ANYONE who has spent an extended amount of time in China will tell you that the celebration of Chinese Lunar New Year is rife with tradition, symbolism and family. There are fireworks to watch (and light), money to be gambled, and all manners of good eating to be consumed.
While I love the auspicious whole fish, the "gold bar" spring rolls and long life noodles, my actual favorites are the goodies that the host lays out before we get into the celebration proper.
There are nuts and seeds of all colors and shapes, there are jerkies made out of five-spiced beef and honeyed pork, and fruit in all forms scattered throughout the house. All are delicious and rich with symbolic history, but the most iconic of all traditional snacks and dried goods must be hong zao (红枣), or Chinese red date.
Soft and sweet, hong zao are usually deep red in color with wrinkled skins and yielding to the touch. They are the perfect foil to a cup of really good tea and for many, a requisite opener to the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration.
As with so many other traditional foods, the consumption of hong zao comes with a litany of purported benefits. Between various cultures, jujubes, as Chinese dates are also called, are used to treat stress, relieve constipation and aid in fertility. Combined with elevated levels of nutrients and antioxidants it is small surprise that the West has been touting the jujube as the next global "superfood."
Eating them straight, either fresh or fried, is the most common method of preparation though many teas and soups traditionally contain dried jujubes as well.
Having said all of that there is but one small matter that I have to get off my chest before we go any further. I have a confession to make. One that may bring the entire validity of this column into question; you see, the thing is that I don't actually like eating hong zao myself.
I know it's good for me and it's steeped in tradition but somehow the combination of flavor and texture in the dried hong zao just don't cut it for me.
All the recipes I've ever found for it have boiled it in water with rock sugar and other assorted dried goodies like osmanthus and longan, again, incredibly beneficial to my body but they've always just tasted like a sort of health tonic my grandmother might make me.
No, my mission, for the duration of this column at least, was to use hong zao in a recipe that was both easy enough to make at home and something I would be proud to serve in my restaurant.
The first few attempts fell a little short. Red date puree sounded promising but the end result tasted and looked more like elementary school glue than gourmet garnish. I tried making a fruit preserve but the lack of acid made the jam taste closer to a pink sugar syrup than the fruit spread I was hoping for.
It wasn't until I stepped back from the product that I was able to get some perspective. Hong zao was a dried fruit and the more I tried to fight that the worst the results would be. To succeed I had to play to its strengths. And when I think of dried fruit there is one preparation that always jumps to mind.
For all your breakfast/late night dining needs, I present:
Red date granola
100g red dates
400g rolled oats (not "instant" oats)
200g chopped raw almonds
100g black or white sesame
100g sunflower, pumpkin, or watermelon seeds
100g dried cranberries
120g brown sugar
2t vanilla extract
1/2t ground ginger
Zest of one orange
Preheat oven to 150 degrees Celsius.
Use a very sharp knife to cut dates into 5mm rounds.
Scatter rounds onto a wire rack and let dry for at least four hours to remove moisture.
Combine oats, almonds, sesame, seeds, salt, ginger in a large bowl and mix to combine.
Combine oil, sugar, vanilla, honey, zest in a separate bowl and mix to combine.
Combine wet and dry ingredients and stir well.
Press mixture onto an oiled baking tray, you're aiming for about 7.5mm in thickness, use multiple pans if necessary.
Place sheet tray in oven and bake for about 45 minutes, rotating once in the middle.
If possible, unmold granola onto a wire rack and let cool completely.
Break granola into large chunks and combine with dried red dates and cranberries, sealed tightly this can keep for up to two weeks.
Now that you have the finished product there are all sorts of things you can do with it. You can make some amazing oatmeal with the addition of some butter, honey and warm milk. Your new granola can also become the streusel topping for pies and fruit crisps.
(Me? I'm a simple guy, I like mine best with just a little bit of cold milk and some cut up bananas. Sometimes you just don't want to mess with tradition.)