The Food Salon: Chinese-American Beef Stew
Tonight, with the child out at work, I longed for a hot stew and didn't have the time or the ingredients to make it. However, one of my local Chinese restaurants was advertising Chinese-style beef stew with potatoes, and as I love Chinese-style beef stew I was happy to order out.

Bleargh. Worst advertisement for that dish--or that restaurant--possible. I am un-American enough to enjoy gristle and tendon when it's properly boiled down to gelatinous bliss, but that's a crucial detail--it has to be stewed down enough. This appeared to be very gristly meat from leftover ribs, with the casing that attaches the meat still attached (though the bones were gone). The casing was thick, rubbery, and tough as sin. Unchewable. The meat was undercooked for a stew. There were entire globs of fat floating in the broth...and the broth was not skimmed. There was a good quarter-inch of grease or more on top of everything.  There were too many potatoes--enough to unbalance the stew. Someone had gotten much too generous with the sriracha. It was too salty, and to my amazement it was too dense with star anise--a fate I would have thought almost impossible previously, as I really like red-cooked meats with lots of star anise. It is lovely in the same way fennel-rich Tuscan soup is lovely: the licorice perfume raises a plain dish up to heavenly heights. This overshot the heavens, and landed in some bleak asteroid zone.

It was edible, and hot, and that's the best I can say about it. 

It's sad...but it also tells me I'm better off whenever possible making my own Chinese-American beef stew. I'm now plotting out a version that ought to be glorious.

It would take a goodly mess of chuck, ideally, though brisket, beef cheek, shank, and other similar gristly, sinewy meats would do. At least a pound, and I'd prefer two or three. A carton of beef or chicken broth, with enough water added to raise the water just short of the top of the meat.  Three stars of anise minimum per pound of meat. A knob of ginger. At least three cloves of garlic. Enough soy to raise the broth over the meat. Sriracha if you must...I will forgive you. Simmer covered on low heat or in a slow oven for several hours. "Simmer" is the critical word, here: the liquid should not boil, merely shiver and stir itself. Cook until the meat is tender and the connective tissue is, too--gelatinous, turning translucent, cooked to gooey delicacy.  "Toothsome" might be a good word--like al dente pasta, it should resist the teeth, but only slightly.

When the meat is ready, remove it, strip away any globs of fat (if you wish), and set the broth in the refrigerator overnight, to firm up the grease on top. The next day you can strip that stuff off and toss it. If you like you can also fish out the seasonings--they have done their duty, and if you find you want more flavor you can add fresh portions rather than keep stewing the old, leached out knobs and pods. 

Chop two to three large carrots. If you can find the massive, fat ones that remind one of chubby phallic daikon, by all means, get those. If not, I recommend the fattest available. In this sort of stew I like to cut the carrots using the Chinese "rolling cut," in which you slice across the carrot on a diagonal, then rotate enough that the next cut will intersect the last. You get a series of fat pieces that are almost as fat as the carrot itself, with facets that taper off at either end. They are admirably chunky.  Add them to the broth, and simmer for about twenty minutes. Then cut potatoes and leeks into stew-sized pieces. Yes, leeks--they're very good in this. I like my potatoes chunky--about an eighth of an average potato, perhaps, or a half to a quarter of those small ones that are too big to be considered proper "new potatoes," but too small to bake. "Boiling potatoes." Add the leeks and the potatoes. Now, test the broth.

If it's a bit blah, consider a half-teaspoon of sugar, a splash of lime, lemon, or vinegar, or even a bit of white wine. I don't recommend red--it's one leap too far into Europe, and the base of the stew is going to seem very European already. Fresh ginger, garlic, and star anise are all appropriate if you feel the seasoning is a little tame. And, again, if you must, sriracha. (sigh) No. Not a sriracha fan, but it has its uses. When the vegetables are tender, return the reserved meat to the broth and heat through.

Here is the thing--when this works it is the perfect combination of European stew and Chinese red-cooking. The star anise and ginger are exotic, but still meld properly with the other flavors. You have the same choice you have with European stews--you can thicken, or serve with a thin broth. You can also opt to serve over rice, or as-is. It has all the hot, comfort-food elements that go with beef stew for most Americans, but just a little touch of foreign elements to shake things up. And, yes--it's yummy. Seriously yummy.

Or it is when I make it. I can't say as much for that local restaurant....