Enjoying an East-West Feast

Published November, 2008

Chef Ming Tsai's Thanksgiving spread sates his desire for food and family

"I was born, still am, and will always be hungry," says Chef Ming Tsai, TV personality, cookbook author, and chef and owner of Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Mass.

For the ever-hungry chef, there is no better holiday than Thanksgiving. "Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, bar none. Our family has an attitude of gratitude and Thanksgiving is the day that really marks that," says Chef Tsai. "And then you just get to chow [down] and eat all day. There is no other holiday where it is okay to eat all day. You don’t have to do anything but eat, eat, and eat."

Forty-four-year-old Chef Tsai’s food obsession is a family trait. The host and executive producer of the public TV show Simply Ming recalls spending summer in Taipei, China, visiting his grandparents and eating, what he describes as 'the best food in the world.' The young, future-chef spent his visits dining on 'incredibly cheap and delicious street food," as well as home cooked food from his Nai-Nai (grandmother) and Yeh-Yeh (grandfather), and also from their personal chef Ah-Hao. "My grandfather really loved to eat and he loved the fact that I loved to eat," he says.

Chef Tsai was raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he spent his summers as a teenager working at his mother’s restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen. Thanksgivings were held at his parents’, Iris and Stephen Tsai's house, rather than at the home of his Nai-Nai and Yeh-Yeh, who had, by then, moved to Dayton. Their holiday food had an East-West flair with a traditional turkey, cranberry sauce, and even packaged stuffing, but right alongside were sticky-rice stuffing with garlic, chives, and ginger and stir-fried bok choy or green beans.

Tsai has carried this marriage of two worlds into his own holiday table with onion, ginger, and lemongrass-infused cranberry sauce, stir-fried vegetables, shiitake gravy, a chorizo and fennel stuffing, his wife Polly Tsai’s apple upside-down cake, and the "pièce de résistance": brined and deep-fried turkey. He learned from his grandparents to "make 20 to 30 percent more food than [the number of] people coming to dinner. This was not only about hospitality," he says, "but in a Chinese household, it is the culture to make sure you never run out of food." Despite the quantity, he insists "nothing is wasted. We want to have leftovers. Nothing is better than a turkey sandwich the next day."

Ming Tsai's Chorizo Stuffing
Chorizo, a spicy pork sausage, gives this hearty stuffing a wonderful smoky flavor

At Blue Ginger, Chef Ming Tsai uses house-made sambal chile brioche, but suggests home cooks make [the stuffing] with store-bought cornbread.

1 teaspoon canola oil
1 pound spicy pork chorizo
2 onions, diced 1/4-inch
3 carrots, diced 1/4-inch
3 ribs celery, diced 1/4-inch
2 bulbs of fennel, diced 1/4-inch
4 cups store-bought cornbread, cut into 1-inch chunks and toasted in low oven until crispy around edges
1 cup chicken stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Heat the oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the chorizo. Cook until browned, about 4 to 5 minutes.
3. Remove chorizo to a plate and drain excess fat from the pan, leaving just a light coating on the pan bottom. Add the onions, carrots, celery, and fennel, salt and pepper to taste and sauté until softened.
4. Add the chicken stock to the pan, stirring often to scrape up any browned bits on bottom of pan.
5. Add the chorizo back to the pan along with the cornbread and mix well. Check the flavor and season with additional salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.
6. Grease a baking dish with cooking spray and spoon stuffing mixture into it. You can chill this overnight in the fridge, if you like, just let it come to room temperature before baking. Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes, and serve.

Yield: Serves 4.

Ming Tsai's East-West Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry sauce, sweet and tart, with an Asian-inspired twist

Ming Tsai serves his East-West ginger-infused cranberry sauce, inspired by his Chinese upbringing, and a staple at his American holiday celebration.

1 teaspoon canola oil
1 heaping tablespoon minced ginger
2 small red onions, minced
1 bag fresh cranberries
Zest and juice of 2 large oranges
1 cup packed brown sugar (add more to taste, if desired)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat a medium saucepan over high heat and add the oil.
2. Quickly add ginger and onions and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.
3. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until cranberries have softened and are starting to break up. Check flavor and season if necessary. This is best served warm, although it is also delicious cold.

Yield: Serves 4.