Monday, May 28, 2018

Beautiful burdock, Taiwanese style

This is truly home-style food in Taiwan, the sort of thing a doting grandma might prepare for a weekday dinner. 

It’s very simple, very easy, and such a wonderful combination of meat and vegetables that you will really need little more than a bowl of rice to find yourself perfectly satisfied.

Burdock can be found in most East Asian markets in the produce section. 

Old school stores will have the whole root ready for you in sawdust-filled boxes, while supermarkets will prefer to cut these whip-sized taproots down into smaller pieces that will fit onto trays. Either way is fine.

A whole burdock root
The Chinese call this vegetable niubang and the Japanese refer to it as gobo. When you buy burdock, lightly press it all over. It should feel hard and solid, which meats that it’s fresh and juicy. These do dry out over time, though, so look at the wispy bottom end, if it’s there, and if you see shriveling, pay particular attention to how heavy and full the rest of the root is. Sometimes the roots will be a dark brown, and other times they will have a beige skin. Both are fine.

When you get the root home, don’t store it on the counter, as it will dry out fast. Instead, cut it into lengths and wrap it in moist paper towels before refrigerating it in a plastic bag.

Most likely a riff on the Japanese kinpira gobo, this Taiwanese version is much more fully flavored, as it is laced with thin strips of beef and a deeper-hued sauce. 

Cut-up burdock
To my mind the dish ends up being heartier and satisfying this way, but then again, I’m a dedicated carnivore. If you want to leave out the meat, do what I do when serving this to veggie friends: use vegetarian beef. Really, even I can barely taste the difference when a good brand is used!

As for the beef, I like to get a small piece of steak for this. Anything will do, just as long as it’s not too fatty or full of connective tissue. Plus, this requires such a small amount that you can splurge and it won’t even hurt.

And finally, you’ll see that you will have to work on your julienning skills here. But it’s worth it. This dish is designed to be a colorful tangle of confetti. Making everything the same size guarantees a variety of flavors and textures in each mouthful. Plus, don’t leave out the toasted sesame seeds. That’s the definitive Taiwanese touch here, and it adds a lovely nutty layer to this beloved classic.

Burdock matchsticks
Stir-fried burdock and beef
Níubàng chăo níuròu 牛蒡炒牛肉
Serves 4

4 ounces | 100 g boneless beefsteak (see headnotes)
3 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce

The rest:
1 burdock root (about 1 pound | 450g)
Cool water, optional
Half a lemon or 1 tablespoon pale vinegar, optional
1 medium carrot (about 2 ounces | 50 g)
1 green onion, trimmed
Vegetable matchsticks
¼ cup | 15 g julienned fresh ginger
¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil, divided in half
¼ cup | 60 ml water, divided in half
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
3 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. Before you get started, place the beef in the freezer for around 30 minutes to firm it up and make it easy to slice.

2. Rinse the burdock and use a potato peeler to remove the skin. Cut out any dark or soft spots. Chop the root into 2-inch | 5-cm lengths, and then cut each piece into thin matchsticks or julienne. If you are not cooking the burdock immediately, place in a bowl, cover it with cool water, and squeeze in half a lemon or a tablespoon of pale vinegar. Peel the carrot and cut it into matchsticks approximately the same size as the burdock; as carrots won’t oxidize, they don’t need to be covered with water. Cut the green onion into pretty much the same size julienne, too.
Beef matchsticks - notice a theme?

3. Cut the beef into matchsticks about the same size as the julienned burdock. Toss it with 3 tablespoons mild rice wine and 1 tablespoon regular soy sauce. Let it marinate for at least 15 minutes.

4. Set a wok over medium-high heat. As soon as the metal starts to smoke, drizzle in half the oil. Add the ginger and stir it around over the heat to release its fragrance, and then add the beef, but reserve the marinade. As soon as the beef has begun to brown, scrape everything out into a small work bowl.

5. Drain the burdock and rinse it in a colander before shaking it dry. Return the wok to the heat and add the other half of the oil. Swirl it around and then add the burdock. Stir-fry it for a few seconds, and then add half of the water. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle boil. Stir the burdock occasionally, and when most of the water has evaporated, add the rest. Continue to cool the burdock until all the water has evaporated again, then stir-fry it until the burdock is tender and golden on the edges, about 10 minutes total cooking time.
Grandma food

6. Turn the heat back up to medium-high and add the carrots. Stir-fry for around a minute before tossing in the green onions, beef, the leftover marinade, 2 tablespoons rice wine, 3 tablespoons regular soy sauce, and the sugar. 

7. Keep tossing the sauce with the meat and vegetables until it creates a shiny slick on them and most of the moisture has evaporated. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Scrape everything out onto a serving place and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve hot.

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