Authentic (real) Chinese cooking is only sometimes like the food that is available at “authentic” Chinese restaurants, which are very common and tend not to be very good in Knoxville. The real deal, actual Chinese home-cooked food is much like any other kind of home-cooked cuisine: simple, straightfoward, and involving relatively common ingredients.
This recipe, a beef and leek fried dish (stir-fry) is one such offering. The recipe suggests that the fried dish is served over shaved pasta, a very common starch in authentic Chinese cooking, although it would be just as delicious over steamed rice. The addition of the very healthy maitake mushrooms adds a gourmet touch, a little health, and a nice nutty flavor that complements the sweet leeks and beef very well. If they cannot be found, substitute shiitake mushrooms or even white mushrooms, thinly sliced, or leave mushrooms out entirely (the traditional recipe does not call for mushrooms).
The only difficult-to-find-in-Knoxville ingredient on the list is actually optional: Szechuan pepper. It can be found for a rather high price ($5) at the Earth Fare in Bearden (and perhaps the one in Turkey Creek as well) in very small bags, but the flavor that it adds is significant. Get it if you can, searching online if need be. If not, substitute freshly ground black pepper, which isn’t much like Szechuan pepper at all.
Leeks can be found in the organic section of most Kroger’s produce aisles and in most upscale grocery stores like the Earth Fare and The Fresh Market locations in Knoxville. They are very similar to onions, though quite dirty on the inside (cleaning them is the most difficult part of this recipe) and very mild in flavor. Use all of the white and yellow (inside) and the bottom three inches of the green, discarding the rest or saving them for soup (they’re great in chicken soup and potato soup) or stock.
Fresh maitake mushrooms (and shiitakes too) are intermittently available in the Knoxville area at Kroger grocery stores in the mushroom section of the produce aisle. Keep an eye open for them and grab some leeks while you’re there if you see them!
- One two-and-a-half or three-cup recipe of shaved pasta (dao xiao mian), see the link for recipe and method, or one and a half to two cups (dry) rice, prepared;
- Approximately a pound and a quarter of fresh beef: steaks (flank steak in particular) or roasts work well, sliced into long, thin strips (quarter-inch by three-inch) across the grain of the meat;
- Two medium leeks, trimmed of all but about three inches of green, cleaned thoroughly, and cut lengthwise into quarters then into inch-long pieces;
- Three to five green (spring) onions (scallions), cleaned and sliced lengthwise into halves and then into inch-long pieces, reserve the firm greens, sliced into thin cross-sections, for garnish;
- 4 oz. of maitake mushroom, roughly chopped, the dirty base discarded;
- 4 medium cloves of garlic (or equivalent), crushed and finely chopped;
- 1/2 inch of fresh ginger root, sliced into very thin coins and then into matchsticks (finely chopped or minced is acceptable as well);
- 1/2 tsp. Szechuan peppercorns, freshly ground;
- 1-2 tbsp. (by taste) soy sauce or dark soy sauce;
- 1 tbsp. rice wine or red wine vinegar;
- Salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes (to taste);
- 2-3 tbsp. peanut or canola oil for cooking.
- Start to boil plenty of salted water for the pasta or begin preparing the rice first.
- Prepare the vegetables as indicated and set all of them aside, keeping the garlic and ginger separate from the other vegetables;
- Prepare the meat. Tip: particularly for using a roast, to get really nice, thin slices of meat, partially freeze it before cutting it. Do not hard-freeze it and then try to cut it. Use a sharp knife, in any case.
- Once everything is prepared and all of the ingredients are close by (Chinese fried dishes, stir-fry, cook very quickly, so have everything you’ll need handy), begin by adding all of the vegetables except the garlic and ginger to a very hot wok with about 2 tbsp. of the oil. The very hot wok helps produce “wok hei,” which is a partial caramelization of the food in the wok and lends it a distinctive flavor. Having good “wok hei” in a variety of dishes is considered a mark of a qualified chef in Chinese cooking.
- Add salt, black pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes to the vegetables immediately and begin to stir-fry them. If you are making shaved pasta, now is when to shave the pasta into the now-boiling pot of water.
- After the vegetables have cooked until quite soft but still retaining their colors with some signs of caramelization, transfer them out of the wok and onto a plate or bowl while the meat cooks.
- Add a touch more oil and the Szechuan pepper to the wok. A few seconds later, add the meat and then the garlic and ginger. Salt and pepper lightly and stir well, flipping the meat in the air if you have the confidence. Just after this first good stir, the pasta should be done, so drain it and let it wait until the completion of the dish.
- When the meat looks about 3/4 cooked, add the vinegar to the wok and stir again. Then add the vegetables back into the wok. Mix well and add the soy sauce. Stir again and turn off the heat. The meat should be just cooked at that point, but if it isn’t, let it have another minute or so while stirring everything around continually.
- Remove the wok from the heat and garnish with the scallion greens. Serve traditionally (see below) or add the noodles to the wok and mix everything together (pictured). Enjoy with chopsticks to enhance the authenticity of the Chinese-style meal.
Traditional Chinese serving methods:
- Pour the entire fried dish from the wok into a large serving bowl. Divide the pasta or rice in individual bowls (if pasta, it is helpful to add just a little hot water to the bowls to keep the noodles from sticking together too much). Each person takes a bowl of noodles or rice and uses either a serving spoon or chopsticks to take the fried dish from the center as they need it. Only a little of the fried dish is taken at a time.
- Prepare the individual bowls of rice or pasta as above but place the serving of the fried dish on top of the starch, allowing each person to mix their own food according to their likes. Place any left-over fried dish in a serving bowl in the center of the table with a serving spoon in case people would like more (Method 1).
Local buying note: Fresh shiitake mushrooms are almost always available either prepackaged or even loose at The Fresh Market stores in Knoxville. They are only occasionally available loose at Kroger stores but are very frequently available in a carton. They make a wonderful variation on this recipe even when maitake mushrooms are available.
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