My late mother-in-law once received a prize for her Red-Cooked Beef, and it indeed was one of her few specialties. Even nowadays, my husband occasionally gets a serious craving for his mom’s cooking, and it usually revolves around some sort of thing getting braised with soy sauce in the mix—in other words, it’s “red cooked.” One of his favorites is chicken (and you can certainly substitute chicken for beef here), and I almost always toss in some potatoes toward the end in order to complete his happiness. And he’s right: the potatoes do work like magic in here, adding a soothing, creamy edge to the hearty sauce and the slightly chewy bits of meat.
You can use just about any good stew beef here, and tendons are especially welcome, as they turn soft and velvety while transferring much of their body to the sauce. I’ve come to rely on cuts like brisket (which is from the breast) or the plate (which is from the front belly) for their full flavor and interesting texture, but really just about any part of the cow will do. Shanks are especially lovely this ways, too, by the way.
This is another one of those terrific basic recipes that can act as a template for experimentation and embellishment. Add tomatoes in late summer when they are at their tastiest, or some good (whole) canned ones at other times. Sichuan hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang) is tasty here, too—just be sure to fry it with the aromatics to elevate its flavors. If you don’t include the potatoes, serve this over noodles or with some sort of Chinese bread. Otherwise, a side of rice is perfect.
Hóngshāo níuròu 紅燒牛肉
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a soup
1 pound boneless stewing beef, or 2 pounds bone-in beef
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, peeled and cut into eights
¼ cup sliced ginger
3 to 6 cloves garlic
2 dried Thai chilies, optional
½ cup mild rice wine
Boiling water, as needed
3 star anise
½ stick cinnamon
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon rock or slab sugar
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped, or a handful of chopped cilantro
1. Rinse the beef and pat it dry. Cut the meat into 1-inch pieces; if you are using bone-in beef, simply cut the meat off of the bone first. Place a pressure cooker or pan over medium heat and pour in the oil when it is hot. Add the meat (and any bones) to the oil and let them brown before turning them over. At this point add the onion, ginger, garlic, and chilies.
2. When everything has been browned nicely, pour in the rice wine and cover the beef by around 2 inches with the boiling water. Cover the pressure cooker and cook on high for 20 minutes; if you are cooking it in a regular pan, simmer the beef until it is almost tender.
3. Add the soy sauce and sugar, bring the liquid back to a full boil, and simmer it uncovered until the beef is as tender as you like. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It can be cooked ahead of time up to this point, cooled, refrigerated, and the solid fat removed, if you like.
4. About 20 minutes before serving, bring the beef back to a full boil over high heat, add the potatoes to the pan, cover the pan loosely, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook the potatoes until they are barely soft. Taste and adjust the seasoning a final time. Sprinkle with green onions or cilantro.