MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Gourmet cooking while trying to stay within the family budget can be a recipe for disappointment, what with all those fancy ingredients and complex utensils, not to mention the investment of time. But all this week we're trying to blend these two concepts.
We've called on some of the best cooks in the country to come up with a delicious meal for a family of four. The catch, they only have $10 to spend on all the ingredients. We set the $10 limit, but we're interested to see if they can shave the budget to spend much less. We call it the How Low Can You Go family supper challenge. And here to take that challenge today is Ming Tsai, the owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Tsai has a large following thanks to his "Simply Ming" cooking show on public television, his series of popular cookbooks and his line of food sold at Target. Tsai grew up in a Chinese family that spent a lot of time in the kitchen and that stirred Ming Tsai's interest in cooking.
Mr. MING TSAI (Chef; Host, "Simply Ming"): I always was, still am and will be hungry. And that's why I was always in the kitchen. I would literally at age three and four years old would hang out in the kitchen hoping that one of my parents or grandparents would throw me a scrap, and they would. And they obviously loved the fact that I was hanging out there and watching them break down chicken or cutting up garlic. And I always wanted - just like my children now - wanted to get a knife into my hand as soon as I could and just fell in love with the smell, the sound, the sizzle, everything that I still love about cooking.
NORRIS: All right, Ming. We gave you a budget, $10.
Mr. TSAI: Yes, huge.
NORRIS: And we told you that you had to come up with something that was interesting and easy.
Mr. TSAI: Right.
NORRIS: What did you come up with?
Mr. TSAI: Well, I came up with a chicken and corn fried rice. And going to the theme of textures and temperature differences, it goes on top of a spinach salad that gets wilted by the fried rice. It just has a little bit of lemon juice. So it has a textual difference and a temperature difference.
Fried rice, incidentally, was the first dish I ever cooked by myself when I was 10 years old. And the quick story, in Dayton, Ohio, a couple showed up at our door. My parents weren't around. I recognized the couple. And we didn't lock our doors back then anyway, so I let them in. They were driving through Dayton. They were old friends of the family. And in Chinese culture you actually don't ask how are you, you ask (Chinese spoken), which is, have you eaten? And I'm, like, have you eaten? Are you hungry? They go, oh, we're starved. I'm, like, go ahead, sit down. I'll make you some fried rice.
Well, that's great and dandy, but I've never made a fried rice before. But I've seen my grandparents and parents make it. So I'm, like, well, I can do this. So I chopped my garlic and ginger. Every good Chinese household, or most households, have leftover rice from the Chinese restaurant. I had scrambled the eggs, I put it all together. They loved it. And that really hooked me. And I realized then that you can make people happy through food. And that's like, wow, this is a cool thing. I might want to think about this.
So, fried rice is very close to my heart and easy to do. So by adding the protein of ground chicken, add the second layer of protein through scrambled eggs, you have a very simple dish that literally, I mean, it's under $10, but it's got spinach, which is very good for you, but most importantly, because of the garlic and the ginger powder and the onions, it has great flavor. My kids will eat it and that's always - that's kind of the…
NORRIS: Oh, that's always the test.
Mr. TSAI: That's the litmus test, if your kid will eat it.
NORRIS: And Ming, while you were describing how you prepare this, I actually had the mute button on because you had surprised me by sending me this dish in the mail. And you actually allowed me to assemble it, so I got a chance to taste it. So the mute button was on while I was - so you didn't hear me licking my lips and…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TSAI: And what do you think? How is it?
NORRIS: …sampling this while you were describing it. And it is delicious. The spinach and the corn sort of offset each other.
Mr. TSAI: Yeah.
NORRIS: The slight tartness of the spinach and the sweetness of the corn, it's a really nice balance.
Mr. TSAI: Yeah.
NORRIS: Now, we gave you a $10 budget. How much did you spend?
Mr. TSAI: We spent under $10. The total was $9.68.
NORRIS: So you had just a little bit left over, not quite enough for a dessert.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TSAI: No, not quite enough for dessert. No, I think, you know, it's quite funny because in Chinese cuisine there is no dessert either. We always just have a piece of fruit. So you probably could get an apple. And if you slice it really thin, you can probably get four people to enjoy a slice of apple.
NORRIS: There you go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: Ming Tsai, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. TSAI: Thank you so much.
NORRIS: Ming Tsai is the host of the "Simply Ming" cooking show on public television, and of course you can find Ming Tsai's recipe at our Web page. And while you're there, you can also find details on how to submit your own recipe for our less than $10 budget meal challenge, How Low Can You Go? That's all at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Ming Tsai, who owns the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., took NPR's "How Low Can You Go" family supper challenge and concocted a dish of chicken-and-corn fried rice with lemon spinach. Tsai says fried rice is close to his heart because it's the first meal he ever cooked. And his kids love it.
For NPR's "How Low Can You Go" family supper challenge, some of the nation's best cooks have each agreed to come up with a budget-conscious, delicious meal for a family of four. The hitch? The meal must cost less than $10 — and the cheaper the better.
Ming Tsai, who owns the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., has a large following thanks to his Simply Ming cooking show on public television, his series of popular cookbooks and his line of cookware sold at Target.
Tsai grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and says his Chinese family cooked and ate together. That stirred his interest in cooking.
"I always was, still am and will be hungry," Tsai tells NPR's Michele Norris. "And that's why I was always in the kitchen. I would literally, at age 3 and 4 ... hang out in the kitchen hoping that one of my parents or grandparents would throw me a scrap. ... And I always wanted, just like my children now, wanted to get a knife into my hand as soon as I could, and just fell in love with the smell, the sound, the sizzle, everything that I still love about cooking."
For the NPR challenge, Tsai cooked a meal of chicken-and-corn fried rice on top of a spinach salad, because he says the variety of ingredients gives the dish a mix of temperatures and textures.
He says fried rice is very close to his heart because it was the first dish he ever cooked by himself. One day when he was 10 years old, family friends stopped by his house when his parents were away. Instead of asking the guests, "How are you?", Tsai followed Chinese custom and asked, "Are you hungry?" The couple said they were starved, so he told them he'd make fried rice.
"Well, that's great and dandy, but I've never made a fried rice before," Tsai says. "But I've seen my grandparents and parents make it, so I'm like, 'I can do it.' So I chopped my garlic and ginger. Every good Chinese household has leftover rice from the Chinese restaurant. I had scrambled the eggs, I put it all together. They loved it, and that really hooked me. And I realized then that you can make people happy through food."
Tsai says his chicken-and-corn fried rice dish, which by his calculation costs $9.68 to make, is good for you because of the protein from the eggs and chicken, and because it contains spinach.
"But most important — because of the garlic, the ginger powder and the onions — it's got great flavor," Tsai says. "My kids will eat it, and that's the litmus test if your kid will eat it."