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Champagne Mangoes

The Champagne Mango

I absolutely LOVE mangoes and in the last few years I have been enjoying the small, yellow Champagne Mangoes also known as  the Ataulfo mango from Mexico.  These have a soft, sweet and very juicy taste that's rich with that wonderful ripe mango fragrance.  They are far less fibrous than the larger Tommy Atkins variety.  Mangoes are rich in vitamins A, B, C and fiber.

I think I got my love for mangoes from my father.  We used to buy them by the case and keep them in the basement to ripen.  So far, I've purchased 2 cases of Champagne Mangoes this season and they do ripen beautifully in our dark, cool basement.  My husband doesn't care for mangoes, so I have them all to myself :-)   The only problem is that they all ripen at once so when they are ready -- it's feast time!

The Champagne mango season is May to early August.  I still have a few more months of delicious eating to go!

A neat way to serve mangoes is to cut the flesh off either side of the pit with a sharp knife.  The pit is flat at the widest part of the fruit.  Holding a piece that was sliced off, make evenly spaced diagonal cuts in a diamond design through the flesh, but not into the skin.  Do the same on both pieces.

Holding a mango piece in your hands, push the center up so that the skin flips up and the mango pieces separate and stand up -- looking like a porcupine's back.  Serve as is, scooping out the cubes with a spoon or slice off the cubes with a knife and serve them in a dessert dish.

Don't waste any of the delicious flesh remaining around the pit. Peel off what's left of the skin around the mango pit and enjoy.  I consider it the cook's reward!


Step into spring with Stir-Fried Asparagus

I'm so ready for spring - not only for its warmer temperatures and longer days, but also for fresh produce that will start appearing in local farmer's markets.  What better harbinger of spring than asparagus?

To help celebrate the arrival of spring, try my quick and easy Stir-Fried Asparagus recipe.

1 pound asparagus
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup canned chicken broth
1 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

1. Snap the tough ends from the asparagus. Cut on the diagonal into 1 1/2-inch lengths.
2. Heat oil in a wok or stir-fry pan over high heat until hot.  Add the salt and garlic and stir a few times.  Add asparagus and stir for about a minute. Pour in broth and cook, covered over medium-high for about 2 minutes or until asparagus are tender-crisp.
3. Stir up cornstarch slurry and pour into the pan, stirring until the liquid thickens.  Remove from heat, correct seasoning and serve hot.

In New England, there are a number of asparagus farms, but in Hadley, a town in Western Massachusetts, they pride themselves as "The Asparagus Capital of the World."   Here in Massachusetts we are used to hyperbole.  After all, Bostonians know Boston as "The Hub of the Universe!"

Flavor Tip:  For those who like a little gingery flavor, add in a couple of slices of fresh ginger with the garlic.

Asian Cutting Technique:  Cut the asparagus spears on the diagonal for a more attractive dish:

Text, recipe and photograph copyright 2013 by Helen Chen.  All rights reserved.


The Chinese Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival, called Yuan Xiao Jie in Chinese, is celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month.  This year, in 2012, it will be on February 7th.  The fifteenth day is the first full moon of the new year and marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.  The word Yuan means the first month, xiao is the ancient word for "night," and Jie means "day."  Along with decorating the house with lanterns, the Chinese also enjoy the traditional food  ( of course) of this festival - small glutinous rice balls filled with sweetened peanut paste, ground black sesame seeds or red bean paste.  These delicious rice balls, about the size of small ping pong balls, are called Yuan Xiao.

Few Chinese makes these at home anymore due to busy schedules and because you can easily purchase excellent frozen Yuan Xiao in most any Asian market.
Frozen Glutinous Rice Balls (Yuan Xiao)
Frozen rice balls before cooking

I like the ones filled with ground peanuts or black sesame seeds.  They are very easy to prepare, but do keep them frozen until you are ready to cook or they will stick together.

When done the rice balls will float to the surface.

Simply drop frozen rice balls into a pot of boiling water and gently stir to keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pot.  When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain a nice, steady boil that's not too vigorous. Stir occasionally to keep them from sticking.  When they float, they are ready.

  I like to let them boil for an extra 30 seconds to one minute after they pop up to the surface.  Serve them with a little of the hot water in a bowl.  They will be hot, so don't put a whole rice ball into your mouth at once.  Pick one up with a spoon and take a small bite.  The filling will begin to ooze out and cool a little, whereupon you can nibble some more or take a larger bite.

Yuan Xiao with sweet peanut paste filling.

Complete your enjoyment of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations by serving these deliciously addictive sweets on February 7th, the Lantern Festival Day.  The sticky glutinous rice balls symbolize the sticking together of friends and family and the sweet fillings represent a sweet year ahead.

Happy Lantern Festival!


Chinese New Year Lucky Candy Box

It's Chinese New Year's eve tonight and at midnight we will usher in the Year of the Dragon.  Besides the usual feasts, lucky couplets and signs I have put together a traditional candy box.  Each little tray in the box contains candy and sweetmeats --  symbolic of luck, prosperity, good health and progeny.  My box doesn't represent all the various sweets, candied fruit, nuts and seeds we have available, but it does contain some of my favorites.

First, the box itself.  One box is orange colored lacquer ware and has the Chinese character "FU" on it.  It means "good fortune" and "happiness."  The candy box is always round to signify togetherness - no sharp corners or edges.  When open, it reveals seven little shallow porcelain trays.  The filled candy box is brought out when guests arrive and is enjoyed with freshly brewed tea.

The pictures show two of my lacquer candy boxes.  The dark one with the phoenix design is my favorite -- delicate and understated.  It belonged to my mother.  You can see that the box appears rather deep, but in actuality the trays are flat and it's mostly empty space underneath.
Candy Box with Chinese character "FU"

My mother's lacquer candy box
Candy Box with Shallow Porcelain dishes

What's in my candy box?

Candy Box filled with symbolic foods for the New Year

Starting a the far left at 7:00 are candied kumquats symbolizing wealth and prosperity; wrapped in colorful cellophane are walnut and date candies symbolizing a sweet year; the candied lotus roots for purity and if I had room, I would have put out candied lotus seeds which symbolize many children, i.e. fertility; then there's candied coconut ribbons, the coconut symbolizes togetherness; there's the candied melon representing growth and good health; then hard coconut candy and finally, in the center, peanuts that I oven roasted with 5-spice powder, they represent longevity.    I don't have the requisite watermelon or squash seeds, both symbolizing fertility -- just not enough room.

I wish I could share my lucky candy box with you, but alas it can be done only virtually.... At least I can share my Five-Spice Roasted Peanuts recipe with you.  They are really easy to make and are delicious -- anytime.  If you are on a sodium restricted diet, you may omit the salt or reduce it to taste.

Five Spice Long Life Peanuts

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon Five Spice Powder
1 pound raw, blanched peanuts

Dissolve salt and five spice powder in 1/4 cup hot water.  Put peanuts in an ungreased rimmed baking sheet. Pour the salt mixture over the peanuts and mix until the nuts are evenly coated. Spread out in a single layer and let sit for 15 minutes.  Preheat oven to 325 F.
Roast the nuts for 30 to 35 minutes until they are lightly golden brown. Stir occasionally for even roasting.  When done, remove nuts from the oven and let them cool completely before serving or storing.  When cool, the peanuts will be crisp.

Copyright 2012 by Helen Chen.  All rights reserved.

So, for all of you, Xin Nian Kwai Le  (Happy New Year) and Wan Shi Ru Yi  (May all your wishes come true).



Like so many of us, Helen Chen learned to cook at her mother's side. But few of us had a mother like Joyce Chen. Helen grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her mother prepared the authentic dishes of her native Shanghai and Beijing with the sort of regularity the rest of us came to expect of macaroni and cheese or meatloaf.

"I remember when I was little, watching my mother prepare meals for family and friends. I once wrote a list of my favorite Chinese dishes," Helen recalls, "I came up with 150 recipes. I do not have one or two favorites. All the dishes on the list are traditional and all are ones that I learned from my mother. That is what I love most about Chinese food: its variety. Taste, texture and color all come into play, as does personality and culture. I think this is what cooking is all about."

Soft spoken and intensely intelligent, Helen Chen was born in Shanghai and moved to the U.S. with her family while still a baby. Helen grew up, as she describes it, in a traditional Chinese-American household. "When I was young I wanted to be totally American," she remembers. "It wasn't until I was in high school that I realized how lucky I was to have two cultures."

Today, Helen Chen is a widely acknowledged expert in Chinese cooking. Besides her role as an educator and cookbook author, she also is a corporate spokesperson and business consultant to the house wares industry. In 2007 she created and developed a new line of Asian kitchenware under the brand name Helen’s Asian Kitchen®, expressly for Harold Import Company in New Jersey.

Having been born in China and raised and educated in the United States, Helen brings the best of both worlds to her approach to the art of Chinese cuisine. She understands the needs of the American cook as only a native can, yet she is intimately knowledgeable in the culinary practices and philosophy of China.

In her active role as a teacher and educator, Helen teaches Chinese cuisine at Boston University; and, through the Anderson Foundation’s enrichment program ‘Cooking Up Culture’ she teaches Boston area school children from grades 1-12 about Chinese cuisine and culture. She also teaches Asian cuisine in numerous cooking schools across the country.

Helen has lectured to various professional and culinary organizations such as the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Boston University Seminars in the Arts and Culinary Arts, Oldways Preservations and Exchange Trust, Small Business Development Center, The Culinary Historians of Boston, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and the Culinary Guild of New England. In addition, she conducts culinary tours of Boston’s Chinatown and is a frequent guest chef at cooking schools around the U.S.

Helen is the author of Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking (Hearst Books, 1994), Peking Cuisine (Orion Books,1997) and Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Chinese Stir-Fries (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). A second book in the Helen’s Asian Kitchen series, Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Asian Noodles is scheduled for publication in January, 2010.