Betty P. Lee wants to change everything you think you know about Chinese food.
Somewhere amid the ubiquitous takeout joints in every town in America, the notion that Chinese cuisine can be a staple of home chefs has been lost. With easy and bright flavor combinations, simple preparation techniques and the versatility to accommodate dietary needs from vegetarian and gluten-free to heart healthy, cooking Chinese at home is worth reconsidering. Not all Chinese cooking is stir-fry, according to Lee, nor does it have to come with a phone call and a delivery guy.
Lee, 61, is a serious home chef who learned the fine art of Chinese cooking in Taiwan. “People can be intimidated by Chinese cooking,” says Lee. “Their notion is that the food is all about stir-fry and heavy, oily sauces. In actuality, Chinese food can be quite light and healthfully prepared, lending itself to steaming, braising and roasting.”
The Myers Park resident has lived in Charlotte since 1998 when her family moved from New Jersey. With a gourmand for a grandfather and a mother who loved to cook in a traditional, elegant and refined style, Lee’s culinary path was perhaps destined in a way – though that path has certainly not been limited to her Asian roots.
“I love all sorts of cuisine and types of cooking,” says Lee, whose expansive kitchen is equipped in ways that rival most retail kitchen outfitters. All manners of woks and pans hang freely from a rack adjacent to a cabinet groaning with more than 450 cookbooks. A pizza oven long ago replaced the family-room fireplace. Must-have kitchen gadgets include her immersion blender and instant-read thermometer.
Lee admits a love for French cooking and has recently been enamored with the colorful yet labor-intensive French-style macaroons that are currently on trend. Moroccan, Indian and Italian cuisines also captivate her attention.
With a passion for baking to match her cooking skill, Lee is a one-woman tour de force. A few years ago, she was anxious to see how her recipe for whole-wheat bagels would measure up. Lee entered the Mathews Community Farmers’ Market bread-baking contest and not only won first place from the judges but the top people’s choice award, too – a rarity. Her challah, a Jewish-style braided egg bread, is revered by family and friends, and one need only see the grape-must sourdough starter on her kitchen table to realize this woman is a serious baker – the origins of her starter extend back nearly 15 years.
While it’s quite possible you have never heard of Lee, more than a few “foodies” in this town are well aware of her serious culinary chops.
Johnson & Wales University chef on assignment and James Beard award-winning cookbook author Peter Reinhart calls Lee, “one of the most accomplished chefs in Charlotte.” The two met when Lee took a bread-baking course from Reinhart and became fast friends. Reinhart was so impressed with Lee’s culinary skills that he uses her as a recipe tester for his cookbooks.
Lee met with the dean of culinary studies JWU and was ultimately offered the opportunity to be an instructor for their popular “Chef’s choice” recreational cooking classes open to the public. She taught two dim sum classes earlier this year and is on tap for an additional six classes beginning this fall. She’s added a class titled “It’s not just about stir-fry” to introduce her students to the myriad of techniques and styles of cooking that Chinese cuisine offers the home chef.
Charlotte audiences may recognize Lee from her regular appearances on WCNC NewsChannel 36’s “Charlotte Today.” Her warm and approachable style and basic instruction techniques demonstrate that with the right know-how and approach, the mysteries of the Chinese kitchen are there for all to enjoy.
“The key for home chefs [with Chinese cuisine],” says Lee, is to “focus on the highest quality of ingredients. The freshest fish, organic chicken, and crisp and fresh vegetables all make such a big difference in the final product. This notion extends right down to the condiments used in making sauces and marinades.” Lee insists her students look for premium-brand oyster sauce when the first ingredient listed is oyster sauce, for example. The mellow and earthy undertones imparted by using the very best “makes all the difference.”
Chinese cooking can easily accommodate dietary considerations such as vegetarian or gluten-free, according to Lee. Rice and tapioca flour (sans gluten) are easily substituted for wheat flour in many recipes, and the use of steamers can all but eliminate oil and fat used in frying preparations. Long a favorite of vegetarians, Chinese cuisine offers an endless variety of combinations and soy-based proteins to keep even the most limited eaters happy.
One specific flavor combination Lee uses is traditional Chinese yet lends itself to innovative new dishes. Garlic-ginger-scallion can be used in both marinades and dipping sauces; when combined with soy sauce, sherry or even a bit of vermouth, it offers a savory, hot and sweet flavor that marries well with proteins such as chicken or shrimp and just as nicely with vegetables. Lee’s secret approach here is found in her quantity ratio, a one to two to three measure for the garlic, ginger and scallion and in gently sauteing the combination before incorporating it into the dish. “The flavors more fully develop, and the harshness of the raw garlic is tempered by sautéing first,” says Lee.
Lee is purposeful and deliberate while in her kitchen. A master of multiplexing, she is constantly chopping, prepping or tending to something that is about to be served. Lee scoffs a bit when the subject of catering or a restaurant comes up – though she has had plenty of offers. The minute cooking becomes work and not a passion and love for nurturing others, that’s when all the fun goes away.
And when Betty P. Lee is in the kitchen, there is a lot of love coming your way.
Betty Lee’s Chicken Braised in Master Red Sauce
Makes 4-5 servings. This braising liquid is what’s considered the master red sauce in Chinese cooking and can be used to braise beef, pork, etc. (“Red cooking” refers to cooking in soy sauce). This version includes special touches by Betty Lee.
1 whole 2 1/2- to 3-pound (fryer) chicken, cut into 10 pieces, skin removed, or 3 pounds bone-in skinless chicken thighs
2 3/4 cups water
2 cups soy sauce (use a good quality sauce such as Kikkoman)
2 tablespoons good quality oyster sauce (preferably Lee Kum Kee Premium)
1/2 cup dry vermouth, dry sherry or Chinese rice wine
5-6 slices fresh ginger
3-4 scallions, cut into 2-inch segments, white parts halved vertically
1 clove garlic, peeled, smashed with flat blade of knife
1 1/2 whole star anise, broken into their individual segments (or approx. 12 segments)
1/3 cups sugar (or light brown sugar, packed)
1/2 teaspoon five spice powder
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon Asian toasted sesame oil
Optional: 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 (additional) tablespoon water
Cut the chicken into 10 pieces (if whole). Meanwhile, bring the rest of the ingredients except[ital] sesame oil to a boil in a large pot. Add the chicken pieces, bring back to boil and immediately turn down heat. Then cover the pot and cook at a gentle simmer (the lowest heat setting) for about 35-40 minutes; the chicken must cook simmered, never at a rapid boil. Turn off the heat, leave the stovetop on, keep the pot tightly covered, and let it stand 2-3 hours without opening the lid. The chicken will be fully cooked in 30 minutes, but the additional simmer and standing time will render it more tender while developing flavor. Remove the chicken pieces and serve with the teaspoon of sesame oil added to some of the sauce. If a thicker sauce is desired, ladle 1 cup of cooking liquid into a small pot and cook with a mixture of 2 teaspoons cornstarch and a tablespoon of water until thickened. Serve with stir-fried greens and rice.
Reserve remaining sauce, with the fat removed, for another use. Do not discard, as this sauce is rich and full of flavor. The leftover sauce can be used again and again to braise (by adding half the amount of each of the braising liquid ingredients each time, the sauce becomes richer with more body). Also, spoonfuls of the leftover sauce can be used to enhance a stir-fry (freeze in ice cube trays for this purpose), or added to a broth with some vegetables for a delicious rice noodle soup.
Betty Lee’s Gluten Free Scallion Pancakes
Yield: six 5” pancakes (36 wedges). Betty came up with this original recipe spontaneously when she was teaching a class and there were two students who were gluten intolerant. Instead of having them with nothing to make or eat for that course she improvised with tapioca and rice flour and came up with an excellent scallion pancake that was light and crispy on the outside and tender and slightly chewy on the inside. It’s delicious even for someone who’s not gluten intolerant. In this recipe Betty added prosciutto to the filling for added dimensions in flavor and color; it can easily be omitted for the more traditional vegetarian version.
1 cup tapioca starch/flour
1 cup rice flour, additional rice or tapioca flour used for bench flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons boiling water (start with 1 cup then add more if necessary to get a smooth dough that holds together but is not sticky and not dry
6 tablespoons finely minced scallions, divided into 4 portions
6 tablespoons finely minced prosciutto, or Canadian bacon, finely minced, divided into 4 portions
6 tablespoons oil, a mixture of 5 tablespoons extra light olive oil and 1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
3 teaspoons fine sea salt or kosher salt
3-4 tablespoons untoasted sesame seeds
8-10 tablespoons peanut oil
1/4 cup gluten free soy sauce (if no gluten allergy, use lower sodium soy sauce, e.g. Kikkoman)
1 teaspoon finely minced scallions
1 teaspoon finely minced or grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Hot sauce to taste, e.g. Sriracha, Sambal Olek, Tobasco, etc Method of preparation: 1. Combine dipping sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
2. Place the flours in a medium mixing bowl. Add the boiling water and stir vigorously till the mixture starts to come together and that is not too dry nor too wet or sticky. Let cool slightly, then knead till a smooth ball forms. The dough will be soft but not sticky (add more tapioca or rice flour if too wet and a little more water if too dry. Dough does not need to rest before rolling.
3. On a lightly floured (with tapioca or rice flour) surface, roll the dough into a log about 6 inches or so and divide into 4 equal portions. Form each portion into a ball then press with the palm of the hand to flatten each piece into a disc. Either leave as disk shape or shape the disks into squares.
4. Work with one piece at a time (keep other three covered to prevent drying out), use a small rolling pin to roll the dough into a very thin 7”diameter round or about 6”square. Brush entire surface with light coating of oil. Sprinkle a quarter of the scallions evenly over entire surface of dough. Then spread the prosciutto, and a light sprinkle of salt. Starting from one edge, roll tightly to the other side. With seam side up, flatten roll with palm of hand and roll out into about 9 inches long by about 1 ½”. Starting with one short end, roll tightly toward the other end. Stand the coil on its side. Press with palm of hand, then roll out to about a 5” diameter round and about 1/4” thick. Sprinkle some sesame seeds on one side, pressing into pancake slightly. Keep on lightly floured surface and repeat with remaining pancakes.
5. Heat an 8 or 10 inch skillet till hot and add 2 T extra light olive oil to small skillet (add 3 T if using 10” skillet). When oil is hot, add one pancake with sesame seeded side down first. if using small pan (and 2 pancakes if using large pan), and shallow fry on medium heat, covered while cooking the first side till pale golden brown, 3-4 minutes – pancake will become slightly translucent. Flip to cook other side, adding a little more oil if necessary and cook till pale golden. Repeat with remaining pancakes, adding a little more oil before cooking each one. Remove to cutting board and cut each pancake into 6 wedges. Serve immediately while hot and crispy with dipping sauce. This can also be served warm or at room temperature but pancakes will lose some of their lightness and crispiness.