Thursday, April 20, 2006

Mock Chow Mein

Updated: This has proven to be quite a popular post, and every few days someone shows up at this humble blog, looking for Mock Chow Mein recipes. I originally wrote this post because I thought the stuff sounded icky and I wanted to make fun of it. Now that I'm getting so many hits from people sincerely looking for information, I feel kind of bad about that. I'd hate for people to come here and go away disappointed, and I do think there's a kernel of a good idea within the recipe, so at the end of this post I'm adding a few thoughts on how to improve on the dish. Enjoy!

Updated II (8/18/06): I'd like to further point out that roughly 85% of the hits I get for this recipe come from the upper Midwest, primarily from Minnesota. So I'm wondering if we ought to consider this a regional specialty, and treasure it alongside the likes of New England Clam Chowder and Memphis-style BBQ. Hmm. I dunno about that, really, but I figured I'd pass it along, for whatever it's worth.

Here's a recipe that was recently brought to my attention, for a classic, uniquely American dish known as "Mock Chow Mein". It's originally from a newspaper somewhere out in Eastern Oregon. Possibly it was the Baker City Herald, although I can't find it on their site. [Updated: Wrong paper; it was the Heppner Gazette-Times. I stand corrected.] Perhaps they want to keep this fabulous taste sensation a secret only the locals get to know about. But somehow a hardcopy version has come into my possession, and now all shall be revealed:

Brown together:
1 lb. ground beef
1 chopped onion
1 cup cut celery

1 can mushrooms
1 can tomato soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup

Cover and bake 1 hr. at 350 degrees.

Just before serving, stir in one pkg. chow mein noodles,
so they're still crisp when eaten.

What could be easier? What could be more scrumptious? Well, just about everything, quite honestly, but it's still a classic, dammit, just like the Edsel.

Here are three more recipes, although it must be said that all 3 introduce suspicious foreign impurities, such as rice and soy sauce. The recipe sitting on my desk has the fewest ingredients, and it also has a grainy picture of the nice(?) little old lady who contributed the recipe. It looks like she's smiling, so we can assume she meant well when she sent the recipe in. Since it has the fewest ingredients, and contains no added seasonings whatsoever, I have to conclude that hers is the most purely American of all the variants, and is therefore the best. I'm 100% sure of this despite never having tried any of them. The experts do disagree on whether Mock Chow Mein is a casserole or a hotdish, and I'm not sure where I stand on that controversy. It seems to draw equally from both rich cullinary traditions, so it's hard to say.

Most recipes don't include a tomato component, so the consensus seems to be that you can omit the tomato soup if you prefer. Also, the celery and canned mushrooms are just there to provide roughage, not flavor (as far as I can tell), so you can probably get away without those either. The truly minimal recipe is simply to eat the chow mein noodles directly out of the bag, and dispense with all that other crap. It's faster, it's cheaper, and the noodles stay crisp for as long as you like. This is the only version I was able to find a picture for, for some reason.

The ideal drink pairing would be an O'Doul's, or perhaps a Kaliber if you're feeling extra fancy.
For dessert, serve Mock Apple Pie and a nice cup of Postum.

Bon appetit!

Like I said, I do think the basic idea has potential, and so here are a few ideas on how to make something tastier than the recipe given above. The main problem with that recipe, and with the other recipes I've seen, is all that canned soup. Ugh! Dishes made with canned soups are always way too salty and underseasoned for my taste. It also seems like you could save yourself an hour or more if you just did everything in the pan or skillet and didn't bother with baking it all into a casserole, which seems kind of pointless.

A brief survey of mock chow mein recipes via Google gives us a few clues about the "essence" of the dish. Let's begin by completely abandoning any idea that we're making Chinese food here, because we aren't. This dish has nothing whatsoever to do with what people in China actually eat, but that's ok, because we're not in China. Well, I'm not, anyway. And as a result, we're free to cook it however we like, and ignore any silly questions about whether we're being "authentic" or not.

As for ingredients, I think the guiding principle is flexibility. You should be able to make it with things you're likely to have at hand. If you need to omit or substitute a few of the ingredients, it's not a big deal. And it just seems wrong somehow to require any weird, hard-to-find, expensive ingredients. That would really violate the spirit of the whole thing.

  • First we have those crunchy chow mein noodles. We'll keep those, because it just isn't chow mein without the noodles. When I talked earlier about eating chow mein noodles right out of the bag, I was speaking from experience. The most important thing with the noodles is to keep them crispy, and the best way to do that is not combine them with the other ingredients until serving time.
  • Then there's meat of some kind. Ground beef is the default, and if a recipe simply says "mock chow mein", you can bet it's got ground beef in it. I'm a big fan of beef, so we'll go with that.
  • I expect the onions are included because they go so well with beef. That's an undeniable fact, unless you're a vegetarian or something. Browning/sauteeing the onions with the beef is a fine idea.
  • Mushrooms are a matter of personal opinion. I think they go great with beef, but I'm the mushroom-eating half of a divided household. So let's agree they're optional. Oh, and don't use the canned ones if you don't have to. Please.
  • Then we have one or more crunchy vegetables, typically celery and/or water chestnuts. Both of these are longtime staples of so-called "oriental food", but I think you could just as easily use bell peppers, for example, or just dispense with the vegetables if you prefer. You already have the crunchy noodles, so you'll still have some texture even if you leave the veggies out. It's no big deal either way.
  • Which brings us to the canned soup. Most of the time it's cream of mushroom soup, which I understand was the magic elixir of every 60's housewife. Sometimes a second soup is added, like the tomato soup in the recipe above, but let's focus on the mushroom soup right now. Every canned mushroom soup I've ever tasted has been a complete salt grenade, so let's not bother looking for the "right" canned soup, and try to figure out why the soup goes in in the first place. A quick Google search gives lots of mushroom soup recipes. The recipes differ in a few details, but they're broadly similar in their ingredients: Mushrooms, chicken stock, salt, pepper, nutmeg(!), butter, cream (or half & half, or evaporated milk, or even sour cream), onions (or shallots), salt & pepper, sometimes a bit of sherry, sometimes a bit of flour to thicken things up. Let's assume we're already covered in the mushroom and onion/shallot departments, and go from there.
  • I have to admit I'm not keen on the dairy component, but you're the chef, not me, so feel free to add it if you think you need it.
  • The stock and the sherry both sound like great ideas, and you can use either one, or both. They can just go in the skillet along with the beef, onions, and other veggies, and then use one or the other to deglaze with afterwards. I'd use red wine instead of sherry, myself, because I think it'd go better with the beef, onions, and mushrooms. Heck, you could probably use beer instead and it'd be good too.
  • I'd add some garlic, too, because garlic is great in everything.

As for preparation, just cook everything up together in the skillet, until the beef and onions are done, and serve over the noodles. It's not fancy, it's certainly not gourmet or anything, but I'll bet money it's better than anything you can make by going the traditional "Campbell's soup casserole" route.

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