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Yunnan top shelf beef stew 牛肉炖山药


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It's been a cold and rainy October; perfect weather for beef stew. Sometimes I make this dish with shortcuts, but today I had time for the "top shelf" version. It took several hours, but came out delicious. Let me show you how to do it. 


Buy a good looking piece of beef; I most often go for brisket 牛胸肉 or a rib cut 肋排肉。You can use shoulder or rump, but they are tougher and take a little longer to get done. I ask my butcher to include a couple of marrow bones 筒骨; sometimes she is in a good mood and tosses them in free because I am a regular customer 老顾客。Sometimes I have to pay, but even then it's usually only ¥5 extra. 


Don't need to trim it, just rinse well under tap water 洗净 and cut it into more or less equal sized pieces 切块。This piece of beef weighted 600 grams and cost 38 Yuan. (BTW, you can click the photos to enlarge them.)


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Put these in a pan with cold water and let them soak 30 minutes. Don't add anything. Some blood will come out and slightly color the water. Here are before and after shots. I use that 30 minutes to prepare dry seasonings for the next step. 


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Boil some water in your wok (no need to get another pot dirty.) Add a splash of yellow cooking wine 黄酒 and a few slices of ginger (don't need to peel it.) Simmer it for two minutes and scoop off the foam  去掉浮沫。Lift out the meat and discard that water. Don't worry about losing flavor; a couple minutes of boiling here just cleans the meat; the long, slow stewing yet to come will develop plenty more good tastes. 


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Let the meat drain and then blot it dry with paper towels so it won't splatter too much when you brown it in oil. Here are the dry spices: a few dry red chilies 干辣椒 at 12 noon, two pods of cardamom 草果 at 2 o'clock. Smash them open with the heavy blunt handle of your knife so they will release their flavor more readily. Cassia bark is next at 6 o'clock. (It's a relative of cinnamon.) At 9 o'clock are two pods of star anise 八角,and in the middle are two or three bay leaves 香叶。Not shown in this photo is a tablespoon of rock sugar 冰糖。


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Crush some garlic, two or three cloves, and slice it coarsely. Several large slices of ginger; no need to peel it; cut them big so you can pick them out later before serving. Lay out a heaping tablespoon of rock sugar 冰糖。(This will help give the meat a pleasant golden color.


I've included a closer look at the magic ingredient that some people call "The Soul of Sichuan Cuisine." It's Pixian Douban Jiang 郫县豆瓣酱, a fiery paste, concocted of fermented soybeans, broad beans, rice and crushed chilies. It's beloved in Yunnan too, and I buy it in bulk from the spice lady at my nearby wet market so I can always have some in the fridge when needed. It's a staple in my house.  A thoroughly worthwhile condiment. It's available in jars from your Asian market or from Amazon.


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Now you want to brown the meat. Put a couple tablespoons of oil into your wok (which you have dried well after using it to boil the beef) and stir the meat cubes around until it develops some color. One at a time, add the rock sugar 冰糖, ginger, garlic, and the Pixian doubanjiang. You probably recognize this way of starting the meat as typical of recipes for making red cooked beef 红烧牛肉。



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Now scoop this out into your pressure cooker 压力锅 with enough water or stock to cover generously .Remember, your vegetables will be added later and the liquid level should be enough to cover them as well. I prefer to use stock, and usually have some in the freezer which I thaw and use for things like this in place of plain water. Add any remaining dry condiments. 





Deglaze the wok with cooking wine 黄酒 and pour that flavorful juice into the the pressure cooker as well. Put the big marrow bone in with the meat. Add two tablespoons of soy sauce 生抽, a teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。 











Close the top and cook it using the "beef/lamb" cycle 牛羊肉。On my pressure cooker that is 25 minutes. When it turns off, don't immediately open the lid with a "quick release" method; give it time to come down to zero pressure on its own. On mine, that means waiting another 25 minutes or so. I use that time to wash up any dishes that have accumulated during the meat prep. Clean and put away my wok.


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If you don't have a pressure cooker, this stew can be made in a big clay pot set over a burner of your stove, using a very low flame. That requires periodic stirring attention so that it doesn't run dry or scorch on the bottom. A better alternative is an electric clay pot slow cooker 紫砂电锅。These are common in China and usually cost about the same as a pressure cooker (¥350 to ¥450 or so.) Need to allow 4 or 5 hours of slow cooking time. Start it on high and reduce the heat to low after it reaches a boil. I used one of these for years and loved it; only this year did I buy a pressure cooker. 


When the cooking cycle completes, let the pressure come down on it's own as before. Open it and lift out any pieces of meat that offend you with too much fat or heavy gristle. It's better to trim it now than when it was raw; you lose less flavor. Here's what I discarded, shown below. The immensely-practical Chinese way is to leave it all intact, and let each person just spit out what they don't want later at the table.


The remaining beef is now almost tender enough, but not quite. I washed the mint, lovely and fresh. It's an essential part of Yunnan cuisine and even the supermarkets stock it, a large bouquet of it for only a few Yuan. Furthermore, it goes extremely well with beef; the flavors are complimentary. 





Now add a generous handful of mint and give the meat another cycle, just like the one you did a few minutes ago. This is a good time to get the vegetables ready, except for the shanyao 山药 because it discolors if it stands exposed to air. (You can put it in cold water after cleaning it to retard that process.) I used half an onion. Slipped off the tomato skin by dunking it in boiling water for a minute or so, scoring it with a knife after cooling it enough to handle (using cold running water.) 


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Next I got the shanyao ready. Wash it well with running water; scrub it a little 擦干净。 Since it grows in the earth, sand and soil remain when it is harvested.  





Shanyao 山药, the name literally means "mountain medicine," is a rhizome, it grows underground in sections up to about three feet long. The best of it is harvested in winter. Chinese Traditional Medicine calls it a "restorative" and "anti-aging" vegetable. Said to "nourish your Qi." It's a highly-recommended cold weather food: suitable for fall and winter. 











Then peel it and cut it into "rolling sections" 切棍块 -- rotate the stick of shanyao half a turn with each cut to wind up with wedge-shaped sections. It is mucilagenous and slippery; hard to handle. (That feature disappears when cooked.) I used 300 grams today (about half the amount of meat.) My carrot weighed 250 grams. 


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When the second cooking cycle completes and the temperature comes down to a safe level, open the pressure cooker, remove the bone and lift out the mint. Also fish out big pieces of ginger, star anise, bay leaves, and cassia bark. Anything that you would not like as an alien surprise when you are wolfing down your stew. Add the vegetables and cook it on a short cycle of 8 or 10 minutes. On my cooker the fish program does a fine job of cooking the vegetables and blending the flavors. Be careful with adding salt; the doubanjiang is salty, as is the soy sauce. A pinch is OK, but don't overdo it. 


When it comes down to a safe temperature, open and serve. The beef is tender enough to tear it with your chopsticks. The meat has acquired a flavor profile similar to that of 红烧牛肉 (red cooked beef.) I garnish the serving bowl and each individual bowl with a few pieces of mint, not just for looks but so we can eat it as we enjoy the stew. That's common practice in Yunnan, land of mint and peppers. 



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It's not quick and easy, but it's bold and balanced: worth the effort. Try it once and you will never look back. 



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mouthful water,  very happy to see foodie text again, with laughter on words on 山药, LOL.


BTW, 山药 is more likely in a clear soup/ 清汤,  so you would not lose the valuable taste of  鲜甜 . These is no counterpart words in English of 鲜, so just try and try to taste it out.

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15 hours ago, Bibu said:

BTW, 山药 is more likely in a clear soup/ 清汤,  so you would not lose the valuable taste of  鲜甜 .


You're right, @Bibu -- Thanks for your comment. This cooking style is not entirely traditional and the shanyao 山药 does lose quite a bit of its distinctive "fresh/sweet" 鲜甜 flavor when cooked this way together with the strong flavors used to enhance the beef. I more often see it in restaurants as you say, in a clear and simple soup. I love it that way too. 


A good friend here in Kunming just sent me an e-mail message this morning saying she was on a business trip and had eaten 山药排骨汤。Sent this photo:




In my recipe the shanyao could have just as well been replaced with potato, and in fact I sometimes do exactly that, saving shanyao for applications where it shines and can contribute more to the finished dish. 

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13 hours ago, abcdefg said:

the shanyao 山药 does lose quite a bit of its distinctive "fresh/sweet" 鲜甜 flavor


That's a very perceptive comment about Chinese yam! That combination of umami and sweet is rather interesting, especially when considering traditional Chinese methods of increasing umami perception through raising sweetness levels (most familiar to me through Shanghai  / Jianghuai cookery).

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Interesting, @Michaelyus -- Fresh lotus root 莲藕 has some of that same quality. As a rough rule of thumb, I use either shanyao 山药 or lotus root 莲藕 in a braised or boiled dish with meat, but not both together. If both are side by side, together in the pot, they wind up being redundant. 


The whole larger issue of "what goes with what" is a challenging affair. I have found several long on-line tables from the Chinese internet listing does and don't, some of which are quite obscure. Sometimes the combining of "this and that" is frowned on because it produces an odd, or at least a non-Chinese, taste. Other times it can do something mildly dangerous. Tofu and spinach, for example, are said (by 外婆) to produce kidney stones. (Maybe if you eat a whole lot of them together every day for several years.)


And there are certain "mystery prohibitions" based on principles of TCM, such as don't eat persimmon 柿子 and lake crab 螃蟹 together. Well, don't think I would want to do that anyhow, so it's no great loss. Thus I avoid a nasty case of "wind in the spleen" or "moisture in the liver" or some such esoteric malady. 


The guiding principle, most of the time, and one which is easy for a westerner to forget, is "keep it simple." Don't put 17 flavors together, hoping for some sort of Miraculous Asian Fusion result. The dish more often just winds up confused and muddy. So many delicious slow-cooked Chinese soups are literally one meat plus one vegetable, perhaps a pinch of salt.


I make those often at home, but don't write them up for posting here. They aren't "sexy" and don't have eye appeal. Nevertheless, when made with top notch ingredients, I think they are the best of all. 



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