Monday, December 30, 2013

The most beautiful dish in the world

I can think of few foods that are as gorgeous as this one. Slices of chilled tendon look like they belong in a great cathedral rather than on a plate, and they shimmer and refract the light in almost unearthly ways.

In spite of that, they also are amazingly delicious and have a delightfully snappy texture that teases the palate. Beef tendons are also inexpensive ingredients and easy to cook, so there really is no excuse not to fall completely in love with this extraordinary dish.

And if all that was not enough, you can make this dish your own by seasoning it with pretty much whatever you like. I have provided some basic guidelines, but they really are little more than suggestions, as you just can’t go wrong here.

For example, these thin slivers first charmed their way into my heart at a Nanjing friend’s home, where he used a gently sweet soy marinade in the background with warm spices like star anise and ginger supplying the necessary fireworks. That is because tendons are actually completely flavorless; they are loved solely for their texture in China and for their collagen, which is considered especially wonderful as a supplement for the elderly, as it strengthens joints.
Afternoon light through a slice

Tendons can be used in many different ways, of course. They lend a lovely stickiness and body to soups and stews, leaving sensuous smears on the lips and giving the teeth something to sink into like luxurious pillows. Tendons are also beautiful in certain braises, especially this one from Zhejiang that is intensely seductive.

But no other recipe quite is as visually stunning as this dish. If we were ever able to build a temple to great food, I have the perfect design for its windows…  By the way, the Chinese and English names for this dish are my own. It is invariably called simply “braised tendons” (lŭ níujīn 滷牛筋), which does not even begin to hint at what is in store.

Stained-glass tendons
Cǎisè bōlí níujīn 彩色玻璃牛筋
Beijing Muslim
Serves 12 or more as an appetizer

4 beef tendons, cleaned
Filtered water
1 inch fresh ginger, thinly sliced
4 green onions
1 cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mirin)
Simply gorgeous
Suggested seasonings (all or some):
1 to 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce or sea salt to taste
2 star anise
½ stick cinnamon
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 piece rock sugar (the size of a small egg)

1. Prepare this dish at least a day before you wish to serve it. Rinse the tendons and place them in a saucepan. Cover the tendons with water, bring the water to a boil, and simmer them for about 5 minutes. Dump out the water and rinse both the tendons and the pot to remove any scum.

2. Return the tendons to the pan and cover with filtered water. Add the ginger, green onions, and rice wine. Bring the pan to a full boil over high heat and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the tendons for around 3 hours, or until they are barely tender.

3. At this point, add whatever seasonings you like and simmer the tendons for another hour or so until they are completely tender; I like to place the spices in a bag or spice ball so that they can be tossed out easily once the tendons are cooked. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning; remember that the flavors will be muted since the tendons are to be served cold, so over-season them a bit. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool down a bit.

Raw tendons
4. Prepare a loaf pan by rinsing it out with cool water. Use tongs to lift the tendons and arrange them in the loaf pan, and then strain as much of the sauce onto the tendons to barely cover them; the rest of the sauce can be reserved and used in soups or for noodles. Cool the tendons completely, cover with plastic wrap, and chill overnight.

5. Rinse the bottom and sides of the loaf pan under very hot tap water to loosen the tendons, and then release the solid aspic out onto a cutting board. Use a very sharp knife to slice the tendons as thinly as possible; cut each slice in half, if you wish. Serve on a bed of fresh cilantro or other crunchy greens.


Cleaned beef tendons can be found in many Asian and Latin groceries. I usually get mine in the frozen section of my favorite Korean store.

Raw tendons are impossible to cut, so leave them whole.

Blanching the tendons will get rid of most of the fat in this dish and also leave only a clean, neutral background for whatever seasonings you like.

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