By Michael A. Gardiner
For many of us, the first time we really face the notion of aging is when we notice it happening to our parents. That’s when it begins to come home to us what being a “Senior” means. Once the initial surprise of the experience passed, however, it became an opportunity to give back and, for me, to do so in much the same basic way may parents had given to me: giving the gift of nourishment both literally and figuratively.
In our family food was always more than just fuel. It was also a way to get a glimpse of far-off lands and experience distant cultures making them seem more wondrous than strange. Once this little bit of role reversal began (me giving back to them as they had given to me), one of the first dishes I made for my parents was this lamb and pickled cabbage noodle soup. While this recipe is not a purely “authentic” recitation of a Western Chinese dish, the use of lamb (a protein that is not common in other parts of China) and the preserved vegetables is typical of China where it bumps into the Middle East.
From a culinary point of view, the preserved Napa cabbage gives the dish an intriguing sourness that plays well with the gaminess of the lamb. It is, however, difficult (to say the least) to find Kosher preserved cabbage in even the best Asian markets. It is not, however, difficult to make it yourself.
But making this dish for my parents in our current seasons of our lives was more than just a trip to Western China. It was a bit of time travel even if, in some ways, our roles were somewhat reversed.
Lamb with Preserved Napa Cabbage Noodle Soup
For the lamb and marinade:
1 cup shredded leg of lamb
1/4 cup light soy sauce
2 tablespoons Kosher Chinese black vinegar such as Happymum or Balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
For the soup:
3 cloves garlic
3 slices peeled ginger
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
3-5 dried chilies (de-seeded and roughly chopped)
1/2 cup Pickled Napa Cabbage (recipe below)
8 cups chicken stock
8 ounces dried Chinese noodles
- In a small bowl, combine the lamb with the rest of the marinade ingredients and marinate in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to half an hour.
- Bring a pot of water to boil for the noodles. Meanwhile, smash and mince both the garlic and ginger and set aside. Slice the scallions (both white and green parts), discarding the root ends.
- Strain the lamb, discarding the marinade liquid. Heat the oil in a wok until just short of smoking. Brown the lamb in the oil, stirring frequently. Add the chilies, garlic, ginger and preserved Napa cabbage to the wok and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes until the cabbage just begins to lose its texture. Add the chicken broth to the wok and bring to a boil. Add in three tablespoons of the pickling liquid. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer the soup for five minutes.
- Meanwhile add the noodles to the boiling water and cook according to the package instruction.
- Strain the noodles, discarding the boiling water. Lay the noodles in the serving bowls, top with the lamb and vegetable mixture, and ladle the broth on top. Garnish with the sliced scallions.
Chinese Pickled Napa Cabbage
1 1/2 cups rice vinegar
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
3 cloves garlic, smashed
4 red chili peppers more if desired
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 head Napa Cabbage (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
- Combine the rice vinegar, water, sugar, salt, garlic and chili pepper and Sichuan peppercorns in a small saucepan. Heat over medium heat until it reaches a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until the sugar is dissolved. Taste to test the spice level and simmer it for a bit longer if you want more heat. Once done, set aside and allow to cool.
- Meanwhile, cut off and discard about ½ an inch of the base of the Nappa cabbage. Cut the leaves into bite-size pieces and add to a large metal bowl. Toss the cabbage with the salt and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, up to 1 hour (no more than an hour).
- Drain and discard the salted water released by the Napa cabbage and rinse the cabbage with tap water twice. Drain thoroughly and squeeze out the excess water from the Napa cabbage. Transfer them into a large container (or a multiple jars). Add the cooled pickling liquid. Press the cabbage so it is submerged in the liquid. Place the submerged cabbage in the refrigerator overnight. The pickle will continue to improve for two to three days and, refrigerated, will remain good for up to 2 to 3 weeks.