Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The days of wine & tendons

Tendons are just not considered food by way too many people, and that is a crying shame. 

It's such an uphill battle to convince anyone that tendons are delectable when the adjectives usually bandied about around sinews are "tough," "stringy," and "tasteless."

But I think it’s time for a serious change in attitude, one that sees them instead as velvety, luscious, and sexy.

That’s right, I called cow ligaments sexy. And just like anything else having to do with this sort of thing, it all boils down to having slow hands and knowing how to do things right.

You see, beef tendons are sort of like Achilles tendons for enormous quadrupeds, and as a result they are built to push and pull lots of major bones and muscle. Tendons are not wimpy, they’re not greasy, and they are very mildly flavored. In fact, they are nice, blank canvases for whatever tastes you want to decorate them with. And when these huge chunks of gristle are made to surrender to slow heat and moisture… well, you get the picture.
Roe soaking up the oil

In this recipe from Zhejiang just south of the mouth of the Yangtze River, another exotic ingredient is used: dried shrimp roe. 

If you have never tried shrimp roe before, let me be the first to introduce you to something that also can become very, very carnal. This time around, though, it is because the roe turns into a silky mass that smells gently of the sea and turns a beautiful rust red, which in turns sparkles the plain Jane tendons with both color and aromatic excitement.

Is it getting hot in here, or is it just me?

Braised tendons with dried shrimp roe 
Xiāzĭ níujīn 蝦籽牛筋
Serves 4 to 6 as an entree

2 fresh beef tendons (about 1 pound), see Tips
Boiling filtered water
Fresh, cleaned beef tendons

½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup dried shrimp roe, see Tips
2 teaspoons finely shredded fresh ginger
2 green onions, trimmed, split, and cut into 1-inch sections
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup boiling filtered water

To finish:
2 green onions, green parts only
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Looking like a lamb
1. Rinse the tendons and place them in a pan wide enough to hold them flat. Cover them with boiling water by at least one inch (see Tips), bring the water to a boil again over high heat, and then cover and lower the heat to a slow simmer. Gently cook them until they relax and can be easily pierced with a chopstick, about 3 hours. Discard the liquid, cool the tendons to room temperature, and place in a plastic bag before refrigerating them. (The tendons can be cooked ahead of time up to this point up to 3 days ahead of when you are going to serve them.)

2. Cut the tendons in half lengthwise, and then quarter them lengthwise into strips that are about ½ inch wide all around. Cut these strips into pieces about 1 inch long.

3. Pour the oil into a wok and add the roe. Give the roe a few minutes to absorb most of the oil, and then raise the heat under the wok to medium. Slowly cook the roe until it looks liquid and bubbly, and then add the tendons, ginger, and green onions. Cook these for a few minutes to coat the tendons with the roe. Raise the heat to high and pour in the rice wine. As the wine cooks down, add the soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and boiling water. Bring the sauce to a boil and then lower the heat to medium. Cook the tendons, stirring occasionally to keep them from sticking, until almost all of the sauce has been absorbed. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Cooked & cooled tendon
4. Just before serving, cut the leaves of the green onions into thin diagonal strips and toss them into the hot tendons along with the sesame oil. Toss quickly and serve while the tendons are still hot.


Tendons are often found in Asian and Latino markets; I get mine at a Korean grocery store where the quality of the meat is particularly high. The tendons should be cleaned, white, and soft if fresh. Frozen ones may be used, too; just defrost them thoroughly.

The tendons will immediately contract into tight balls as the water heats up, and they will be as hard as rocks at this point. They must be slowly simmered for about 3 hours until the tendons completely relax and return to their original size. Because they do contract so tightly, be sure they are covered with boiling water the whole time they are cooking. 

If you have extra cooked tendons, these are superb in Northern-style beef noodle soup; just cut the tendons across the grain into thin slices, add them to the stock, and simmer until they are once again tender.

Cook the roe until it foams
Dried shrimp roe (xiazi 蝦籽) are a bit harder to find, but they usually are stocked by those Chinese stores that specialize in dehydrated seafood, like dried sea cucumbers, abalone, shark fin, scallops, and splayed fish. The roe will either be in a glass canister that the salesperson will weigh out for you or in small plastic packages.

Store the roe in a sealed freezer bag in the freezer, where it will stay tasty for ages.

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