fried rice

Cookbook review: 'Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes' gets three gold wontons

Shrimp-and-chive wontons bursting with gingery flavor. Fried rice that's even more delicious than what you get in most Chinese restaurants. A foolproof choose-your-veg master recipe for stir-fried greens with whole garlic. The moment (many months ago) I got my hands on Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach, I felt it was a book meant for border-free cooks. As soon as I started putting its recipes to the test, I was certain of it. 

But it gets even better: When I took the first bite of Meehan's crisp-skinned, honey-colored, incredibly succulent and flavorful Chinese lacquered roast chicken, I was completely over the moon. This recipe, this book are life-changing. 

Asian cooking can be daunting to Western cooks – including pretty experienced ones. But jump into 101 Easy Asian Recipes and start cooking, even pretty casually, and you'll quickly feel you're getting the hang of stir-frying, wonton making and more. Meehan keeps the instructions clear and simple, and the recipes are appealing and uncluttered. As promised, they are easy. 

Chineasy Cucumber Salad from Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes

His "Chineasy" cucumber salad – with a lovely touch of sesame and crushed peanuts – is a case in point. It came together in a flash, and it was so nice I gobbled it up all by myself, though it was certainly big enough for two. Sound good? Here's the recipe:

Meehan tends to do without explanations of whether a recipe is Indonesian or Chinese or Korean, or from a specific region of Thailand or Japan, going instead with a looser fusion-y feel. Somehow, the dishes I've been most attracted to feel pretty Chinese. 

Not that all are perfect as printed; among the seven recipes I tested, I had to make some tweaks here and there, which are reflected in the adapted versions you'll find here at Cooks Without Borders. After nearly ruining a pan when making the lacquered roast chicken, for instance, I added an instruction to line the baking sheet with foil. Small detail, though, when the technique – simply combining soy sauce and honey and painting it onto the bird a couple days in advance, then roasting without even flipping it over – is so miraculously good. 

A recipe for stir-fried asparagus worked beautifully, though it yielded twice as much sauce needed for one bunch of asparagus. Easy fix: I doubled the veg. (As you can see, it's still plenty saucy!)

In any case, there's so much inside that's so great that I highly recommend the book to anyone who's even vaguely interested. From its pages, you'll learn to master fried rice. (Here's the recipe:)

And pick up the basic stir-fry technique for Chinese greens. 

Lucky Peach's master recipe for greens with whole garlic is meant for pea greens, spinach or bok choy. I used baby bok choy with excellent results (can't wait to get my hands on some pea greens!).

You can even amaze your friends with shrimp-and-chive wontons. Wow – these turned out so great, I couldn't believe I made them. And I can't wait to riff on the filling, which was gingery and spot-on.

OK, if we want to split hairs, there was a editing error that might have derailed a less-than-confident cook: The recipe called for square wonton wrappers, but the step-by-step illustration showed how to work with round ones, a completely different routine. (Our adapted recipe shows you how to use the square ones the recipe calls for.) Also, the wontons seemed like they really needed to be served with sauce on them or in a soup, rather than just sent out naked on a serving platter with the dipping sauce, as the book suggests. 

Plated wontons.jpg

I poured some dipping sauce on each serving, which struck me as a little nicer. Um, yeah – pretty great. Check it out:

In a future post, I'll tweak the dumplings, fine-tuning the dipping sauce as well, until they're, you know, off-the-charts crazy-good. 

There's still much more I want to explore in 101 Easy Asian Recipes. A recipe for okonomiyaki – the Japanese cabbage-and-seafood pancake that's on its way to cult status. Thai-style lettuce cups that look delicious. Lion's head meatballs, that Shanghainese favorite. Oyokodon, a homey, Japanese comfort dish of custardy eggs and chicken. And many more.

Of the 101 recipes, there are only two desserts. One is egg custard tarts. The other is oranges. Yes, oranges. "The deal with dessert in the scheme of easy Asian cooking," writes Meehan, "is that you are NOT MAKING IT, not in the 'easy' French way of throwing together a last-minute clafoutis. You are serving fruit. Cut-up fruit if you've got the time."

You see, he's serious about the easy thing. And he has an irresistible breezy writing style that makes the book fun to work with. 

What can I say? Check out the recipes here and the stories about them at Cooks Without Borders. Make one or two that sound appealing. If you love them as much as I did, you'll want to gift yourself with the book faster than you can say dashimaki tamago.