We have a lot of vintage china, mostly individual pieces picked up at antique shops, flea markets, yard sales and farm auctions. Some are quite old and fairly valuable, true antiques. Others fall squarely into the collectibles realm. All were chosen because we liked them and wanted to use them on our table.
Willow pattern china is harder to categorize. The design dates back to the late 1700s. It was created by an English porcelain maker and inspired by hand painted blue and white porcelains imported from China. A new technique called transfer printing allowed the china to be mass produced instead of each piece being painted by hand, and English potteries mass produced it with a vengeance to feed an ever-growing demand.
The Willow pattern, mostly produced in blue (but also in red, green, purple, black, brown and a host of other colors) has been in continuous production ever since, in potteries around the world. But even with hundreds of makers worldwide, the Willow pattern contains certain key elements that make it instantly recognizable, according to Willow Collectors International: “a willow tree, an orange or apple tree, two birds, people on a bridge, a fence, a boat and a teahouse, which some collectors call a pagoda.”
Those elements captivated me as a child. My grandmother’s Blue Willow china did not date back to 18th century England—it came from 1960s Kroger, no doubt some store promotion to keep customers coming back to the store week after week for new pieces. Whatever the source, I loved it. Before dinner at my grandmother’s house, I would sometimes stare at my plate, absorbed by the intricate, exotic detail.
Precisely that humble personal history worked against Willow Ware for years for Marion and me. It was ubiquitous at flea markets and seemed grocery store down market (even though some pieces are old, rare and quite valuable). Still, I always stopped when I saw it. Eventually, Marion did too. Even more eventually, we started buying pieces.
Our decisions to buy or not buy individual pieces of Blue Willow are driven more by condition, price and “do we want this particular piece?” than by manufacturer’s marks. This past weekend, needing to get out of town if for only a day, we drove down to Bloomington, Illinois, about 135 miles outside of Chicago. In one of the antique shops we hit there, we found a small Blue Willow serving bowl in great shape for about five bucks. At the time, we didn’t even check the mark. Turns out it was made in Japan, probably in the 1950s or ’60s. The plate in the photos above is marked Made in Occupied Japan, giving it a little more history and a little more baggage.
Perhaps it was our Blue Willow find this weekend that inspired Marion to make this week’s recipe. Perhaps it was an abundance of asparagus in our fridge. In any case, the result was subtle and complex and delicious – and it was beautiful on our Blue Willow.
This recipe also uses a great Chinese cooking technique – velveting chicken, a simple extra step that leaves the chicken (or pork) moist and tender. Sometimes, the meat is velveted by quickly blanching it in a bath of hot oil. Here we used a simpler method, poaching it in simmering water.
Stir-fried Chicken with Asparagus
Serves 2 to 3
1 pound boneless chicken
1 egg white
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon rice wine (or dry white wine) [editor's note: can substitute cooking wine]
1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed, cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 scallions, the tips cut off, the rest cut into 1-inch pieces
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1. Velvet the chicken. Slice it into small pieces (about 2” long and 1/2” wide). In a bowl, whisk together the egg white, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, wine and 1 tablespoon canola oil. Season the sliced chicken with salt, add it to the bowl and mix everything together with your hands. Refrigerate, covered, for half an hour.
2. In a skillet, combine 1 tablespoon of canola oil and enough water to reach 1” deep. Bring to a boil. Add the chicken and gently stir, then return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 90 seconds. Turn off the heat and, using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to a colander to drain. It is now cooked and ready. Set aside.
3. Start cooking the rice.
4. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Mix soy sauce, honey, water and fresh lemon juice in a small bowl. Set aside. Stir remaining 2 tablespoons of cornstarch into 1/4 cold water until dissolved. Set aside.
5. Heat 2 or 3 tablespoons canola oil in a clean skillet or a wok over a medium-high flame. When the pan is hot, add the asparagus all at once. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes, then remove from the pan and transfer to a bowl.
6. Put another tablespoon or two of oil into the skillet/wok and heat to medium. Add the velvet chicken and sauté for about 90 seconds – you want it to start browning. Then add the ginger, shallots and garlic to the pan and stir and sauté everything for about another 90 seconds to two minutes. Add in the sauce; stir everything together. When it starts to heat up, add in the cornstarch and water and cook another minute or so until it is clear and beginning to thicken. Add in the asparagus and the cut scallions and stir just to heat everything through. Serve over cooked rice.
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