Monday, October 5, 2015

A Beijing Hui Muslim classic: beef shanks & eggs

Beijing’s Hui Muslim dishes are without a doubt some of my favorite in the region. Much of this has to do with the creative ways in which every bit of an animal is used. In the West, we tend to toss out the less popular parts of an animal, but that is not the case in China. Not only are Chinese cooks frugal – which they most definitely are – but they also appreciate the intriguing textures that the heart, stomach, and shin have to offer.

These variety meats are the kind of things that every single Beijing-style Muslim eatery I’ve ever eaten in offers. If they are a small, family-run place, they will display them right in the front window, the same way Cantonese delis hang ducks and pigs near the sidewalk. The flavors are rich and savory, and based on a spice-infused marinade that is colored by soy sauce and slightly sweetened with rock sugar.

Edible stained glass window
Depending on what time of day it is and how hot it is outside, we might have a plate full of cool, braised liver, tendons, heart, tripe, and so forth to start off a meal. Or perhaps a breakfast sandwich of tender, braised shin shaved into paper-thin slices and packed into a sesame-paste biscuit, or shaobing. Dinner might include some eggs, bean curd, and thick seaweed cooked in that same braising liquid, as well. Alongside this, we would usually order some millet porridge and a plate of stir-fried greens.

Beef shins are a cut of meat that really deserves your love. They’re cheap, nothing but completely edible, and are ribboned with thin tendons that turn into translucent, tender codas between the gorgeous meat. I mean, look at that photo above and tell me that isn’t drop-dead beautiful.

These shins will be soft and as relaxed as a kitten when they are raw – see the photo below. As soon as they hit hot water, though, they will shrink up into tense little balls and stay that way, so don’t worry about crowding your pan at the very beginning. This shrinkage is due to the tendons, which will become incredibly hard at this point and only dissolve into a delectable gumminess after a slow braise.
Raw tendons

I get my beef shins at a Chinese market in Oakland that sells them in sets of six or so in plastic bags, so that is what I’ve gotten used to as my basic measure. However, there’s nothing stopping you from dividing the recipe in half or less, or even multiplying it a couple of times for parties. Be sure a make the braised eggs with this fabulous sauce after you pluck out the beef – they are just as delicious as the shins.

Braised beef shanks and eggs
Lŭ níujiàn, lŭ dàn 滷牛腱、滷蛋
Serves 8 to 12
Beautiful beautiful beautiful

6 boneless beef shins 
Water, as needed
½ cup thinly sliced ginger 
4 green onions 
6 tablespoons regular soy sauce 
4 star anise 
½ stick cinnamon 
1 tablespoon fennel seeds 
2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns 
¼ cup rock sugar, or ½ piece of brown slab sugar 
2 dried Thai chilies, optional 
1 piece cured tangerine peel, optional 
1 cup rice wine, optional 

12 to 18 small to medium eggs, boiled until firm (see directions below) and peeled

To serve:
Thinly sliced green onions
Toasted sesame oil

1. Place the shins in a wide pot, cover them with water, bring the water to a boil over high heat, lower the heat, simmer the meats for about 10 minutes, and then dump out the water. Rinse the scum off of the meat and the pan.

2. Return the meats to the pan, and add all of the ingredients up through the optional rice wine, as well as enough water to cover the meats. Bring the pan to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the shins until they can easily be pierced with a chopstick, about 3 hours. You can also make these in a pressure cooker: braise on high for about an hour. Remove the shins to a bowl, cool, and then refrigerate them for easier slicing.
Ready for the braise

3. Add the peeled eggs to the strained sauce. Bring the uncovered pan to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and slowly simmer the eggs for an hour or two, adding only as much water as needed to keep them more or less submerged. Cool the eggs and sauce to room temperature and let them sit in the sauce for at least two days so that the flavors really permeate the eggs.

4. To serve, slice the shanks crosswise (against the grain) into really thin slices. Fan these out onto a plate or a bowl of hot noodles. Cut the eggs into wedges. Drizzle them with a bit of the sauce, if you like, or simply a bit of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkle of green onions. 

How to correctly boil eggs

Prick the round ends with a sharp pin or tack, as this gives that bubble of air inside the shell an escape route and so prevent the eggs from cracking.

Braised eggs - tan down to the yolks
Place the eggs in a pot of warm water, and bring the water to a boil over high heat, stirring the eggs very often as they come to a boil so that the yolks become centered in the whites. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook them for about 8 minutes. Dump out the water, cover them with cool tap water, and then peel them when they have cooled down.

Whenever you make hard-boiled eggs for recipes like this, look for two things: the smallest eggs possible, and eggs that are not too fresh. Smaller eggs absorb the sauce’s flavors faster, while older eggs are easier to peel. Also, if you gently stir the eggs as they are coming to a boil, you will keep the yolks centered in the still-soft whites; once the water barely comes to a boil, the whites will have set and you can stop stirring. Never boil the eggs at full blast, though, as this will make the whites tough. A gentle simmer is enough – they will also be cooked in the sauce, so there’s no need to overdo it. When cooking hardboiled eggs, keep the lid off, otherwise pressure will build up in the pan and the egg whites will have a honeycomb texture.

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