Saturday, 14 July 2012

Recipe Road Test: Ching He-Huang's Beef and Chilli Bamboo Shoots in Little Gem Lettuce


My trip to China and Hong Kong was one of the most brilliant experiences of my life. (For my tips on travelling around China, see my previous blog post: http://snigskitchen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/top-tips-for-travelling-round-china.html) The food was a real highlight. One leg of our trip involved a cruise along the Chiang Jiang river (better known to Westerners as the Yangtze). We arrived in Yichang in good spirits, but also with something of an appetite. Our tour guide wondered what we wanted and offered the option of 'burgers, KFC or Pizza'. We were puzzled and interjected 'Chinese food, please!'. He was surprised. He told us that usually all his clients complain that they've had nothing but Chinese food for three days and ask to be taken to McDonalds, Pizza Hut or KFC (as already mentioned). 

It's funny, but after three and a half weeks of travelling around China, my appetite for its flavours remains undimmed. The food is varied, vibrant and enticing.  I feel even more energised towards making Chinese dishes to taste that wonderful spectrum of texture and flavour.

Having said that, eating all that wonderful food has taken its toll. My clothes are ever so tight since I left London! One skirt I had packed can just about be done up, but only when I breathe in. It was not always thus! So I wanted to find something tasty but a little on the healthy side.

I've already written on this blog about Ching-He Huang's book "China Modern" before, when I road tested her recipe for Nutty Chicken Cool Noodle Salad (see post here). It is a favourite recipe. So it is to her book I have returned and decided to have a go at Beef and Chilli Bamboo Shoots in Little Gem Lettuce. You will find it at page 17 of her book. A similar dish was served up on Come Dine With Me, so you will find a version of the recipe here:

This dish reminds me of 'San Choi Bao'. It is a dish I first had at Deptford Malaysian-Chinese Restaurant Kaya House, back when it was run by Ambrose and his lovely wife. Theirs is a vegetarian version, which is such a wonderful combination of flavours, hardened carnivores do not miss meat. They put in some 'secret' ingredients, including tinned pickled cabbage. 

Other versions use pork, or chicken and I've even read that in some restaurants, they use the meat from the Peking duck as part of the filling:

So after shopping for the ingredients, I was ready to get cracking!

Ching-He Huang's take on this dish involves using Little Gem lettuce rather than iceberg. I am deeply grateful to her for this. It is FAR easier to remove the leaves of a Little Gem and get something resembling a small plate/shallow cup. If I had to deal with extracting intact leaves from an Iceberg lettuce, there would have been chaos here at Snig's Kitchen. I don't have the patience or the knife skills or the care. There would have been lots of torn leaves, swearing and perhaps drawn blood from a not-quite-so-near-miss with a knife. This variation is a heartily recommended!

As I have previously suggested in my Kitchen tips - it is a good idea to get all of your preparatory work done in advance, before you start cooking. It may take a little longer, but makes for a much more relaxed experience of cooking. This way there are no panics about not having peeled this, or chopped that or diced this at the time it needs to go in the pot.

One annoying thing was having to peel the individual segments of orange. Yes, Ching does recommend Mandarins. But I couldn't find any, so had to make do with Satsumas. However, I doubt that removing the membrane from the segments would have been any easier had I been able to find Mandarins. This is a highly fiddly step. My domestic goddess status has never been assured, so if some of the segments fell apart, I was neither going to get upset or start again. Broken segments? I think we can survive! I am not on Come Dine With Me and neither am I a professional chef!

Once the ingredients were prepared, the dish was a breeze to cook. Perhaps I could have made it in our households' wok, but the bottom is uneven and I was afraid to lose control of it and its contents. Far better to use a bog-standard non-stick frying pan and stay on top of things. I could control the heat, the stirring and weight of the overall contents. If you are bigger than me (chances are you are - I am a munchkin), you need not worry about this.

So I started by frying up the 'holy trinity' (ginger, garlic and chilli) in the frying pan. They sizzled, giving up their flavours and aroma, promising a great supper in due course.

Next came the minced beef. I bought some low fat minced steak meat. I have found that cheap mince is a false economy. There is too much water and foamy gunk which comes out of cooking cheap mince. I don't want that rubbish in my dinner! So best to pay more for stuff which has had the fat trimmed off and has as little water added as possible. Better still, make your own. I DO have a mincer which gets used reasonably often, but this time I decided against the extra work of using the mincer and cleaning it out afterwards. 

Next up came the onions and mushrooms. My only real deviation from Ching's original dish was the addition of two thirds of a red pepper, diced. I could not have sold the dish to Him Indoors as a supper dish without a little more taste, colour and flavour. It is a sympathetic ingredient which thankfully worked rather well.

As the mince browns, it needs turning over, and then the sauce ingredients (light soy sauce and sesame oil) need to be added and mixed thoroughly. These will infuse the ingredients and get cooked out to add moisture and subtle flavour to the dish. 

The spring onions and coriander are added at the last moment. They don't need much cooking, and you want to keep their integrity. 

The last task is  the assembly. The beef mixed is divided up between the Little Gem leaves, and them topped with the orange segments and chopped peanuts. A simple operation, but looks extremely effective and colourful. I served up the dish with hoping that it tasted as good as it looked.

So what is the verdict? Well, it is remarkably tasty. And the variety of ingredients gives a good variation of texture in each bite. The sweet but slight tartness of the orange plays against the crunch of the Little Gem and the deeper tastes of the beef. An enjoyable, flavourful, healthy dish.  Because you can eat it with your hands,  you don't even need to get any cutlery dirty! So it saves on the washing up! 
Thanks Ching! Another great meal from your debut book!

If you want to buy China Modern, the ISBN number is 978-1-85626-673-4, and it is published by Kyle Cathie.

For those of you who think lettuce or Little Gem are dull, there is another variation I found online. This involves serving the beef in hollowed out tomatoes

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