Cookbook author Nina Simonds' taste for Chinese food dates to childhood

Nina Simmonds has written 11 cookbooks, which reflect the changing cultures of the East.
Nina Simmonds has written 11 cookbooks, which reflect the changing cultures of the East.
Posted: January 19, 2012

Instead of bedtime stories, cookbook author Nina Simonds heard tales of the delicious meals her father ate on the road.

An advertising executive, Simonds' father traveled often from the family's home in Andover, Mass., to cities such as San Francisco and New York, where he relished the restaurants, especially Chinese.

"My father just adored food," says Simonds, 59, who, though she has nary a trace of Asian heritage in her family tree, became a premier author of Asian cookbooks in the United States.

Her 11th book, Simple Asian Meals, is just out from Rodale Press and her annual Chinese New Year cooking video is posted on her website, SpicesofLife.com.

"My parents, being Jewish, always had an affinity for Chinese food," she says. In those days, most Chinese restaurant menus were designed for diners to order one from Column A and one from Column B.

"But my parents were more sophisticated than that. We would trek 40 minutes into Boston to go to more authentic Cantonese and even Beijing restaurants. And when they learned about a restaurant in Medford, Mass., that Joyce Chen was behind, we went there."

Thus inspired, Simonds dropped out of college (University of Wisconsin at Madison) and announced her determination to travel and learn firsthand about the connections between cuisine and culture.

Paris was her first goal, and she thought nothing of writing to Julia Child, whose groundbreaking tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, had come on the scene eight years earlier. Simonds didn't take the advice Child gave (go to Switzerland, not Paris). But the two kept up their conversation through the years, and Simonds did eventually cook in Paris.

With Switzerland out (too dull), Simonds set her sights on a much more exotic place - China. She says her parents "completely freaked out." After all, this was two years before President Richard M. Nixon would open diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.

Hoping their daughter would change her mind if they didn't pay her way, Simonds' parents refused to fund such a trip. Still, Simonds found a way.

With the help of a friend whose mother worked for the U.S. State Department, Simonds connected with a woman in Taipei City, Taiwan, who ran a cooking school and was looking for a helper who could also translate her Chinese cookbook into English.

Simonds took the plunge. She cooked in Taiwan and traveled across Asia, where she cooked some more. Her first cookbook, Classic Chinese Cooking, was published in 1982.

"When I started writing about Chinese cuisine, I was a purist. I had to be because I was Caucasian," Simonds says.

Since then, her work has reflected the changing cultures of the East. Her latest book is her most accessible.

"My mission now is to show how Asian food can be less labor-intensive and much healthier."

She urges busy American home cooks to make the most of rotisserie chickens and buy already cut-up vegetables in supermarkets to minimize prep time.

She's a fan of David Chang's Momofuku restaurants and Mission Chinese in San Francisco.

Reflecting her now annual trips to all parts of Asia, Simonds' recipes use Japanese and Vietnamese ingredients, focusing always on freshness. It's right in tune with Americans' taste for international fare.

"We're at a wonderful point in the country where there are so many resources: Farmers' markets, lots of international ingredients in the supermarkets, too.

"What supermarket doesn't have sriracha sauce? It's become a staple."


Pot-sticker perfection

Nina Simonds, whose 11th cookbook, Simple Asian Meals, is just out from Rodale Press, says she's no elitist. She has no qualms advising home cooks to make efficient use of rotisserie chickens and basic supermarket ingredients. She's even a fan of the Trader Joe's brand frozen pot stickers. Here are her directions for cooking them to perfection at home:

Heat about 3 tablespoons of oil in a 6- to 7-inch nonstick pan. When the pan is at medium heat, carefully place the frozen dumplings edge to edge, flat side down, in a circle, filling the pan with one layer.

Turn the heat up and cook until the dumplings are golden brown. Add 1/3 cup of water and, with the pan partly covered and the heat at medium, cook until the water is evaporated - about 8 or 9 minutes.

Uncover the pan and use a nonstick spatula to loosen the dumplings. Add a touch of oil if necessary and allow the dumplings to crisp, with the heat still at medium.

When the dumplings are crisp, put a large plate over the pan and invert it. The dumplings come out as almost a cake. Dab with a paper towel and serve.

- Dianna Marder


Hot and Sour Vegetable Soup

Makes 6 to 9 servings

1 small head Napa cabbage (about 11/2 pounds)

2 large leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced lengthwise, rinsed, and drained

1 1/2 tablespoons olive or canola oil

2 1/2 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger

6 to 8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced

1/4 cup rice wine or sake

14 ounces very firm tofu, halved crosswise and each half cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices.

8 cups vegetable broth

2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 1/4 cup water

4 1/2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large egg, lightly beaten.

1. Cut away the stem of the cabbage and discard. Cut the cabbage lengthwise in half, then cut each half lengthwise in half again. Cut each quarter into 11/2-inch sections, separating the leafy sections from the stem pieces, and place in a bowl. Cut each leek half into thin slices, about 1/4-inch thick. Prepare all the remaining ingredients and place near the stove.

2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat until hot, about 25 seconds. Add the leeks and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the tougher section of the cabbage and the mushrooms and toss lightly for 1 to 2 minutes, until slightly softened.

3. Add the rice wine. Partly cover and reduce the heat slightly. Cook for about 5 minutes, until tender and dry. Add the leafier sections of the cabbage, the tofu slices, and the broth, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat slightly and simmer 15 minutes.

4. Slowly add the cornstarch and water mixture, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Cook over medium heat until the broth has thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes. The soup should have the consistency of heavy cream. Stir in the black vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, and black pepper. Taste for seasoning, adding more soy sauce if necessary. Turn off the heat and slowly add the egg, pouring it in a thin stream around the circumference of the pot. Stir the soup several times. Ladle hot soup into bowls and serve immediately.

Variations: Add 1 cup shredded carrots for extra color and 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes for additional spice. Substitute 6 to 8 dried black mushrooms or 11/4 ounces of dried porcini mushrooms for the fresh shiitakes. Rinse and then soften the dried mushrooms in enough hot water to cover. Trim the mushroom stems and discard, using the caps in place of the shiitakes in the recipe.

- From Simple Asian Meals by Nina Simonds (Rodale Press, 2012)

Per serving: 181 calories, 12 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 1,493 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Scallion-Ginger Scallops

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pound sea or bay scallops, rinsed and drained

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

7 scallions, ends trimmed and discarded

1 1/4 pounds baby bok choy, rinsed and drained

3 tablespoons olive orcanola oil

3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1/2 cup rice wine, sake, or very dry white wine

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Rinse, drain, and blot the scallops dry with paper towels. Cut any large scallops in half horizontally. Season with salt and pepper. Mince the white sections of the scallions and cut the green sections into 1/2-inch lengths.

2. Remove any tough or wilted outer stalks from the bok choy and discard. Trim and discard the stem ends. Cut the thicker hearts lengthwise in half. Put the bok choy in the sink in water to cover and rinse thoroughly, since it is often sandy. Drain thoroughly.

3. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil and heat until very hot, but not smoking. Panfry the scallops for about 11/2 minutes on each side, until golden brown. (Fry in two batches if necessary.) Set the scallops aside, saving the pan juices.

4. Reheat the pan (or wok) with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil over high heat until very hot. Add the ginger and scallion whites and stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the scallion greens and the baby bok choy and toss lightly over high heat for a minute. Add the rice wine and cover. Cook 3 or 4 minutes, until crisp-tender, stirring occasionally.

5. Add the cooked scallops, lemon juice, and toasted sesame oil and stir-fry over high heat until heated through. Scoop onto a platter and serve with rice.

Variation: Substitute chicken or any type of fresh seafood (shrimp, lobster, clams, or firm-fleshed fish fillets) for the scallops.

- From Simple Asian Meals by Nina Simonds (Rodale Press, 2012)

Per serving: 133 calories, 15 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 747 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Lo Mein Noodles With Vegetables

Makes 6 servings

9 ounces linguine or fettuccine noodles

3 leeks or 1 bunch garlic chives

2 tablespoons olive or canola oil

3 tablespoons fresh minced ginger

2 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 cups grated carrots (half a 10-ounce bag)

1 12-ounce bag shredded broccoli slaw (about 4 1/2 cups)

2 tablespoons rice wine

For the sauce:

2 1/4 cups vegetarian broth or water

7 tablespoons oyster sauce

3 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons rice wine

1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1. Heat 4 quarts water until boiling, add the noodles, and cook until al dente, about 7 to 9 minutes for dried noodles. Drain in a colander, rinse lightly to remove the starch, and drain again thoroughly.

2. Meanwhile, make the sauce by combining those ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.

3. Thorougly rinse the leeks or garlic chives under cold running water and drain thoroughly. Cut the leeks lengthwise into julienne slices. (Leave the chives in 11/2-inch lengths.)

4. Heat the oil in a deep skillet or frying pan over medium heat until very hot, about 20 seconds. Add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry about 10 seconds, until fragrant. Add the leeks or garlic chives, carrots, and broccoli slaw and stir-fry about 11/2 minutes. Add the rice wine, lower the heat slightly, and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender, about 3 minutes.

5. Add the sauce, increase the heat to high, and cook, stirring continuously to prevent lumps, until thickened. Add the cooked noodles and toss together until hot. Spoon the lo mein onto a warm platter and serve.

Variation: Add additional vegetables, such as 2 cups of bean sprouts.

- From Simple Asian Meals by Nina Simonds (Rodale Press, 2012)

Per serving: 264 calories, 9 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 1,057 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Toasted Almond Wonton Crisps

Makes 100 crisps, about 25 servings

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil or olive-oil spray

1 1/2 cups sliced almonds

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 egg white, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons maple syrup

50 wonton wrappers

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Brush or spray 2 baking sheets with olive oil.

2. Put the almonds in a plastic bag and crush them coarsely.

3. In a bowl, mix the crushed almonds with the sugar and cinnamon. Toss lightly to mix. In another bowl, mix the beaten egg white with the maple syrup.

4. Arrange the wonton wrappers side by side on the prepared baking sheets and brush their surfaces with the egg-white mixture. Sprinkle the almond-cinnamon mixture on top. Cut the wontons in half diagonally into triangles, using a sharp pizza cutter or a chef's knife.

5. Bake 5 to 6 minutes, until golden brown. Remove with a spatula to a cooling rack and let cool. Arrange on a serving dish or serve with individual portions of cut fruit, ice cream, or sorbet.

Note: These crisps can be prepared in advance, placed in resealable storage bags, and re-crisped in a 350-degree oven before serving.

- From Simple Asian Meals by Nina Simonds (Rodale Press, 2012)

Per serving: 232 calories, 8 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 368 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Lemon Rice

Makes 6 servings

4 cups cooked basmati or jasmine rice, cooled to room temperature

2 teaspoons olive or canola oil

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (from 1/2 lemon)

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

To cook the rice in a microwave:

1. Put 2 cups raw rice (to make 4 cups cooked) in a bowl and, using your fingers as a rake, rinse under cold running water. Drain in a strainer.

2. Transfer the rice to a 3-quart souffle dish or heatproof bowl. Add 31/4 cups water. Cover with an oven-safe plate or microwave cover and place in the microwave.

3. Microwave on high for 12 minutes, or until just cooked. Remove from the oven, fluff lightly with a fork, and let sit, covered, for 5 minutes.

Prepare the Lemon Rice:

1. Heat the oil in a heavy wok or skillet until very hot, about 20 seconds. Add the lemon zest and turmeric and stir-fry for about 1 minute, until very fragrant.

2. Add the rice and, using a spatula, mash and separate the grains over medium heat so the rice will heat evenly. Once hot, stir in the lemon juice and salt and heat through, tossing lightly. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or lemon juice if necessary. Spoon into a serving bowl and serve.

- From Simple Asian Meals by Nina Simonds (Rodale Press, 2012)

Per serving: 452 calories, 9 grams protein, 99 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fat, 394 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211, dmarder@phillynews.com, or @marderd on Twitter. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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