Happy New Year Hunan Style

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I had a very eventful Christmas with my sister and her family in Virginia. Surprisingly, cooking wasn’t at the forefront of my holiday this year. Instead, I was treated to my sister’s Polish-influenced cooking (her husband is of Eastern European descent). I particularly enjoyed her beet juice and tortellini soup.

Now, I’m back in Chicago and ready to do some catching up in the kitchen.

I’m a Christmas baby, born four days after the holiday and this year I went to the newly opened Lao Hunan in Chicago’s Chinatown for my celebratory dinner. The always fabulous Chicago Reader rated it one of the best new restaurants of 2011 and the proprietor, Tony Hu, is dedicated to bringing authentic regional Chinese cuisine to Chicago. Hu has established himself as “The King of Chinatown,” with four other restaurants, Lao Shanghai, Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Yu Ju. Having already tried and loved Lao Sze Chuan I was dying to try Lao Hunan.

I thought the décor was a touch gimmicky with a giant portrait of Mao Zedong and the words “Serving People” blazing across the wall of the dining room and the wait staff wearing communist army uniforms. But the food. Oh, the food. This was my first time trying Hunan cuisine and I loved the chilies, garlic and ginger in every dish. I ordered the Stewed Tofu Xiang Xi Style for my main course, which was deliciously spiced, but the stand out of the evening was the wood ear mushroom salad.

The menu simply calls the dish “Healthy Wood Ear Salad,” but it doesn’t do justice to the complex flavors and textures of the mushrooms and marinade. Wood ear mushrooms are spongey, slightly gelatinous mushrooms that look like ears. I was somewhat hesistant, but my first bite won me over. The wood ear mushroom has a toothsome, fleshy texture and a flavor of wood and earth. A little research reveals that is has been used for medicinal purposes in the East for hundreds of years and it has proven cancer fighting properties.

Here’s my variation based purely on my tasting the dish at Lao Hunan. Not having access to the actual recipe means that I could be missing something, but I think this comes close.

Marinated Wood Ear Salad Hunan Style
8oz dried wood ear mushrooms
1 cup boiling water (to rehydrate the mushrooms)
2 tblsp rice vinegar
3 tblsp chili oil
1 tsp dried chili flakes
1 small diced chili pepper(a jalapeno works just fine)
1 small chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
2 large cloves of garlic sliced
1 tsp Chinese Five Spice (or a mixture of star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon, cloves and fennel seed)
Tamari (or other soy sauce) to taste
1-2 scallions, chopped

In a bowl, pour the boiling water over the mushrooms. Let set for 15-20mins until mushrooms are fully rehydrated. The mushrooms will be slightly rubbery, yet soft. If the mushroom feels hard or very chewy, let them continue to soak. Once fully re-hydrated, drain and squeeze out any excess water.

In a pan on low heat, add chili oil, chilies, ginger, garlic and spices until the garlic and chilies are slightly soft but not browned (about 2-3mins).

Add the rehydrated mushrooms and cook on medium heat for a few minutes to further soften the mushroom. The heat allows the mushrooms to absorb the flavors of the spices. Add vinegar and tamari. Remove from heat. Put in fridge to cool. Once cool, serve with chopped scallions.

Last year, I resolved to challenge myself in the kitchen and for the most part I stuck to my resolution. Yeast breads no longer terrify me and I’m gaining more confidence with pastry. This year, rather than claim that I want to lose weight or get fit, I am going to focus on eating and preparing healing, wholesome food. I want to focus on food as medicine and cooking as therapeutic. I think that’s definitely a manageable goal.


One Comment on “Happy New Year Hunan Style”

  1. KDK says:

    Oooh! Sounds nom-licious indeed…and as for that portrait of Mao, yikes.

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