News of the nearly thirty inches of wet, white stuff that blanketed much of the eastern US last weekend made me think of the warming qualities of bak kut teh and my assertion that nobody does comfort food like the Chinese. Don't get me wrong - I love a rich, red winey daube, at times find myself pining for a big bowl of Mexican posole, and the thought of Italian sausage ragu makes me ravenous. But when I'm looking for culinary consolation in the face of wet and/or cold weather (or when the aircon is set low!) it's one of the following two dishes, a Hong Kong-style braise of pork belly and a Sichuan-ish red-cooked beef over noodles, that immediately pop into my head.
Both of these recipes, which fill the house with glorious aromas, have been adapted and re-adapted over the years from well-worn, soy-stained books. Both, despite their at-first-glance long ingredient lists, are exceedingly easy, and keep well as leftovers. No special equipment required (I prefer my Le Creuset-type Dutch oven over my wok for these dishes) and ingredients should be readily available. Authentic (whatever that means)? I make no such claim. But I'm hoping in particular that EatingAsia readers who don't often cook Asian at home will be convinced to write up a shopping list, visit a local Asian goods store (or the Asian foods aisle in your grocery store), and dive right in.
Spicy, Anise-y Red-Cooked Beef over Noodles, adapted from Asian Pasta by Linda Burum
This recipe will produce a "kind of" spicy stew. I like it very Sichuan-style hot, so I up the amount of hot pepper paste by at least 50% (yup, 50%), quadruple the amount of Sichuan peppercorns (and sprinkle the finished product with a few more), and blacken 6 or 7 whole dried chilies in the oil before adding garlic etc.
Lightly toasting the peppercorns in a dry pan until fragrant (don't scorch) really brings out their flavor.
Blanched bean sprouts or pea sprouts, shoots, or greens twirled through the noodles before they are covered in sauce, make a nice addition.
1/2 cup peanut or veg oil
4 Tbsp each minced ginger and garlic
2 cups roughly chopped yellow onions
8 thinly sliced green onions
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, crushed in mortar or ground in a spice/coffee grinder
4 star anise
5-6 tsp Chinese hot chili paste (NOT chili bean paste - good brands are Kim Lan and Lan Chi)
1.5 pounds of botom round or other lean stewing beef, cut into 1/2 to 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 tsp sugar
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 cup beef broth (canned is fine) or a beef bouillon cube mixed with 1 cup water
4 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 6 tablespoons water (optional, if you prefer a thinner sauce)
1.5 pounds of fresh Chinese egg noodles or 1 pound thin dried egg noodles (in a pinch, fettucine will do)
Heat oil in cooking vessel on high and add ginger, garlic, and onions. Stir-fry for a minute and then add two-thirds of the green onions (set the rest aside for serving). After 10 seconds add the peppercorns and star anise, and after 10 more seconds stir in the pepper/chili paste. Stir-fry briskly for about 30 seconds and add the beef, frying till every piece is seared. Sprinkle sugar and soy over all and stir-fry two more minutes.
Add broth (or bouillon cube and water), along with 2 1/2 cups of water, stir well, and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to very low, cover, and simmer until the meat is falling-apart tender, about 2 hours.
At this point, refrigerate or freeze and reheat, or proceed with the recipe (if you plan to freeze part of the recipe, remove it from the pan now, before adding cornstarch).
Cook noodles in boiling water and divide into big bowls. Bring the sauce to a boil and stir in the cornstarch, a tablespoon at a time, until the sauce is as thick as you'd like (it will thin a bit once it's on the noodles, especially if bean sprouts or pea greens are added). Ladle sauce over noodles and garnish with green onion and, if you like, a sprinkle of Sichuan peppercorns.
4-6 servings, depending on the size of diners' appetites
Long-Stewed Claypot Pork Belly, adapted from Fragrant Harbor Taste by Ken Hom
This dish is mild, savory, and a bit sweet; the lemon and orange peels add an unexpected perfume. If you don't want to use pork belly (I know it's awfully fatty but it's also awfully delicious), substitute beef brisket. Dried bean curd is a wonderful flavor absorber, and I love its chewiness. If you can't get fresh bamboo shoots, skip them, canned are awful. Chinese greens added at the end, to steam over the stew, are an easy side dish. Rice is a must, to sop up the lovely porky goo!
15 large dried Chinese mushrooms
4-6 sticks of dried bean curd
2 1/2 pounds pork belly or beef brisket
2 Tbsp peanut oil
6 1/2-inch thick ginger slices (young fragrant ginger preferred)
5 garlic cloves peeled and crushed
1/4 cup bamboo shoots sliced 1/4-inch thick
10 fresh or canned water chestnuts, or 8 arrowroot
4 Tbsp bean sauce (whole bean preferred but crushed is fine too)
4 Tbsp oyster sauce
3 Tbsp sugar
2 slices each of lemon and orange peel
3 Tbsp rice wine or dry sherry
5 Tbsp soy sauce (if you've got light and dark sauces, make it 2 of the former and 3 of the latter)
Optional: a bunch of Chinese greens (mustard, baby bok choy, gai lan etc), washed and shaken dry
Soak mushrooms in warm water until soft, about 20 minutes. Squeeze out the excess water and discard woody stems. Strain mushroom water into a measuring cup and add plain water to equal 4 cups.
Soak bean curd sticks in hot water until soft, then drain and set aside.
Cut pork belly or beef brisket into bite-size chunks, then blanch for 20 minutes in boiling water, then drain and set aside.
Heat cooking vessel and add peanut oil, ginger, and garlic, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add bamboo shoots, water chestnuts (or arrowroot), mushrooms, citrus peels, and bean curd sticks. Stir-fry for a minute. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Add blanched meat, bring back to a boil, and then simmer at least 1 1/2 hours, partially covered, until meat is very tender. (Skim surface occasionally for excess fat, if you wish.)
If using greens, lay them on top of the stew, bring it to a steady simmer, and replace the cover. Steam the greens till tender, and then serve them on the side (or serve the stew ladelled over a bed of greens).
serves 4 to 6