Monday, March 19, 2018

Dry-fried string beans + a Mother's Day card

I know, St. Patrick's Day has barely come and gone, but you know what? Mother's Day will be here soon. And if you love your mom as much as you love dim sum (and you know you do), then have I got a suggestion for you!

Papyrus commissioned me to make them a Mother's Day card with a dim sum theme, and how could I resist? 

You can most likely find this in your neighborhood card shop, but if not, it's available here, too. I love Papyrus's stationery, so this was a dream come true. So give her a card and treat her to the perfect brunch. And then apologize for that thing that happened, you know the one I'm talking about...

*   *   * 

To my way of thinking, there is only one divine way to eat string beans, and that is dry-fried. The problem is that these sometimes can be nigh on impossible to find, even in a good Sichuan style restaurant.

That’s because nowadays too many cooks are skipping the first step, the most important step, the one that turns these beany flavored green things into olive strips of silk. Instead, they plunk down a plate of what can only be described as stir-fried beans, and if they really want me to see red, they’ll toss in some zhacai (Sichuan pickled tuber) and chile sauce and call it a day. This sort of thing will put me into a major funk for at least a couple of hours.

Fry 'em up!
So, what’s the first step? The beans are washed and carefully dried, and then they are deep-fried until the skins are blistered and the interiors have turned soft and squishy. And if you taste them at this point, you may think to yourself that these are ok, but nothing to write home about.

That is where the sauce comes in. Once the beans have been turned a toasty brown, they are then stir-fried in a savory sauce that gets sucked up by these now thirsty beans. But wait, there’s more: a genuine dish of dry-fried string beans will be robed with yácài 芽菜, a type of preserved mustard green (kind of like a pickle) from Sichuan.

Yacai is a terrific ingredient you should get to know, for it has a darkly savory flavor, a touch of piquance, and (something really unusual for salty preserved things) a super silky texture. And that is what is going to make this dish particularly delicious. You will be tossing in what will seem like a whole lot of yacai, and yet it will turn around and cosset each of the beans so that there is yet another layer of texture in here.
So good...

Yacai is becoming increasingly easy to hunt down in Chinese markets; just head to the pickle aisle, where they will usually be waiting for you in a small cardboard box. They will be either whole or chopped—get whatever you want. Their flavor and texture really is a game changer, as you will probably already noted in that noodle dish from a couple weeks back.

Also like that noodle recipe, this dish is heavily influenced by the cuisine of Yibin, a city in the southwestern corner of Sichuan. It straddles the headwaters of the Yangtze River and is just a stone’s throw from Yunnan Province. In other words, you should expect to eat really, really well here, and of course you do. 

Every Yibin dish I’ve ever devoured has offered wonderful textures and flavors. Nothing overwhelming to spoil my reverie, just a balanced symphony that makes me smile. And so, you should put finding a box of yacai at the top of your To Do list.
Yacai, chile peppers, garlic, & ginger

Frying the string beans ahead of time is highly recommended. That way you can have everything cleaned up and your wok ready for the quick braise. I let the blistered beans cool off and then stick them into a resealable plastic bag. Then, from fridge to table requires only a few minutes.

A note for the nerds out there: This recipe uses a character you won’t run across every day: biān . This is used almost exclusively in Sichuan cooking and refers to quickly stir-frying. It’s usually found in two verb combinations: gānbiān 幹煸 (dry-fried, as in today’s recipe, where only a bit of oil is used in the final step) or biānchăo 煸炒 (stir-fried, with the wok set on the heat before oil is added, and then the ingredients are flash-fried).

Leftovers are good, too. I even eat this cold, like leftover pizza. Don't judge.
Dry your trimmed beans

Dry-fried string beans
Gānbiān sìjìdòu 乾煸四季豆
Serves 4

Around 1  pound | 500 g fresh string beans
Frying oil, as needed
4 ounces | 100 g good quality ground pork or turkey, optional
½ cup | 50 g finely chopped yacai
4 dried Thai chiles
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
Chop the meat until fluffy
½ teaspoon sugar

1. Rinse the beans and remove the stem ends, but leave them whole, if you like, and I like. Use a terry towel to rub off as much water as possible, since this will explode once it hits hot oil. Really now, get them totally dry. Have a spatter screen, a slotted spoon ready, and a clean medium work bowl ready.

2. First fry the beans: Set your wok over medium-high heat. Pour in about 1 inch | 2 cm oil. As soon as the oil starts to shimmer, insert a chopstick into the oil—it should be covered with dancing bubbles. Slide in a small handful of the beans. You don’t want too many, as these will fry up more evenly and quickly if you do this in smaller amounts. Adjust the heat as needed and stir the beans around as they fry. When they are browned and slightly crispy, use your slotted spoon to remove them to the work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the beans until all of them have been fried. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the oil.

Readying the sauce
3. If you are using meat in this dish, first use the back of a heavy knife or two to chop it back and forth, up and down, as this lightens the meat and improves the texture. Rinse the yacai and squeeze it dry. If it is not already finely chopped, do so now. Break the chiles in half and shake out the seeds before tearing the chiles into smallish pieces.

4. Now fry the meat and other ingredients: Set the wok back over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the optional meat, as well as the yacai, chiles, green onions, ginger, and garlic. Stir-fry these until the meat begins to brown. Add the rest of the ingredients, as well as the fried string beans. Turn the heat up to high and toss these all together until the sauce has been absorbed. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve.


  1. Wanted to thank you for your cookbook. Currently using it to learn how to cook Chinese food and its tips on how to cook in a Western country and its correct assumption that I don't know what I'm doing are so helpful. Already found several recipes that I love and have made over and over again like Soybean Pods. :)

    1. Thank you so much! Write if you have any questions...

    2. Thank you!

      I do have a question. Two of your chicken recipes I made required frying the chicken then steaming or boiling. Consort's chicken wings and the Shandong Garlic Chicken. What is the purpose of frying first? I feel guilty using so much oil.

    3. Don't feel guilty, as that oil definitely can be reused... it will have chicken fat in it, which will taste great. Try frying some eggs or doufu in it. Yum.

      In recipes like this, the frying actually has a couple of uses. First, it gets rid of some of the blood and water in the bird, sort of like blanching. This in turn greatly improves the taste. Second, browning the skin improves its texture. If you fry skin first before steaming or braising or boiling, the skin won't feel flabby because much of the fat underneath it has been rendered and this step then tightens up the skin. And also, browned skin looks so much more delicious than plain old beige!