Monday, October 1, 2018

Pot au feu chez Huang

Autumn is finally here. The big-leaf maples in our foothills have thrown off their summer green for their stunning fall yellow. 

The flowers in the front yard are starting to fade and stud the garden with warm swaths of brown, confusing the butterflies, but delighting the chickadees and sparrows with this sudden abundance of tiny seeds. 

We’re even supposed to get rain this week, miracles of miracles. 

And so I’m putting away the salads and pulling out my recipes for stews and soups and other comfort foods that will cheer up the evenings and warm our toes.

Today’s dish is ostensibly from Zhejiang, but I’ve messed around with it a little bit. For example, I brown the beef and ginger, rather than keep them pale, as I love the deep flavor that caramelization provides. However, I don’t brown the onions, as that would be make this particular dish too dark.

Heavenly marbleization
Traditionally this is a very simple soup designed to highlight a relatively rare ingredient for Eastern Chinese cuisines: beef. Normally you’ll find this only in the far west, north, and central highlands, but once it a while it shows up in this area, as well as in Guangdong (like Crispy Beef Tomato Chow Mein… oh how I love that).

The only thing I’d advise you to really pay attention to here is the quality of the beef. Nothing will be able to disguise less-than-perfect meat, just as nothing can compare to the aroma and flavor of the finest beef. So last week when I came across these lovely chuck steaks at the Five Dot Ranch stall at Oxbow, they practically called out to me. I also managed to stock up on other hard-to-get yet incredibly delicious items such as beef heart, tripe, and shins. (More on those in the future.)

When an ingredient is as rare as beef in Zhejiang, you know that their heirloom recipes are going to put a spotlight on its presence, for it would have been an expensive treat. At the same time, any gaminess would have always been downplayed, for that is something that wouldn’t ever play well at a Hangzhou feast. So, what you end up with is something actually quite delicate and clever. Stark, even.

Ginger is a necessity here
Because it is so stark, I like to serve this with a mellow scallion-ginger dipping sauce. You’ve probably had this before many times in Cantonese delis, as it is almost a mandatory accompaniment to other plain dishes like White Cut Chicken. Using it here transforms something almost Puritanical into a sybaritic experience, for each slice of the braised beef gets bathed in a richly seasoned oil. 

I’ve tossed in spinach at the end, too, to make this more like a pot au feu– meat and veg all in one tidy casserole. It’s simple, yet delectable, and yet one more reason why I always look forward to autumn.

Pot au feu chez Huang
Huángjiā qīngdùn níuròu 黃家清燉牛肉
Zhejiang crossed with Guangdong
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon oil
1 generous tablespoon julienned ginger
1½ pounds | 750 g chuck steak (or whatever braise-worthy cut of beef looks good to you)
¼ cup | 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine, plus more as needed
Half an onion, thickly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
Boiling water, as needed
Ice cubes, as needed
Mushroom seasoning or sea salt to taste
1 bunch spinach, cleaned and coarsely chopped, optional

Dipping sauce:
See the sauce for White Cut Chicken

Ahhhh, that caramel color
Note: These directions are for a pressure cooker. If you don’t have one, simply follow the directions through Step 2 using a wok or casserole, and then simmer the beef uncovered until it is barely fork tender, adding more liquid as needed. 

1. Set the bottom of a pressure cooker over medium-high heat and pour in the oil. Sprinkle in the ginger and then add the steak. Sear the steak on both sides until it is brown and crispy – the best way to do this is to patiently wait until a crust has formed on the bottom, at which point you will be able to gently nudge the beef free. It will stick and tear if you fuss with it before it’s ready, so really, wait for that crust to form. Always remember that caramelization is divine.

2. Pour in the rice wine. Add the onions and then the boiling water to barely cover. Do not add salt of any kind at this point, as it will toughen the meat. Cover the pressure cooker, seal, and cook on high pressure for 40 minutes, regulating the heat as needed. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let it cool down until you can open it easily. The beef should be barely fork tender, but not falling apart.

Fatty icebergs
3. Remove the beef to a plate, cool it to room temperature, and refrigerate it if you are not using it that evening. When the stock has cooled down, add a good handful of ice cubes to it, as this will solidify the fat. Strain the stock and discard the fat and solids. 

4. Cut the beef crosswise against the grain into slices about ½ inch | 1 cm thick, or however you like. Set it in a casserole and pour the strained stock over it. Gently raise the heat to a simmer so that the meat is warmed through but not violently recooked. Taste the stock and adjust the seasoning with more rice wine or whatever else you think it needs. Add the optional spinach, cover, and simmer these together just to wilt the leaves. Scoot the spinach into an attractive nest. Serve hot with the dipping sauce.