I don't know if it's just me, but I find Chinese cuisine to be one of the most elusive out there... searching for ingredients can sometimes be a whole adventure on its own, and once that's done and the meal is ready, there is often an "oomph" missing, which sometimes makes me wonder if Chinese food can only be made in a restaurant or by a Chinese mother. And so, for the past few years, every time I've come across a recipe that tastes right, I've made sure to place it in the Keeper file.
Recently I took a look at my precious list of Attempted Chinese Recipes That We Liked, and there was one thing they had in common: Grace Young. Five or six years ago I bought her book, "The Breath of a Wok", and all the recipes I've tried from it have worked. I also have her latest book, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge", which is proving to be as promising as its predecessor. Both books contain a treasure trove of recipes and provide a most fascinating education on woks - how to select one, how to care for it, how to use it.
Earlier this month Grace made an appearance on the Martha Stewart show for Chinese New Year. She cooked two recipes from Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge, using her very own trusty 20-year old wok. I should admit that up until that point I had been stir-frying in a skillet, but seeing Grace's wok with its beautiful patina and glorious sheen, I was struck with sudden wok envy (or maybe it was inspiration?) and the very next day I had purchased and seasoned a wok of my own. It's years away from acquiring the depth of a long-loved wok, but it's a start.
I've used my infant wok a number of times now, and I am still amazed at how quickly everything comes together. Once all the prep work is done - which takes just a few minutes - I heat up the wok and the dish is usually ready to be served within 10 minutes or so. Ten minutes! I was never able to do that when attempting stir-fries in a skillet.
Oh, and back to Grace Young's books: it gets even better. Aside from sharing reliable recipes and imparting precious, well-researched knowledge on the art of the wok, Grace's masterpieces also demistify the Chinese pantry by providing pictures of various ingredients and recommending tried-and-true brands. The last time I went to the Chinese supermarket to replenish my supplies, I decided to bring my beloved signed copy of Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge to facilitate my journey down the sauce aisle. I enlisted the help of my husband and son, who actually enjoyed scouring the shelves since they had images to compare against.
To tell you the truth, I felt slightly self-conscious at the store ... I mean, when was the last time you saw anyone consulting a book while grocery shopping? But I guess I was on to something, because a fellow shopper, bewilderdly wandering from aisle to aisle, bumped into us and asked if she could refer to our book as well! And, in true Kansas-friendly style, we started chatting and I found out that she had also seen Grace on Martha Stewart's show and was actually shopping for ingredients so that she could try some of Grace's recipes! Small world, eh?
Speaking of small worlds, last year I actually got to meet the Wok Ambassador herself. My aunt, Tita Nancy, was involved in the production/design of Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge, and she introduced us to each other. We've never actually met in person, but we have corresponded by email and spoken on the phone. Soon after we made each other's acquaintance, she encouraged me to start a blog. A few people had been trying to convince me to start one - including my husband who had been trying for more than a year - but the final push came from Grace. For that, and for making Chinese food attainable in my home kitchen, I will be always grateful to Grace.
Stir-Fried Beef and Broccoli
Adapted from Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge
This recipe (as it appears in the book) can also be found here
You can also see Grace Young "in action" on the Martha Stewart show, where she cooked
Don't be discouraged by the length of the recipe below - I just broke it up into different components, and they all come together very quickly. You do need to make sure that you prepare all the ingredients ahead of time, because once you start stir-frying you will have no time to futz about. Have everything prepped and laid out near your stove, so that as soon as the wok heats up all you'll need to do is transfer the ingredients to the wok and stir-fry.
When I first read this recipe I thought that the ingredient list was long, and noticed that the quantities were small - a teaspoon here, a tablespoon there. However, when I am trying to learn how to cook a dish, I don't take many liberties - maybe when I am more confident with Chinese flavours I will also become more inclined to substitute or tweak, to cook by instinct. At any rate, I've always found Grace's recipes to be perfectly balanced, so if she says to add 2 teaspoons of dark soy sauce, I'll add 2 teaspoons of dark soy sauce. The way I see it, the author hasn't won 3 IACP awards for nothing ... and so I trust and I learn.
One thing I didn't use was the fermented black beans - I forgot to buy them. The finished dish sans black beans was wonderful just the same. Also, I'm not sure how many cooks out there have 2 tablespoons of chicken broth readily available, or would be willing to open a package for just 2 tablespoons. I used chicken broth, because I usually have it on hand. If I were to find myself without it, I might try substituting water with maybe a touch of soy sauce or a sliver of a bouillion cube.
Slice and marinate the meat
Cut with the grain into 2"-wide strips, then cut each strip across the grain into ¼" thick slices:
12 ounces lean flank steak
Place the meat in a medium bowl and mix just until combined:
1 Tbsp minced ginger
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1½ tsp cornstarch
½ tsp salt
⅛ tsp freshly ground pepper
Then stir in:
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Set the meat aside.
Prepare the sauce
In a small bowl, combine:
2 Tbsp chicken broth
2 Tbsp oyster sauce
2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 Tbsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
Set this sauce aside.
Blanch the broccoli
Bring to boil in a medium saucepan:
1 quart of water
Add and cook for 1 minute:
12 ounces (about 5 cups) broccoli florets cut into bite-size pieces
(if including broccoli stems, slice those ¼" thick
The broccoli will turn a bright, vibrant green. Drain in a colander and make sure to shake out any excess water. Set the broccoli aside.
Prepare the other ingredients
Slice thinly and set aside:
1 small onion, to yield ¾ cup
Rinse, mash, and set aside:
1 Tbsp fermented black beans
a few garlic cloves to yield 1 Tbsp when minced
Start your stir-fry engines!
Heat a 14" flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in (pour around the sides, letting the oil drip down to the base of the wok):
1 Tbsp peanut oil or vegetable oil
the garlic you minced (1 Tbsp)
the fermented black beans that you rinsed and mashed (1 Tbsp)
Push the garlic mixture to the sides of the wok, and carefully add:
the beef slices (12 ounces)
Spread the slices evenly in one layer in the wok. Allow to cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the beef begin to sear. Take a moment to listen - you should hear it sizzling. Then stir-fry 1 minute, or until the beef is lightly browned but not cooked through. Transfer the beef to a plate.
Swirl into the now-empty wok:
1 Tbsp peanut oil or vegetable oil
Add and stir-fry about 30 seconds, or until the onions are just translucent:
the onions that you sliced (¾ cup)
Add and stir-fry 15 seconds or until just combined with the onions:
the broccoli that you blanched and drained (12 ounces)
Return the beef with any juices that have accumulated to the wok, and swirl in:
the oyster sauce mixture
Stir-fry about 30 seconds or until the beef is just cooked through.
Serve immediately. We had ours with steamed white rice on the side, and found that it was enough to serve 6.