Monday, March 25, 2013

From Russia with soy sauce

This is the Chinese version of borscht, Mother Russia’s quintessential soup. Even the name in Chinese tells you that: Luósòng means (and sounds like) “Russian.” But as soon as you taste it, you know you've wandered over the border into Manchuria, as those rich, Slavic flavors have been tempered and emboldened by ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, and (yes) catsup.

But what really launches this soup into culinary heaven is the oxtail that forms the backbone (sorry) of the broth. Criminally underused in the States for no good reason that I can ascertain, oxtails are on my list of best beef cuts ever. They possess a wonderfully beefy flavor, and that’s not all:

The most flavorful meat soup yet
Tendons give the cow the opportunity to whisk this appendage around with considerable expressiveness, and those tendons are exactly what give any oxtail soup worth its salt that incredible body. If cooked well – and by that I mean that just the right amount of time and heat and moisture are applied – those tendons disappear into the soup, while the muscles become almost custardy, the marrow leaking out of the bones and making the soup that much richer.

My secret for the perfect oxtail soup is a pressure cooker. Now, if you don’t have one and have been terrified by your mom’s horror stories about the infamous exploding chicken incident of 1959, you are in for some good news, because today’s pressure cookers are safe, easy, and quickly turn tough bits into the tenderest of mouthfuls. I often will come home with something like a brisket and have velvety red-cooked noodle soup on the table in less than an hour.  (If you don’t have a pressure cooker, check out the Tips below for an alternative. But get a pressure cooker.)

And that’s not all. For example, in the very near future we are going to used one to make the best and most beautiful beef tendon dishes you've ever dreamed of. Don’t dream of tendons? Well, to quote Yoda, “You will be… you will be.”

Manchurian Russian soup 
Luósòng tang 羅宋湯 
Northwest
Serves 6 as a main dish

Beef and broth:
1 oxtail (2 to 2 ½ pounds) cut into 1-inch slices by the butcher (see Tips)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 inches ginger, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup)
1 large onion cut into 1-inch chunks
6 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 bay leaves
6 cups filtered water
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup regular soy sauce
½ cup catsup

Vegetables:
3 small Yukon Gold or other potatoes
3 carrots, peeled
1 (28 ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes (see Tips)
Filtered water, as needed

Handfuls of parsley or cilantro, chopped, for garnish

1. Ideally, start this recipe a day before you plan to serve it, although you can also prep and cook this within 90 minutes. Rinse the oxtail sections and pat them dry. Heat the bottom part of the pressure cooker on high and then add the oil. Toss in the ginger and fry it for a few seconds to release its fragrance. Add the oxtail and let it sear on one side before turning the pieces over with some metal tongs. Let each side brown and caramelize before turning it (see Tips). When the oxtail has been completely browned, remove it and the ginger to a plate or something, but leave the oil in the pan. Add the onion and garlic cloves and toss them around in the hot oil until the onion is lightly browned. Return the oxtails and ginger to the pan along with the bay leaves, water, rice wine, soy sauce, and catsup. Cover the pan with the top of the pressure cooker, lock it, and place the pan over high heat to bring it to high pressure. Adjust the heat to maintain this high pressure and cook the oxtail for 55 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the pressure drop naturally for around 10 minutes before opening the lid away from you so that you don’t get scalded.

Roll cut carrots
2. While the oxtail is cooking away, prepare the vegetables: Wash the potatoes and cut each one into eighths. (You leave them unpeeled, if you like. I do.) Wash and trim the carrots, and then roll cut them into pieces about 1 inch long (see photo to the right). Place the potatoes and carrots in a medium saucepan. Open the can of tomatoes and drain the juices into the saucepan. Slice each tomato into pieces about ¾-inch thick and add them to the saucepan. Pour just enough water into the saucepan to cover the root vegetables and bring the saucepan to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the vegetables until they are done to your taste, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

3. When the oxtails are done, pour the pan full of vegetables into the soup, taste, and adjust the seasoning. If you have time, let the soup come to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate it overnight. Then, remove most of the fat before simmering the soup for around 15 minutes to heat it up again. Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls or serve it in a terrine; garnish with lots of chopped parsley or cilantro and serve with bread or rice.

Tips

If you don't have a pressure cooker, simply brown the meat and onions, etc., as directed in Step 1 and then simmer the meat until it is tender, which should take around 3 hours. The rest of the recipe needs no adjustment.

Use organic, grass-fed beef here... the flavor is incomparable. And buy your meat from a reputable butcher who knows where the meat comes from and how it was raised.

I like to make this soup within a day of purchasing the oxtails, as they don’t get better sitting around in the refrigerator. If you can’t use them right away, wrap them up in a freezer bag and freeze. Defrost before using.

Good quality catsup really makes this soup because it has loads of tomato flavor, is slightly tart, and just adds a wonderful, thick texture. I like Heinz 57.

Veggies
This is a cold weather soup, so tomatoes are not going to be at their best. That’s why I recommend canned tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes are terrific (see photo on the right), and I always buy whole tomatoes because a) they are more versatile and b) they tend to be the better tomatoes, since the ones that are too ripe or damaged get chopped up or pureed. Whatever brand you buy, be sure a select peeled tomatoes, as this will save you a whole lot of grief.

There are all kinds of good pressure cookers out there, but my recommendation is something by Fissler. I have one of their skillet pressure cookers, and it’s just perfect for everything I make. My husband gave it to me as an anniversary present (clever boy), and it’s almost a better gift than jewelry. Follow the maintenance advice and get Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna J. Sass, if you want a good guide.

Avoid moving meat around when you’re trying to brown it. Use high heat and let the meat sear and thus form a nice, caramelized crust. The meat will come loose easily that way and also will brown faster and easier.

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