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Penelope’s Kitchen: Celebrating the Chinese New Year



I grew up in a family that truly loved Chinese food. My grandfather, who was Japanese, traveled throughout Asia in the 1920s and loved to share stories of his culinary adventures with us.

For many years, we celebrated Chinese New Year at the Yenching Palace in Washington D.C., a favorite of Mick Jagger, Danny Kaye, Ann Landers, I.M. Pei among others, and where, the story goes, emissaries representing President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev met to negotiate the Cuban missile crisis. Later in Manhattan, I went to Windows on the World for some memorable Chinese New Year parties overlooking the skyline.

Cooking Chinese food at home may seem a challenge, but many dishes are actually easy to prepare. A friend of mine who is from China taught me this recipe, which is excellent for entertaining guests. It can also be prepared in advance and seems to taste better after a night in the refrigerator.

Although any fish can be used, I find the more oily ones, such as bluefish, hold up better in the sauce. If using bluefish, cut out the dark red portions and soak in milk for one hour prior to cooking.

Sweet & Sour Fish

(Serves 6 to 8)

Fish marinade

1 teaspoon salt

2 egg whites

2 tablespoons corn starch

1 1/2 lb fish fillets

2 to 3 cups peanut or canola oil for frying

Sweet & Sour Sauce

1 1/2 cups clam or seafood broth

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons dry sherry or vermouth

2 tablespoons ketchup/tomato paste

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon corn starch mixed with 2 tablespoons warm water

1 clove garlic, chopped fine

1 small onion chopped into 1-inch pieces

1 celery stalk, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped fine

1/8 cup (half of a small can) bamboo shoots

1/8 cup (half of a small can) water chestnuts

1/2 cup Napa cabbage, chopped into 1 to 1 1/2-inch pieces

18 snap peas (or snow peas), ends trimmed

1 red bell pepper chopped into 1-inch pieces

Dash hot sauce or red pepper flakes (optional)

2 scallions chopped fine


Mix marinade ingredients, adding in corn starch last, and then set aside. Rinse, dry and then cut fish into 2-inch squares, add to the marinade and set aside for 15 minutes.

Separately, mix broth, soy sauce, sherry/vermouth, ketchup/tomato paste, vinegar and sugar.

In a small, separate bowl, dissolve and mix cornstarch and water.

In a warm, high-sided sauté pan, add and heat oil on high heat. Add fish and fry until brown. Remove and let rest on paper towels.

Drain most of the oil from the pan, leaving approximately 3 to 4 tablespoons, then add garlic, onion, celery, ginger, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and cabbage. Stir on high heat. After approximately 2 minutes, when vegetables are wilted, add the red pepper and snap/snow peas.

Add the sauce, combine and bring to a boil. Add cornstarch mixture and stir until thickened.

Serve over rice or on a platter. Garnish with chopped scallions.