I used xanthan gum to cut the carbohydrate content. It works as well; it’s important not to use too much xanthan gum as the gravy can turn a little too slimy. This dish can also be made a little ahead of time – the broccoli can be blanched and plated first and the mushroom and sea cucumber added in just before serving.
It was fun seeing our overseas visitors tucking into the meal. They were really game to eat fish maw and sea cucumber and abalone – and too polite to react when told what they were eating! But for us locals this was definitely a meal typical of the season and was a great kickoff to the seasonal feasting!
Braised Sea Cucumber and Mushrooms with Broccoli
- 2 heads of broccoli, cut into florets
- 5-6 dried scallops
- 500 g sea cucumber (thawed from frozen, cleaned and cut into large pieces)
- 12 large dried shiitake mushrooms
- 12 frozen scallops, thawed
- 1-2 abalone, sliced (optional)
- 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 3 tbsp oyster sauce
- 2 tbsp abalone sauce
- 1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
- 1 tsp sugar substitute
- 200 ml chicken stock
- 200 ml of scallop soaking liquid
- 200 ml of mushroom soaking liquid
- 1 tbsp peanut oil
- 1/2 tsp xanthan gum
- Bring 2L of water to the boil and add 1 tsp salt to the water. Blanch the broccoli for 3 minutes, then transfer into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Set aside.
- In a large pot, heat up the peanut oil and stir fry the garlic till lightly caramelized (about 2-3 min).
- Add the chicken stock, scallop and mushroom soaking water and simmer the sea cucumber and shiitake mushrooms. Add the oyster sauce, abalone sauce, sugar substitute, rice wine and stir. Simmer for 15-20 minutes till mushrooms and sea cucumber softened.
- Add the scallops and black moss and cook for another 5 minutes or so.
- Add ½ tsp xanthan gum and stir well, allowing the gravy to thicken.
- If using, add the abalone slices right at the end.
- In a casserole dish, arrange the broccoli on the sides, then add the sea cucumber, scallop and mushroom mixture in the center. Serve hot with cauliflower rice.
1.Soak the mushrooms in 500 ml of hot water. Soak the dried scallops in 300 ml of hot water. Set aside for at least 20 min. When the mushrooms have plumped up, cut off the stems and cut the mushrooms into half. Keep the mushroom water for use later. When the scallops have softened, break up the scallops into shreds and keep the scallop water aside.