Long before science proved that chicken soup really does do some good for a cold -- about 3000 B.C., in fact -- the Chinese already had discovered that certain plants and food combinations had healing properties.
A new cookbook, "A Spoonful of Ginger" (Knopf, $30), by Nina Simonds phrases the argument in culinary terms, with some interesting recipes that are sure to soothe the senses if not the body.
Simonds' book says flat-out on the cover that the recipes inside are "health-giving." Chinese cooking authority Simonds makes the claim based on personal research she has done since her first trip to Asia in 1972. Although it's hard to say whether these recipes will have precisely the tonic effects claimed, the book still makes a nicely written case for holistic care through food.
Chapters include "Nourishing Soups" and "The Neutralizers: Rice Bread and Noodles," with other chapters devoted to fish and meat, vegetables, soybeans and tofu. Inside are 200 recipes that would be at home on most dining tables. We especially liked the simple black bean shrimp we tested. Recipes are easy to follow and have ingredients that could be found at most supermarkets.
Baked Black Bean Shrimp
Preparation time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: About 15 minutes
Chilling time: 20 minutes
2 pounds large shrimp (16 to 20 per pound), shelled and deveined
3 1/2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon canola or corn oil
2 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons minced scallions, white part only
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
SAUCE (mixed together):
3/4 cup chicken broth (see below)
2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons minced scallion greens, for garnish
Rinse the shrimp, drain and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the back and open each shrimp to butterfly it. Put the shrimp in a bowl and add the rice wine and ginger. Toss lightly to coat, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Arrange the butterflied shrimp shell side down, with the flaps open, in 1 or 2 heat-proof quiche or pie pans.
Heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat, add the oil and heat until very hot. Add the seasonings and stir-fry for about 10 seconds with a slotted spoon or spatula until fragrant. Add the premixed sauce (except for the scallion greens) and cook, stirring to prevent lumps, until it has thickened. Then spoon the sauce over the butterflied shrimp and cover with aluminum foil.
(Alternatively, you may place the pan in a steamer over boiling water.)
Bake the shrimp in the middle rack for about 8 to 9 minutes, or until they have become opaque. (Steam for 10 to 12 minutes.) Uncover the pan and sprinkle the minced scallion greens over the shrimp.
Serve immediately with steamed rice and a vegetable.
According to Dr. Henry Lu, author of "The Chinese System of Food Cures," a regular diet of fermented black beans can relieve depression and stress and counteract any toxins.
Classic Chicken Broth
Makes about 6 cups
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 1 1/2 hours
9 cups water
2 1/2 pounds chicken backs, necks, bones and pieces
1 cup rice wine or sake
6 slices fresh ginger, each the size of a quarter, smashed lightly with the flat side of a knife
6 whole scallions, ends trimmed, smashed lightly with the flat side of a knife
Put the water with the chicken bones, rice wine or sake, ginger slices and scallions in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 1 1/2 hours, skimming the surface to remove any impurities.
Strain the broth through a fine-meshed strainer, removing the bones or chicken pieces, and skim to remove any fat. Use the broth as directed in the recipe.
This delicate chicken broth is used as a base for many soups and sauces. It freezes beautifully and can be prepared in advance.