Monday, March 20, 2017

Chinese brisket & a couple of Beard nominations

Happy news!

All Under Heaven has been nominated as one of three titles in the International Cookbook division of this year's James Beard Awards

And if that wasn't exciting enough, a short story I wrote for Life & Thyme also got nominated. It's the one where I tell about cooking a northern Chinese meal for my terrifying mother-in-law, the daughter of a warlord and a woman of many secrets.

I don't know what I did in a past life to deserve this, but I'm not going to ask too many questions...

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China has a complex relationship with cattle. This probably is due to the late arrival of the animal on the culinary scene. Unlike Central Asia and points west, where dairy and beef cattle are absolutely vital to so many food traditions, China depended upon either the water buffalo or the yak until (probably) Muslims introduced domestic cattle to the country via the Silk Roads. 

The domesticated yak provides milk, meat, and hides to people in cold climates like Tibet, while the water buffalo has been – and still is, in many areas – more valuable as a beast of burden than as a source for beef. 

In fact, the water buffalo was responsible for the survival of so many families that it was as beloved as the family dog. No one would even consider serving it up.

Unmistakable pattern of brisket
This was so ingrained a belief even a couple of decades ago that most of the ethnic Taiwanese I knew refused to eat beef. (My Muslim friends couldn’t eat pork, of course, and the Buddhists were often vegans, so dinner sometimes was at times quite the goat rodeo.) 

With the influx of McDonald’s and other hamburger places, as well as the status that steak and red wine have conferred upon wealthier diners, you don’t see this as much in the big cities. But it at least gives you an idea why milk and beef have never been quite as popular in China as, say, pork or chicken.

However, there certainly are divine exceptions to the rule. Last week we tried a lovely milk dish from Guangdong, and today we are tasting a really remarkable brisket from the Huai Yang area of Jiangsu – my idea of culinary heaven on earth, for what it’s worth. The Huai Yang centers around the city of Yangzhou in central Jiangsu Province, and this gastronomic motherlode is bounded on one side by the Huai River and the other by the Yangtze, which is why it's called Huai Yang.

This cuisine is downright sophisticated, and I will most likely be offering up some of the area's haute cuisine over the coming months, since I'm becoming more and more entranced with the absolute stellar dishes it produces. But more on that later. Back to the food at hand.

The supporting cast
You will see some familiar players in this very refined dish. Just as any French chef worth her salt would do, a Huai Yang chef will toss onions, carrots, salt, bay leaves, and wine into the pot. But what makes this both Chinese and utterly divine is that instead of stewing or braising the brisket, it is slowly steamed, the vegetables are removed, the beef is chilled, and then it is served in thin slices in the hot broth with a shower of finely shredded baby ginger. 

In fact, there are two layers of ginger in here – the older brown rhizomes insert a nice sense of warmth to the broth and meat, and a shower of thin white baby ginger sparkles as the sole garnish. This soup is very simple, very unadorned. 

Since Chinese folks - especially in haute cuisine - often find beef and lamb to be rather overpoweringly strong in flavor, you'll find that the Chinese radish and Shaoxing rice wine in this recipe work with the bay leaves to tamp down any gamy smells and flavors.

This is a culinary secret the Chinese use again and again. The radish serves as sort of a purifying agent for anything with strong aromas, including pork and oilier fish, lightening the odors and adding an almost undetectable vegetal sweetness. You might be surprised at seeing bay leaves in a Chinese dish, but the herbal aromas of the Mediterranean tree known locally here as “moon cassia” (yuèguì 月桂) might have been introduced to the country thanks to the same folks who imported the beef: the Muslims.

There is no two ways about it, though: clear brisket soup is an austere dish. There is nothing fancy going on here. Rather, almost like the best Japanese kaiseki, it's about celebrating honest ingredients in a way that puts them in their best light. So, if you love the taste of excellent brisket and the mild heat of baby ginger, you are going to love this soup as much as I do.
Beautiful brisket

To be honest, the only thing difficult about this dish is getting a great quality brisket, some tender white ginger for the garnish, and hunting down the steamer to hold all that soup. Let’s take these one at a time:

Get a really good grass-fed beef, something that’s been raised with care and butchered humanely, since it makes all the difference in the world. I compared a couple of briskets the other day at a rather upscale butcher shop, and the difference was remarkable: the regular beef had a thick layer of hard fat and looked stringy and rather forlorn, while the better quality one looked bright and bouncy. Yes, it cost twice as much, but don’t skimp when it comes to food. "Eat less, but eat better" is a really great mantra.

Rimmed bowl & grabber
Baby ginger is becoming more available, especially this time of year and, of course, your best bet is often a Chinese market. But keep an eye out for other sources. If all else fails, you can use regular fresh ginger, but make sure the rhizomes are plump and heavy. Peel them, slice them as thinly as humanly possible, and then crosscut them into the finest of julienne. Since the older ginger will be much hotter than the young, add this to taste.

As for the steamer, I use my largest pot – the one I haul out for the New Year dumpling parties – and stick a trivet at the bottom. This way I can get the bowl in and out of the steamer without scalding myself. Use a rimmed steel work bowl, if you can, plus a Chinese bowl grabber (see the picture above) to maneuver the bowl out of the steamer. If you don’t have either, wait until the soup has cooled down to merely warm before you lift it out.

Add noodles for a complete meal
For what it’s worth, I’ve tried cooking this soup different ways – browning the beef, using a pressure cooker, etc. – but this traditional method gives you the best of all worlds: a flavorful broth filled with super tender meat. Serve the meat with nothing more than the ginger and save the vegetables for your lunch or something. I love their flavor and melting texture, but they’re not for company. Being the cook definitely has its own rewards…

Clear brisket soup
Qīngzhēng níunán 清蒸牛腩
Huai Yang (Jiangsu)
Serves 6 to 8 as a soup, 4 to 6 as a main dish with noodles (see Tips)

1½ to 2 pounds (600 to 800 g) excellent quality boneless beef brisket
Water, as needed
1 Chinese radish (about 1 pound / 450 g), peeled and trimmed
1 carrot, peeled and trimmed
Young white ginger
2 large stalks Western celery, or 4 stalks Chinese celery with the leaves on
5 or 6 green onions, trimmed
3 inches (8 cm) fresh ginger
½ cup (120 ml) Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground pepper
At least ½ cup (65 g) young white ginger, peeled and finely julienned (see headnote)

1. Start this at least in the morning if you want to serve it that evening; you can also make this a couple of days ahead of time and heat it up just before serving. Place the brisket in a pan, cover with water, bring it to a boil, and then simmer the beef for around 10 minutes. Discard the water and rinse off the scum. Place the brisket in a rimmed steel work bowl that fits easily in your steamer (see headnotes).

In the steamer
2. Cut the radish, carrots, and celery in to large chunks and add them to the brisket along with the whole green onions. Smack the ginger with the side of your knife before tossing it into the bowl with the rice wine, salt, sugar, and pepper. Don’t cover the bowl, but simply place it in your steamer. Cover everything with water (around 6 to 8 cups / 1.5 to 2 liters) up to about an inch (2.5 cm) from the rim and steam the brisket for around 3 hours. Let the soup cool off completely. Remove all the vegetables (see headnotes) and discard the ginger and onions. Place the beef in a clean bowl and strain the stock over the top. Cover and chill the beef and stock for at least a couple of hours.

3. About half an hour before serving, remove any hard fat on top of the stock. Slice the beef crosswise into thin slices and arrange them in a wide serving bowl or individual soup bowls. Scatter the julienned young ginger on top. Heat the stock to boiling, adjust the seasoning as needed, and just before serving, pour the boiling stock over the beef and ginger. Serve immediately.


Julienned ginger
This soup is incredible when served over thin noodles, like capellini. All you need to complete the meal is that julienned ginger, as it will weave around the pasta and season every bite with a touch of heat. 

My husband prefers more powerful flavors in his beef soup, so he tends to plead for a dish of chile sauce or something on the side to zing things up. I eat this lovely soup plain, though, and absolutely revel in the beefiness of it all.

I admit, I'm a sucker for this dish. I love it hot, I love it cold. If you've properly degreased the stock, the fact that the soup and noodles are cold will actually charm you. So, keep this recipe in your back pocket for whenever summer finally rolls around.