From our family to yours …
Chinese Lunar New Year falls on January 28 this year. The holiday is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all rolled into a week of celebrations. This year will be my third Lunar New Year in Omaha. Since relocating to the Midwest, I have developed a small go-to list for dishes that taste like home (or at least satiate my appetite until my next return visit to Hong Kong).
When coworkers ask me to recommend “real” Chinese food, I often probe how adventurous they are with eating. Authentic Chinese cuisines do not usually come with a thick brown or red sauce. Sometimes, signature dishes also feature uncommon ingredients. Although I never fancied chicken feet, I know several European Americans who will gobble down the dish (which translates to “phoenix talons” in my native Cantonese language) at any opportunity.
Chinese cuisines vary depending on region. Sichuanese (from western China) is known for its “mala” numbing spice. Cantonese (from Hong Kong and Guangdong) is famous for fresh seafood and dim sum. Dumplings, maybe even more than rice, are beloved in northern Chinese cuisines. You might even say Americanized Chinese food is authentic in its own way, with its distinct flavors and history woven into the story of Chinese migration.
1. Fresh housemade dim sum
I was excited to see barbecue pork and duck hanging on display upon entering Canton House Restaurant during my first visit; the Cantonese diner reminds me of the typical Hong Kong-style café (also known as a “cha chaan teng”). The chef started his career in Hong Kong decades ago and has brought a long list of authentic Hong Kong dishes to his restaurant in northwestern Omaha. Dim sum—bite-size breakfast hors d’oeuvres—are freshly made to order; I highly recommend ordering a variety and enjoying them with a group of friends. Stuffed eggplant, fish slices in congee (rice porridge), and sliced beef with pan-fried rice noodles are among my top three choices.
4849 N. 90th St., No. 1, Omaha, NE 68134
2. Savory Shandong cuisine
Tucked in the corner of a strip mall on 72nd Street, Blue and Fly Asian Kitchen is a homey eatery that is crowded with Chinese students every night. The traditional Chinese menu features a range of quick-fried and fish dishes that are iconic of Shandong cuisine. A bilingual handwritten menu beside the kitchen offers a further selection of seasonal delicacies. The owners are generous in sharing their cultural heritage with patrons; for example, in the last Mid-Autumn Festival, they gave out handmade “mooncakes” to diners to share celebration of the Chinese holiday. I have yet to order anything I do not enjoy at Blue and Fly (and I am definitely a frequent patron). My personal favorites include spicy shredded potato (a cold appetizer), spicy pig intestine (an entrée), and a specialty dessert—caramelized sweet potato.
721 S. 72nd St., Omaha, NE 68114
3. Cantonese-style barbecue duck and barbecue pork buns
Order a Cantonese-style duck (half) to go with a bowl of rice, and you will get an authentic Hong Kong lunch experience. Grand Fortune Chinese Restaurant also has an extensive dim sum menu—the baked barbecue pork pastry and baked barbecue pork bun are must-tries as you may only find the steamed version in other dim sum shops in town. Steamed barbecue pork buns are known as “cha siu bao” in Cantonese. Cha siu bao, pork and shrimp dumplings (“siu mai”), and shrimp dumplings (“har gow”) are regular fixtures of dim sum brunch anywhere in the world.
17330 West Center Road, Omaha, NE 68130
4. Dim sum brunch after church
New Gold Mountain is crowded with families after church on Sundays. The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere. Its fried items—such as salt and pepper shrimp, deep-fried minced pork shrimp dumplings, and crispy fried tofu are all finger-licking good. Meat lovers can try barbecue pork with five spiced beef. The meat platter is a common dinner staple in Hong Kong, and is best enjoyed with a bowl of rice and some stir-fried vegetables.
15505 Ruggles St. No.105, Omaha, NE 68116.
5. Mouthwatering tofu dishes
People may not associate Three Happiness Express with authentic Chinese food. But its kung pao tofu is a good representation of Chinese cooking. The tofu is perfectly fried to form a crispy crust; the dish is not drowned, rather it is drizzled with a light brown sauce. The restaurant’s steamed dumplings are also authentic, as long as you skip the sweet and spicy sauce and dip it in soy sauce. Friends from the neighborhood have professed a deep love for the crab rangoons, Princess Chicken, and Loc’s Chicken Wings (and these dishes are definitely American Chinese inventions).
5107 Leavenworth St., Omaha, NE 68106
6. Classic American Chinese food
Golden Palace has an old-school menu and an Oriental interior design that suggest the restaurant has been passed down through generations. The restaurant serves polished classic American Chinese food. The barbecue back ribs are the absolute bomb.
4040 N. 132nd St., Omaha, NE 68164
7. Unlock the secret menu
The “secret menu” of Jade Palace offers authentic Chinese cuisines. Even if you don’t read Chinese, pick a protein and ask the server what he/she recommends. The owner suggested we try “water boiled fish”—beware though, the Sichuanese dish is cooked with a lot of red hot chili peppers. The heat index of the fish is a challenge (southerners, like me, are not known for eating spicy). Be sure to discuss the level of spiciness before ordering.
1702 Galvin Road South, Bellevue, NE 68005
8. Hot pot special
China Garden Restaurant has a winter hot pot special. The communal dish is popular in colder months. Select meats and vegetables from a list, and the server will bring a pot of broth and a portable stove for you to cook the food in. The restaurant offers most of the favorites of Sichuanese cuisine. To drink, ask the server if sweet-sour plum juice is available. Other thirst-quenching options include Tsingtao beer and canned Chinese herbal tea, “Wong Lo Kat.”
8315 Tangier Way, Omaha, NE 68124
9. Fusion Chinese food
P.F. Chang’s modern take on Chinese food results in a range of light, savory fusion cuisine. I highly recommend the chicken lettuce wrap.
Westroads Mall, 10150 California St., Omaha, NE 68114
10. Oldest Chinese restaurant in town
The interior design of King Fong Cafe resembles that of Chinese courtyard houses. The wood carvings and chandeliers (imported from Canton, the old name of Guangzhou) are well-preserved—the visual enjoyment is a feast in itself. The restaurant is not only the oldest Chinese restaurant in town, it is the longest-running restaurant in the city.
315 1/2 S. 16th St., Omaha, NE 68102
* Note: King Fong Cafe announced its temporary closure in 2016 and had not announced a reopening date at the time of Omaha Magazine‘s publication deadline.
Another great way to discover new dishes is to ask the server what Chinese customers have ordered. If something looks delicious at another table, ask your server what it is. For anyone looking to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a Chinese feast, please note that restaurants may close during the festival, so check ahead to confirm if they are open.
Authenticity aside, I absolutely love when fortune cookies arrive with the bill. The American Chinese invention (or American Japanese, depending on the origin story) coincides with Chinese affinity for auspicious signs. Happy Lunar New Year! May your fortune cookie bring good luck!
How do you say “Happy New Year” in Chinese?
“Gong hei fat choi!” That’s Cantonese (the language of Hong Kong and Guangdong).
“Xin nian kuai le!” That’s Mandarin (the official language of mainland China and Taiwan)
…and for a preview of the 2017 Nebraska Chinese Association Lunar New Year Celebration:
Fall is the season when local woodland wanderers stock cellars with oyster mushrooms. These fungi are no secret to Nebraska mushroom hunters. The white-to-tan fan-shaped, or oyster-shell shaped, mushrooms sprout from the sides of trees and logs. Given the right conditions, they will even pop through snowmelt. A single find is often bountiful; a good haul of oyster mushrooms can exceed 20 pounds. They can be dried, pickled, or canned. They pair well with nearly every dish. Oyster mushrooms make an extra-special stuffing for your Thanksgiving guests.
Chris Wright is a mycologist with special interest in oyster mushrooms. Wright has a Ph.D. in plant, soil, and microbial sciences and is the executive director of Midwest American Mycological Information. He researches how oyster mushrooms break down biopollutants.
Wright also regularly finds and eats wild oyster mushrooms. He points out three species of these mushrooms in the Midwest region: Pleurotus ostreatus (the predominant species), Pleurotus populinus (characterized by a white to pink fan), and Pleurotus pulmonarius (the so-called lung-shaped oyster). They are not difficult to identify. Wright says decurrent gills (those running down the stalk) are a distinguishing characteristic of oyster mushrooms. The fungi also have a white to lilac spore print on paper. Wright says it is difficult to mistake something poisonous for oyster mushrooms; however, there is one poisonous look-alike that mushroom hunters should be aware of—Pleurocyubella porrigens.
When asked where to find oyster mushrooms, Wright says, “Look in the woods or on your supermarket shelf.” He also says oyster mushrooms are saprotrophic—they recycle nutrients locked up in woody matter, i.e., “They are a wood rot fungus.”
Oyster mushrooms can be found on ash, aspen, cottonwood, and poplar trees. They will push through the bark of trees after a cold rain. They can sometimes be found in public parks and in neighborhoods, especially on freshly cut trees. Sustainable harvesting requires removal of only the fruiting body and allowing some mushrooms to remain for reproduction.
Wild or domestic, they’ve become a popular commodity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2015 to 2016, the nation’s oyster mushroom production measured roughly 3,749 tons. In 2016, the total value of oyster mushroom sales surpassed $36 million. Whether you buy them or find them, Wright says they all smell “mushroomy.”
“It is a mild smell. Not a strong odor,” he says. “They will pick up the flavor of what’s cooking—garlic, etc.”
He says they have a relatively soft texture and are a nice complement to stir fry or steak. Wright thinks that wild oyster mushrooms differ from commercial mushrooms.
Wild oyster mushrooms grow in a great variety of hues, like a fall bouquet. They smell like rainfall—a trait that cannot be substituted. They are biochemically unique and may play a role in cleaning our planet. Native to the Great Plains, they are delicious and easy to find during this time of year.
Visit midwestmycology.org/Mushrooms/Species%20listed/Pleurotus%20species.html for more information.
Disclaimer: Some varieties of wild mushrooms are poisonous, even deadly. If you choose to harvest or eat wild mushrooms, do so at your own risk.
Just because turkey is healthy doesn’t mean it has to be bland and boring. Try this delicious grilled turkey London broil. The ginger, soy sauce, and brown sugar marinade keep the turkey moist.
Find more great recipes at HealthyKohlsKids.com. The Healthy Kohl’s Kids program is a partnership between Children’s Hospital & Medical Center and Kohl’s Department Stores to educate children and parents about healthy nutrition and fitness.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 Tbsp grated ginger
- 1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce or 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce (gluten free if needed)
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar
- 2 scallions, chopped
- 2 1/2 lbs turkey breast, butterflied
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Black pepper, to taste
- In a large cup, combine olive oil, ginger, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, and scallions.
- In a large, shallow, glass baking dish, arrange turkey breast and pour marinade over it to cover. Turn turkey to coat both sides. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for at least 3 hours, or overnight.
- Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Remove turkey from marinade. Season turkey with the salt and black pepper.
- Grill the turkey 8 minutes on each side, or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the turkey breast registers 165°. Let turkey rest for 5 minutes before slicing.
Nutrition Facts: Serving Size: 5 oz turkey;
Calories: 238; Fat: 9g; Saturated Fat: 1g;
Cholesterol: 70mg; Sodium: 340mg;
Carbohydrates: 3g; Fiber: 0; Protein: 34g
Yield: 8 servings
If there was one thing I did well when working in my church front office, it was receiving calls and walk-ins from people who needed money for food, gas bill, rent, or a heat bill. The hard part was telling them we couldn’t help them with their requests. For the record, and as a sign of the times, churches don’t keep cash around.
If someone ended up at our church, it was likely they had already been through every paper-worked system in the community. They were surely told they were liars. They surely had been asked how they got into that position in the first place. They were harshly judged. They had bill collectors threaten them. They surely had to decide whether to pay the heat bill or buy groceries.
And maybe they were lying. Maybe they should have done things differently. But when it all comes down to it, so what? Does solving the mystery of how or why somebody got where they are solve anything? Shouldn’t we just keep it simple? Just help out with no strings of judgment attached?
Don’t forget they’re hungry. Do you know what it feels like to be hungry? Do you know how grumpy you are when you’re hungry for just 20 minutes? Heck, we miss a meal at our house and it’s four Mr. Hydes running around. Imagine missing four meals or two days of food and having no idea where or when you’ll get your next meal.
I made sure to come home from the church office and tell Chris about the calls I had taken and the circumstances. I’d whisper so the kids would do what they always do when they hear whispers—try to listen in. I want them to know that there are people in need.
So, this year, we will sit down for our healthy and humble, traditional Thanksgiving meal. And we’ll have served at our church food pantry throughout the year. We’ll have given away the clothes the children have grown out of so fast that they’re practically brand new. And hopefully I’ve listened to a few people in need, and helped when I could.
Eat well. Be grateful. Hug a lot. And listen. I think we’ll all be better for it.
It’s the perfect way to warm up on a chilly day. Try this easy turkey soup that can also add a welcome, new twist to Thanksgiving leftovers.
For more healthy recipes, visit HealthyKohlsKids.com. The Healthy Kohl’s Kids program is a partnership between Children’s Hospital & Medical Center and Kohl’s Department Stores to educate children and parents about healthy nutrition and fitness.
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- ½ cup chopped onion
- ½ cup diced carrot
- ½ cup diced celery
- 1/8 tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp dried oregano
- ½ tsp dried basil
- 1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, with liquid
- 3 cups water
- 3 cups vegetable broth
- 1 can (15 oz) great Northern beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 cups (about 16 ounces) cubed cooked turkey
- ½ cup cubed zucchini
- 1 Tbsp dried parsley
- In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes.
- Stir in carrot, celery, pepper, oregano, and basil. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes.
- Add tomatoes with their liquid, water, broth, beans, and turkey and stir. Cover saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer gently for 30 minutes.
- Add zucchini and parsley and cook until zucchini is cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Serve.
Yield: 8 servings
Calories: 165, Fat: 2g, Saturated Fat: 0g, Cholesterol: 47mg, Sodium: 528mg, Carbohydrates: 14g, Fiber: 4g, Protein: 21g
* Nutritional information is based on ingredients listed and serving size; any additions or substitutions to ingredients may alter the recipe’s nutritional content.
I love to cook, but the Thanksgiving production in my kitchen has lost its luster. On top of that, I’m not great at cooking gigantor birds, I don’t like stuffing, and it’s physically and emotionally impossible for me to make gravy. There, I said it.
My life changed a few years ago when I discovered a Thanksgiving secret. So let’s just keep this one between us, okay? Most grocery stores offer delicious pre-made turkey dinners. I saw this “secret” advertised in the newspaper. Most include a turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry relish. (Try buying your Thanksgiving grocery list for under a $100). Some also offer other sides you can choose from. But since I love to cook to relieve stress, not induce it, I get the dinner and make a couple of our favorite sides—usually green bean casserole and pumpkin pie.
Last year, I called a pal who had her in-laws in town on Thanksgiving Day. I could hear the sweat dripping from her head, pots clanking, kids screaming—and I’m pretty sure she cussed out her husband for being in the kitchen. When I mentioned the pre-cooked turkey dinner and that I just had to heat it up, her response was a shriek. “YOU CAN DO THAT?!” Yes, you can.
Here’s what you do. You secretly order the turkey dinner, pick it up, stash it, dish it on your china, and your family is none the wiser. You save money, everyone eats, and you don’t have the annual meltdown in the kitchen this year because all of the yelling about how the football game muffled the sound of the oven timers, and now the turkey is overcooked and the pie is burned. There’s not enough whipped cream to fix a burnt pie. Trust me, I’ve tried. You get none of that shame, and all of the glory with the pre-cooked dinner. We’ll all just keep it to ourselves, and go from there.
By the way, when you have time, money, and hands freed up from all that cooking, you can do some or all of these:
- Serve dinners to the less fortunate.
- Donate money for dinners to the Food Bank, Together, or other local agencies committed to fighting hunger.
- Play with your kids.
- Go for a run or workout before you eat (because you don’t have to tend to all that stuff in the kitchen).
- Spend the rest of your Thanksgiving budget on Black Friday, or better yet, a nice bottle of wine.
- When’s the last time you watched the entire parade?
Read more of Murrell’s stories at momontherocks.com.
Grief is an unavoidable part of life. Everyone encounters it at some point, and it usually strikes when least expected. And though no one grieves the same, the emptiness that follows losing a loved one is universal, whether it’s for a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a child, even a pet.
But the true test is not the grief itself—it’s coming back from it.
Looking at John and Cindy Murcek of Millard today, you wouldn’t know that they suffered a terrible family loss. John is a painting contractor; Cindy is a social studies and English teacher at Andersen Middle School in the Millard Public Schools district. They’ve been married for a little over 20 years.
They have three children—sons Eric, 14, and Will, 7, and daughter Jamie, 5. “Eric’s in tennis. Will’s in football. Jamie’s in gymnastics…It’s kind of busy, but it’s the good kind of busy,” Cindy says. When asked how the kids get along, she laughs. “Will and Jamie will either play together or be at each other’s throats. Eric, being the teenager, thinks they’re annoying sometimes. But they’re all good kids.”
John and Cindy’s devotion to their children is what Cindy believes binds their relationship. “We want our children to know that they have a secure home, and that we’re giving them the best life that we can. I came from a divorced family, so it’s important for them to know that that will never happen. And John’s from a big Catholic family, so family and staying together has always been important to him.”
Twelve years ago during the Thanksgiving holiday, however, their family was shaken when they were on their way back to Omaha from Billings, Mont., after visiting Cindy’s sister and her family. Their truck hit black ice and rolled. John, Cindy, and Eric were all fine, but Cindy’s mom, who rarely traveled, and the Murceks’ oldest son, Andy, were killed.
“It was devastating,” Cindy says. “That’s an understatement.”
While they grieved, John and Cindy found support in each other. “I think that incident made John’s and my bond stronger. Nobody loved Andy like we did, nobody can break that, and nobody can understand our loss. We had that grief to share; and though we grieved differently, we both knew exactly what the other was feeling.”
Eric, at the time, was 2. While he didn’t understand everything, he knew Andy was supposed to be there but wasn’t. “He’d ask where Andy was and if he could play with him,” Cindy says. “When we went to the grocery store, he’d ask if he could get Andy a snack. Of course, I let him. We’d even tell him stories about Andy.” Although they missed their oldest son, Cindy says that she and John were grateful to still have Eric. “He was my reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
Today, Cindy aches for Eric almost more than she did when he was too young to understand his brother’s death. “He’s a freshman in high school now. Andy would’ve been a senior. He would’ve had his big brother in school with him.”
The grieving process for the Murceks was always about time. Some days were harder than others, but each day, it got a little easier. “As time goes on, grief is more a silent battle…You deal with it on your own, you face it, and go on.”
During that silent battle, Cindy says she bought a “full library” of books on grief and went to grief groups, looking for a fix. But it was faith that turned everything around for her.
“I wasn’t really a spiritual person before. My mom was,” she says. “It’s weird, but I feel like that’s why she was on that trip with us. She knew she was going to a better place and teaching me a little faith as well.”
Cindy swears her mom is still teaching her lessons in faith to this day. She recalls a Sunday when her church’s pastor asked the congregation to open their Bibles to a specific verse. “My mom had given me a Bible several years before, and I’d never used it. But I brought it with me that day.” When Cindy opened the Bible to the verse, she realized it had been underlined. “I flipped through some more pages and saw that my mom had underlined verses she thought would be good for me to read. It was the most incredible thing.”
Andy, too, seemed to connect with them in unexpected ways. “Last Christmas, we went to the cemetery to visit him,” she says. “I thought ‘Give me something from Andy, God.’ That night, we had a party, and a neighbor brought over a journal where other people had written about memories of Andy.”
These little moments strengthened Cindy’s faith and helped her see that everything would be all right again. Then again, the addition of two more precious gifts took her mind off the grief, too.
“We assumed it was just going to be the three of us.” But John and Cindy talked about having another child. Certainly, they viewed adding another child to their family differently after Andy’s passing. “Another person to love and lose,” Cindy says. Nevertheless, it was a chance they were willing to take.
In 2005, they heard about a young girl looking to give her baby up for adoption. “[Will] was born, and in six months, we had a new baby…We hadn’t really planned on it. It just kind of happened.” Another surprise took shape when Cindy found out she was pregnant. “I turned 40 and learned I was pregnant with Jamie. John and I were both like, ‘Two little ones in diapers? We can’t handle this!’” But Jamie, like Will, was a blessing in disguise. Cindy jokes that they finally got a “little princess” after all boys.
“We feel truly blessed,” Cindy says. “Yes, we lost my son and my mom, but there are situations much worse. We’re glad to have a loving family.”
For others grieving the loss of family members, Cindy has some good advice: “I would recommend that you let your family be there for you and understand that grief is a lifelong process…I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own, and that realization made me feel so much better. Just let people help you. Talk to families with similar losses. The sadness won’t go away, but the hopelessness will.”
As for her mom and Andy, Cindy smiles. “I know we’ll see them again.”
- 1 (15 oz) can pumpkin
- 1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 (9 inch) unbaked pie crust
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Whisk pumpkin, sweetened condensed milk, eggs, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and salt in medium bowl until smooth.
- Pour mixture into unbaked pie crust.
- Bake 15 minutes.
- Reduce oven temperature to 350°F and continue baking 35-40 minutes (or until knife inserted 1 inch from crust comes out clean).
- Cool and store leftovers covered in refrigerator.