This year's Chinese new year, called the Year of the Dog, comes on Monday, Jan. 25, the year of 4680 in the Chinese calendar. Years ago this holiday was celebrated for a full month from new moon to new moon. Today the festivities are usually shorter. But in the Chinese neighborhoods of most cities usually there are special events for a few days, often including a parade featuring the traditional and colorful dragon dance.
Word of the actual new year date, slightly different each year, is always quickly spread around among those non-Chinese who are devotees of Chinese cuisine.
They search out Chinese restaurants that will be serving special holiday banquets, eager for invitations to their favorite place.
And many Americans who like to cook Chinese foods plan to make some of the special holiday foods such as Golden Coins, a pork dish that symbolizes success, and Tea Eggs, which supposedly help the new year roll in easily.
A more practical approach, suggested by Nina Simonds, Chinese cooking teacher , might be to resolve to try some traditional Chinese dishes that will fit in with your own daily American menus.
Whether or not you have learned, as many Americans have, to cook vegetables lightly to retain crispness, in the Chinese stir-fry manner, you can easily make some of the more hearty winter dishes from this extensive cuisine.
Ms. Simonds, who lived and studied cooking in Taiwan for almost four years, has translated and edited several Chinese cookbooks and for seven years has taught Chinese cooking at various schools in the United States and Canada.
Last year she guided a group of Americans on a cooking-school trip of Taiwan where they studied at the Wei-Chuan Cooking School in Taipei with three Chinese master chefs who specialize in Eastern Regional, Szechuan-Hunan, and Cantonese cuisines.
Classes were taught in Mandarin with Ms. Simonds giving the English translation and commentary. A similiar tour is planned for this year.
Ms. Simonds explains that there is a whole series of braised dishes and stews that are especially good during the cold winter months. She has chosen the following for you to try and she has included short comments introducing each one.
''Beef and lamb are particularly appealing to the Chinese during the cold weather since they are believed to 'fire up' the body. Accordingly, they are served frequently throughout the winter months. The hearty braised beef dish below is especially popular in Peking where this version is said to have originated.'' Braised Soy Sauce Beef 2 pounds boneless stewing beef, such as chuck or shin 1/4 cup peanut, safflower, or corn oil Braising Mixture: 3 stalks scallion, smashed with the flat edge of a cleaver 3 slices gingerroot, smashed with the flat edge of a cleaver whole star anise 1 stick cinnamon 11/4 cups water 1/4 cup soy sauce 11/2 tablespoons sugar
Trim any fat or gristle from meat and cut beef into cubes approximately 1 -inch square. Assemble ingredients of braising mixture.
Heat 3-quart casserole or Dutch oven. Add oil and heat to 400 degrees F. Add half the meat cubes at a time and brown on all sides over high heat. Remove and drain.
Reheat oil for second half of cubes. Remove oil.
Add all cooked beef pieces with braising mixture to casserole and heat until boiling. Reduce heat to low, and simmer 11/2 hours, partially covered, stirring occasionally.
The sauce should be reduced to about 1/2 cup. Remove star anise, scallions, and gingerroot. Transfer beef and sauce to a serving platter and serve hot or cold.''It is said that lamb dishes were so prevalent in the city of Peking, that it was nicknamed ''Mutton City.'' This dish, from Peking, is often served with Scallion or Mandarin Pancakes, but it is also excellent with steamed rice. ''Stir-Fried Lamb With Scallions 2 pounds boned leg of lamb, shank half 5 cups shredded scallion greens or leeks 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 2 cups peanut, safflower, or corn oil Lamb Marinade: 2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 3 1/2 tablespoons water 1 tablespoon cornstarch Lamb Sauce: 2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons water 2 teaspoons rice vinegar1 tablespoon sesame oil
Trim any fat or gristle from the meat and cut, across the grain, into thin slices about 1/8-inch thick. Cut the slices into pieces 11/2-inches long and 1 -inch wide.
Combine with marinade ingredients in a bowl, toss lightly, and let marinate 30 minutes. Prepare scallions, garlic, and lamb sauce.
Heat a wok or heavy skillet and add oil. Heat oil to 400 degrees F. Add half the lamb slices and stir-fry over high heat until pieces change color, about 11/ 2 minutes.
Remove, drain, reheat oil, and cook remaining meat, stirring constantly. Remove and drain.
Remove oil from pan.Reheat wok, add 3 tablespoons oil, and heat until very hot. Add garlic and shredded scallions. Stir-fry over high heat for about 30 seconds. Add cooked lamb pieces and sauce.
Toss lightly over high heat to coat lamb and scallions with sauce. Transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately. Serves 6.
''Lion's Head casserole, a specialty of eastern China, serves equally well as a meal-in-one dish or as a soupy entree with accompanying dishes.
''The browned cabbage and meatballs - which are said to resemble a lion's mane - give this dish its unusual title. ''Lion's Head 2 pounds Chinese celery cabbage 4 tablespoons peanut, safflower, or corn oil 4 cups chicken broth or water 1 1/2 pounds ground pork butt or picnic shoulder Meat Seasonings: 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons sesame oil 1 tablespoon water 1 tablespoon minced scallions 1 teaspoon minced gingerroot 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch Meat Coating: 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon water Broth Seasoning: 3/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Rinse cabbage and drain thoroughly. Remove and set aside 4 big outer leaves. Cut remaining leaves into 2-inch squares, cutting away and removing core.
Heat wok or large skillet and add 1 tablespoon oil. Heat oil until smoking and add the harder cabbage sections, those closer to the stalk.
Stir-fry about 1 minute over high heat, adding about a tablespoon of chicken broth. Add remaining sections of cabbage.
Stir-fry over high heat about 1 minute. Add remaining chicken broth and cook mixture about 10 minutes over medium heat. Transfer cabbage and broth to a heavy , 3-quart casserole or a Dutch oven.
Lightly chop gound meat until fluffy. Combine in a mixing bowl with meat seasonings, and stir vigorously with your hand in a continuous direction.
Lightly throw meat against inside of a mixing bowl to further blend. Divide meat mixture into 4 parts and shape into ovals. Prepare meat coating and broth seasoning. Add broth seasoning to cabbage.
Heat a wok or heavy skillet and add remaining oil. Heat until very hot. Dip meatballs into meat coating and slowly lower into hot oil.
Brown on all sides over high heat. Remove meatballs and drain. Arrange meatballs on top of cooked cabbage in casserole. Cover with 4 cabbage leaves. Cover.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Bake casserole 1 hour. Remove and serve. Serves 6.
Ms. Simonds has recently completed a 24-part series on Chinese gastronomy for Gourmet magazine and at present is writing a Chinese cookbook,''Classic Chinese Cuisine'', to be published by Houghton-Mifflin later this year.
For more information about the 15-day cooking tour in June, contact Nina Simonds, PO Box 363, Manchester, Mass. 01944, (617) 526-1358.