Chef Chat

Holiday Entertaining With the Macy's Culinary Council's Chef Ming Tsai

In Houston recently to present holiday entertaining tips and recipes as part of the Macy's Culinary Council, celebrity chef Ming Tsai demonstrated a mock-tail and three small bites designed to impress guests at holiday cocktail parties.

In addition, with a $35 purchase of any item in the Macy's home department, demonstration attendees were given a copy of Tsai's latest cookbook, Simply Ming in Your Kitchen, and an opportunity to meet the chef for a book signing after the cooking demonstration.

The James Beard award-winning owner of Blue Ginger is joined on the Macy's Culinary Council by an impressive list of master chefs, like Rick Bayless, Cat Cora, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. Currently, Tsai is the host of Simply Ming and through his Emmy-award winning show East Meets West, he has introduced millions of people to the art of Chinese-European fusion.

We were greeted with a glass of sparkling pomegranate cooler, made with ginger syrup, pomegranate juice, fresh lime juice and club soda. Tsai described how to make the ginger syrup, and discussed how the magical syrup could be used to relieve ailments and aches. "Ginger is a natural antioxidant and considered a cure-all remedy for millions of Chinese people," he said. Another tip he shared was to start the drink as a mock-tail so that children could participate in the merriment. A spirit such as vodka can be added to the mix to make the drink adult-friendly.

The honey crab wonton dish was similar to a crab rangoon from a neighborhood Chinese takeout restaurant. Tsai explained that the ratio is what sets this appetizer apart from a regular rangoon (which he added is purely a Western creation, not to be found in China). His recipe calls for a 90-to-10 percent ratio of crab-to-cream cheese mixture. A normal crab rangoon would be flipped, with 90 percent cream cheese, and the other 10 percent would more often than not be an imitation crab meat. Each wonton was stuffed and pan-fried in shallow oil at a very high temperature to finish. Garnished with chives and drizzled with honey, the wontons looked fancy but tasted creamy and perfectly sweet.

The garlic chicken satay with basil puree was grilled on skewers that had been soaked in water for an hour. Tsai explained that any time wooden sticks are used in grilling, they should be soaked prior to prepping to keep them from burning during the cooking process. The basil puree, made simply from pulsing fresh basil leaves, garlic and olive oil, was a great accompaniment to the grilled chicken breast.

His smashed shumai came with a humorous anecdote about cooking at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. He had forgotten to take into account the elevation factor and when it was time to check on his steamed shumai, they were all still raw globs of shrimp and raw wonton dough. Spying a giant paella pan, he acted quickly, heating the pan and smashing each shumai so that it would cook faster in the oil. Frying the flat pieces made them crispier and more flavorful throughout. Since then, he has never served his shumai any other way but smashed.

The Houston Press was able to chat with Tsai for a few minutes before the show started. "The food scene is remarkably diverse here," he said, adding that he is always excited to visit Houston. He dined with good friend and fellow chef Bryan Caswell at Uchi and Mai's.

Tsai finished the evening with more stories about his own beliefs in the power of positive thinking, eating healthy and wearing sunglasses while driving his kids through the drive-through for chicken nuggets. He even spilled the beans about his almond oatmeal cookies, which were deliciously moist and nutty. So I resisted the urge to eat them there. Instead, I brought them home and sandwiched a generous amount of vanilla ice cream in between to honor them the Chef Tsai way.

Complete recipes for beverages and appetizers are available on the Macy's Culinary Council site. Simply Ming in Your Kitchen is chef Ming Tsai's fifth cookbook.
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Cuc Lam is a freelance food writer for the Houston Press and local pop-up chef. She enjoys teaching cooking classes and hosting dinner parties when she is not writing.