Monday, January 11, 2016

Winter soup from Beijing via Dublin

A genuine classic of home-style Northern cooking is red cooked beef. Sort of like our own beef stew with its feel-good connections, this is something that people in places like Beijing turn to again and again when the weather is cold and spirits need to be lifted in a very delicious and dramatic way.

Over the years, I’ve played with the basic template quite a bit, adding and subtracting until what I got what I believe is the perfect balance.

My secret ingredient? Stout.
A delectable secret weapon

Perhaps it’s just my Celtic forebears telling my freckled subconscious what's good, but this really looks and tastes like an Irish stew that took a detour along the Great Wall. You could even cook parsley-flecked raised dumplings on top (as I have) and declare that you’ve found a winner.

This addition of stout came about a long, long time ago when I was cooking away in my little Beitou kitchen on the outskirts of Taipei. All the ingredients were ready to go, except that my bottle of rice wine showed only a few drops in bottom. I rummaged around in the cupboards and came up with a big bottle of Taiwan Beer - a rather tasty pilsner, in my humble opinion - so into the pot it went. The result was exceptionally tender meat and a rich broth.

Now, I am not one to turn down a good pilsner, but if I had my druthers, I’d almost always order stout instead. I love that bitter, molasses edge and its lovely creaminess. And when it came to fussing around with my not-so-sacred home recipe for red cooked beef, it didn’t take too much of a leap of imagination to pour in a couple of cans of stout instead of the beer. The results are a keeper.

A hearty family favorite for decades

Red cooked beef soup with beer
Hēipíjĭu hóngshāo níuròu tāng 黑啤酒紅燒牛肉湯
North China
Serves 8 generously

3 pounds stew beef
¼ cup regular soy sauce
4 large shallots or 1 medium onion of any kind, trimmed and peeled
1 medium leek, split and cleaned
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil, divided in half
6 cloves garlic, trimmed and peeled
½ cup thinly sliced ginger
½ cup water
2 (14.9 ounce, or so) cans of stout or beer
3 quarts boiling water
1 tablespoon (or so) rock sugar
4 star anise
½ stick cinnamon
4 carrots, trimmed and peeled
Lots of aromatics in the mix
1 large (2 pound) Chinese or Korean radish, trimmed and peeled
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
Quarter of a head of round cabbage torn into large pieces

1. Ideally, start this soup at least a day ahead of time so that the flavors have time to fully develop. If the meat has not already been chopped up by your butcher, cut it into 1-inch cubes. Place the meat in a medium work bowl and toss it with the soy sauce. Allow it to marinate while you prepare the vegetables and up to about an hour, and then discard any excess marinade.

2. Cut the shallots or onions into large wedges, as they will cook down quite a bit. Shake the leek dry and, without cutting off the root end, cut the leek crosswise into ½ inch pieces, as the root with keep the leaves tidy; discard the root end when you’re done.

Marinate the meat with soy sauce
3. Have a large (4 quart) pot or ready by the stove. Set a wok over high heat and add ¼ cup oil when it is hot. Add the ginger to the oil and fry it for a minute or two before tossing in the shallots or onions, leek slices, and garlic. Continue to toss them over high heat until they wilt and then caramelize along the cut areas. When they are nicely browned, dump them into the pot. Pour about ½ cup water into the wok to deglaze it, and then scrape this into the pot. Rinse out the wok and return it to the stove.

4. When the wok is again hot, add the rest of the oil to it, swirl it around, and place about a quarter of the cubed beef in the hot oil. Quickly sear the beef on all sides, but allow the soy sauce to caramelize before you flip the meat around. When it has rich, dark edges all around, use a slotted spoon to transfer the beef to the pot, but leave the oil in the wok. Repeat this step of browning the meat in small batches until all of the beef has been seared.

Caramelization lends depth of flavor
5. Pour a can of stout or beer into the wok to deglaze it, and then scrape this into the pot. Add the other can of stout or beer to the pot, as well as the water, sugar, and spices. Bring the pot to a full boil and then lower it to a gentle simmer. Cook the meat until it is tender, about 2 hours. Add the carrots, radish, and dark soy sauce to the pot, bring it to a boil, cover the pot, and then turn off the heat. Allow the soup to sit overnight.


6. The next day, scrape the hard fat off the surface and discard. Bring the soup to a full boil and add the cabbage. Cook it only for a minute or two to subdue the cabbage's raw flavor, as you still want it slightly crispy. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve the soup as is with steamed breads, grilled breads, or over noodles.
 

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