Liven up your salad
With warm spring weather comes plenty of juicy, crunchy fruits and vegetables to add to the menu. Here in Beijing, many people turn to liangban (凉拌) dishes, which are cold dishes usually of raw vegetables accompanying tofu or noodles. A liangban dish is essentially a salad without a heavy dressing, adorned instead with flavors commonly found in a Chinese pantry: a little sesame oil, a little vinegar, and a dash of soy sauce, perhaps. This combination of flavorings can be used to dress any raw vegetable – even nutrient-rich sea kelp – and also makes a great sauce for a bowl of noodles. For a bit of extra heft, sesame paste can be a much healthier alternative to mayonnaise or cream sauces.
But if your kids don’t feel as passionately as you do about a fresh plate of raw veggies, try livening up any dish with a few vegetable critters, which can be made with ingredients available in any local market and all year round.
• Cherry tomatoes
• Preserved, seedless dates
Slice carrots into tiny slivers. Using preserved seedless dates – preferably the kind that is for snacking, as these are soft, sticky and easy to shape – take one and cut off the tip for the ladybug’s head. Make a small incision in the headpiece and place two carrot slivers inside to form the antennae.
Slice the remaining part of the date in half lengthwise to form the torso, and shape one end of the torso into a pointed tip. Take one cherry tomato and slice it lengthwise into quarters. Make two small incisions on the surface of each quarter and place a small piece of date in each to form the ladybug’s spots.
Assemble the ladybug by placing the tomato wings on each side of the pointed end of the date torso. Lastly, place the head and antennae at the front.
• Wolfberries (aka gouqi berries)
• Bitter gourd
Soak some wolfberries in water and slice carrots into slivers. Using a slice of bitter gourd, which has a naturally bumpy surface that makes for great caterpillar bodies, follow the uneven edges with a knife to create a ribbed effect. It may be a good idea to salt the melon beforehand to draw out some of the bitterness.
Slice the end of the gourd to form a slanted plane for the caterpillar’s face. Cut one wolfberry into halves and place them on the face to form the caterpillar’s eyes.
Make a small incision above the eyes and insert two slivers of carrot to form the antennae.
• Preserved dates
• Tofu sheets
• Carrot slivers
Take one date and cut it into three parts. One tip of the date will be the head of the bee, the middle part will be the torso, and the end tip can be pinched into the shape of a sting.
Slice pieces of the tofu thinly to make the bee’s stripes. Cut leaf shapes to make wings. The wings can be left by a window to dry, as this will cause them to curl and gives the effect of wings in flight, but remember that tofu sheets will dry out and become brittle, so make sure to place them in an airtight container when not using them.
Wrap the date torso with three tofu sheet stripes. Secure the stripes by pressing them into the sticky flesh of the date. Make an incision in the date head and insert two slivers of carrot to form antennae. Assemble the pieces together to form the bee.