A Little More Moo Goo Gai Pan

Bob Newhart (Courtesy of the William Morris Agency)

Bob Newhart (Courtesy of the William Morris Agency)

 
 
I am making Moo Goo Gai Pan for the Chinese New Year. The Year of the Tiger starts this Sunday, February 14 (maybe the tiger will wear pink hearts?).
 
Moo Goo Gai Pan, a Cantonese chicken-and-mushroom dish, isn’t necessarily classic new-year fare. It isn’t even my favorite Chinese recipe. Although I like its gentle balance of flavors I tend to prefer spicy Chinese food.
 
I’m serving Moo Goo Gai Pan because I’ve been watching The Bob Newhart Show lately.
 
I have never been a fan of physical humor. Much of it is based on pain or at the very least embarrassment. I cringe at my nephew Michael’s most recent passion, the Three Stooges. To a nine-year-old boy hitting someone over the head with a giant mallet ranks as the epitome of funny, but it leaves me cold.
 
Verbal humor, on the other hand, I have appreciated since I began understanding language. A clever pun or a flight of wordful whimsy tickles my fancy more than all the slipped-upon banana peels in the world.
 
As a result I’m fond of Bob Newhart. An early stand-up (and recording) comedy star who went on to play the lead in two successful televised situation comedies, Newhart doesn’t launch his humor with his body or his facial expressions. His face tends to be blank no matter what he’s saying or reacting to.
 
He just stands there and delivers deadpan lines. And we laugh.
 
Newhart’s characters tend to be everymen, folks with whom any of us can identify. In one of his earliest routines he portrayed a hapless security guard at the Empire State Building trying to deal with the arrival of King Kong.
 
On The Bob Newhart Show his character, Bob Hartley, is a psychologist but not a know-it-all. Bob listens patiently to his slightly neurotic patients, to his wife, to his friends, and to anonymous bureaucrats on the other side of a telephone line.
 
He doesn’t always understand them, and they don’t always understand him, but the conversation continues. It’s always worth listening to.
 
One of the best remembered episodes of this series is “Over the River and Through the Woods,” which aired in November 1975, during the show’s fourth season.
 
We are now used to television programs that have multiple, intertwined plots. “Over the River,” like most episodes of its era, revolves around only one basic plot. Bob Hartley’s wife Emily decides to go to a family reunion for Thanksgiving, and Bob elects to stay home.
 
He and his lonely buddies (all regular characters) gather at the Hartley apartment to spend the day together watching football on television. They can’t cook, but they can drink from the jug of vodka and cider Jerry the Orthodontist has brought to the party.
 
Jerry is a graduate of William and Mary, and his alma mater’s team has an important football game scheduled on Thanksgiving. He shares with his friends the William and Mary tradition of taking a swig from the jug every time the opposition scores. The opposition scores a lot in this particular game.
 
The men gathered in the Hartleys’ apartment finish the day drunk, with a small frozen turkey still stowed away in the dishwasher (yes, the dishwasher).
 
In order to counterbalance the abundance of alcohol in their system they order Chinese food. Bob calls the House of Hu and places multiple orders for Moo Goo Gai Pan. At the end of the program the bill comes to almost $100, a sizeable sum for take-out in 1975.
 
The plot doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t. What works in this episode, as it does in so many of the programs put out by the MTM production company in the 1970s, is the careful combination of writing and acting that makes the characters at once funny and very real.
 
One feels as though one knows them. I’ve never gotten drunk on Thanksgiving (although I’ve often had a hankering for Chinese food!). I empathize with the endearing characters sitting around Bob’s living room watching football and trading bad jokes, however. We’ve all had holidays that didn’t quite work out as planned—and we’ve all shared strange as well as happy days with our friends.
 
If you’d like to see Bob Newhart, director James Burrows, and other colleagues reminisce about the “Moo Goo Gai Pan” episode of the The Bob Newhart Show, visit TV Land’s clip from the Archive of American Television’s tribute to the show’s 35h anniversary.
 
And this Chinese New Year please join me in a little Moo Goo Gai Pan.
 
At eighty Bob Newhart, bless him, is still touring the country doing comedy and answering his own fan mail.
 
Let’s raise a glass of cider and vodka—well, maybe just cider–to him, to his writers, to his fellow actors, and to the little MTM kitten that (in homage to Leo the MGM Lion) meowed at the end of every MTM production.
 
Moo Goo Gai Pan web
 
Moo Goo Gai Pan
 
Ingredients:
 
for the marinade:
 
1 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste
2 egg whites
6 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons peanut oil
 
for the sauce:
 
6 green onions, chopped (the white part plus a little of the green)
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1-1/2 cups strong chicken broth (you may want to add a bouillon cube to your broth to make it stronger)
3-1/2 tablespoons dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch paste (cornstarch dissolved in JUST enough water to make a paste)
 
for assembly:
 
2 boned, skinned chicken breasts, sliced as thinly as possible
peanut oil as needed for frying
6 ounces mushrooms (oriental mushrooms such as shitakes work best), sliced
1/2 pound snow peas, ends trimmed
a few pieces baby corn if you have them
 
Instructions:
 
In 2 different medium-sized bowls combine the marinade and the sauce. Place the chicken pieces in the marinade and leave them for at least 1/2 hour.
 
In a wok or similar wide frying pan pour enough peanut oil to make a little pool—probably at least a cup. Heat the oil over high heat until it shimmers. Add the chicken a few pieces at a time. Blanch the pieces—that is cook them on the outside, but don’t worry about browning them.
 
Remove the chicken, turn off the heat, and put the mushrooms, snow peas, and baby corn pieces into the oil. Blanch for about 15 seconds; then remove and drain.
 
If you have more than 2 of tablespoons oil left in your wok, pour all but 2 tablespoons out. If you need more to make 2 tablespoons, add it.
 
Turn the heat on again to high and pour the sauce into the pan. Cook it until it thickens. Add the chicken and vegetables, and cook, tossing, until the chicken is cooked through and everything is moistened—a minute or two.
 
Serve with rice. Serves 6.
This statue in downtown Chicago honors the character of Bob Hartley. It comes complete with a couch on which passersby can recline. (Courtesy of TV Land)

This statue in downtown Chicago honors the character of Bob Hartley. It comes complete with a couch on which passersby can recline. (Courtesy of TV Land)

 

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10 Responses to “A Little More Moo Goo Gai Pan”

  1. Anne says:

    I remember listening to Bob Newhart years ago on the radio! I laughed at the part about storing the turkey in the dishwasher – recently there was a recipe in my newspaper on COOKING a turkey in the dishwasher! Funnily enough I didn’t try it …..

  2. Peter says:

    Bravo, Tinky! A delightful post about a delightful comedian, accompanied by a delightful recipe (with an especially appealing photo). After reading this post (and it’s barely 6:00 AM) I’m determined to find a wintry day soon to prepare your recipe, serve it TV dinner style, and watch that episode of Bob Newhart. Or will I have to make moo goo gai pan as “carry out”, take a train in to the Paley Center for Media and surreptitiously enjoy the meal at one of their visitor’s viewing carrels?

  3. Jack Estes says:

    Great post, Tinky. Thanks also for the link to that episode. I loved the line about “moo goo goo goo,” which Bob suggested was “Chinese baby food.” An hour after reading your post, I was hungry again.

  4. Awesome! I was reminded of fun times with my mother as we watched the show together. Thanks, Tinky. Off to Twitter!

  5. Jack Estes says:

    And … for the drawing:

    Green Beer for Saint Patrick’s Day

    and …

    Arugula

    http://www.kosher.com/KosherProduce/FreshVegetables/AllVegetables/ArugulaBunch.html

  6. Valerie Perdue says:

    My favorite Bob Newhart episode, being a psychologist myself, is the one in which he goes back to his Alma Mater to find his favorite professor to ask him about the meaning of Psychology. He finds the professor, now aged, among the stacks in the library. Bob’s role model doesn’t remember him (which they make both painful and hilarious), and can’t hear him (ditto). When the Old Iconic Professor at last understands Bob’s aching question about his chosen profession, he answers him, “Psychology? Psychology is a CROCK!”

  7. Toby Gould says:

    Merri and I are both huge Newhart fans, watching both of his successful TV shows whenever possible. Newhart was in Albany a couple of winters ago and we regret not risking life and limb to get over to see his show.

    “More moo goo gai pan” is one of his best. der hartley…..

  8. Newhart is a treasure! Never seen the Thanksgiving episode but it sounds classic. I even liked the second Newhart show, though I much preferred Suzanne Pleshette as Mrs. Bob. Might have to try that cider and vodka thing. I’ll drink anything once.

    For the contest, I’d have to say my fave food holiday is Christmas. The season lasts so long now I get lots of chances to cook and entertain. The hamentaschen from http://www.kosher.com looks great. And I do have a US address if I were lucky enough to win it.

  9. Mary Carey says:

    My favorite holiday food is figgy pudding. Not really; I can’t think of one. http://www.kosher.com/

  10. Mary Carey says:

    D’oh. I see it’s my favorite food holday. mmm. Christmas. http://www.kosher.com/

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