Friday, February 10, 2006

Weekend Cookbook Challenge #3 - Citrus Beef Stir-Fry

It was to be a healthy dinner tonight as I discovered that almost all the vegetables in my fridge were about to commit mass suicide. It was Zero Hour. Do or die.

Pulling out every vegetable I had in the fridge, I salvaged, resuscitated, coaxed, cross-examined, and threatened sanctions. There were a few casualties. One recalcitrant red pepper, two lemons (but of course), and a pugnacious bunch of coriander. Casting these off, I still had an arsenal of vegetables.

A valiant rummage into the deep recesses of my freezer yielded a small slab of flank steak that looked like it had been cryogenated. I wondered if I could conjure a decent meal from all these sad ingredients I'd pulled together and decided to consult my cookbooks. As I picked up a very old and very seldom used cookbook, I thought of Weekend Cookbook Challenge.

I’m not sure if I even qualify for the Weekend Cookbook Challenge since it’s not the weekend. And I did not quite follow the recipe but there are extenuating circumstances for that. But I’ll still try to submit it only because I’m a cheeky bugger and well, I’ve never tried to join any kind of culinary blog challenge before.

The base recipe, which became unrecognisable by the time I was through with it, is from an old cookbook called 30 Minutes or Less Cookbook by Sunset Books. You would think this would be an invaluable book but I’ve always slighted it for the more grandiose cookbooks that offered exotic and elaborate recipes.

I did not purchase this book. It was a gift from an ex-boyfriend who, knowing my love of cooking and my lifestyle, thought that I would appreciate a book that advocated fast cooking. To spare his feelings, I kept the book despite knowing, even at a quick glance, that the recipes were a little too simplistic and spice-challenged for my taste. I chucked it in a far corner of my bookshelf and only consulted it once. I can’t even remember what recipe I tried now.

Being in the mood for simple and fast tonight, I decided to give this old cookbook another chance. The theme of Weekend Cookbook Challenge is oranges, which is ideal as I still have a few Mandarin oranges from Chinese New Year. Flipping through 30 Minutes, the recipe for Citrus Beef Stir-Fry (page 71) caught my eye. The recipe asked for bean sprouts though, which I did not have. I reckoned I would make up for it with all the other vegetables I did have – carrots, sugar snap peas, sweet baby corn, red cabbage, broccoli and spring asparagus.

I halved the recipe which serves 4. I reckoned I could save the leftovers … yes, more leftovers. Sigh. I will scribe the recipe as it appears in the book in green with my notations in italics in orange font to show where I deviated and why.

Citrus Beef Stir-Fry
Orange peel and orange juice give this stir-fry its irresistible fresh taste (I found it a little discordant with the vegetables and if I make this again, I would add a pinch of brown sugar to balance this). It’s low in fat, too (too low, there was no oil or fat at all, which you need in a stir-fry); and the vegetables simmer right in the sauce. Serve over rice or Asian-style noodles
(I served it with steamed white rice).

1 large orange
I used a Mandarin orange

1 ½ tbsp dry sherry
I had none so I used 1 tbsp of Chinese shaoxing wine & ½ tbsp of Cointreau to enhance the orange flavour

1 ½ tbsp soy sauce
I had to use an additional 1 tbsp later in the sauce; it was just too bland

½ tbsp cornstarch
I hate cornstarch in my vegetables stir-fries unless I am making a “wet” dish. No offense but Western ideas of stir-fries is to over-starch the dish such that it becomes vegetables & glue! Major eeuww. I omitted the cornstarch

½ lb lean boneless beef such as top sirloin, trimmed of fat and cut across the grain unto 1/4 –inch-thick slices
- I had my flank steak which was probably about 100-125g and about 1.5cm thick which I decided to keep whole. I realised as I muddled along this recipe that the beef would be cooked only in ginger without being marinated first. Hey, I like quick but quick and tasteless? No way!

1 tbsp minced fresh ginger
- My ancestors came from the Spice Route. There is no way I will be satisfied with only a measly tbsp so I upped the ante to 1 ½ tbsp

¾ cup bean sprouts
- didn’t have any; see below

¾ cup fresh Chinese pea pods, ends and strings removed
- what on earth is Chinese pea pods? I reckoned they might mean sugar snap peas. Whatever. I had them and I was using them. I used:

1 ½ cups of sugar snap peas, trimmed & strings removed
¾ of a carrot, julienned
1 cup baby corn, chopped into discs
1 cup broccoli, trimmed into small florets
1 ½ cup young asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup red cabbage, thinly sliced

1. Grate peel (coloured part only) from ½ orange. Squeeze juice from the orange. Measure juice; if you have less than 1/3 cup, add enough water to equal this amount. In a small bowl, stir together orange peel, orange juice, sherry, soy sauce and cornstarch. Set aside.

I obtained slightly less than 1/3 cup but was loathed to dilute the lovely, citrusy taste so I add the Cointreau to make up the difference. Since I did not have sherry, I used shaoxing and Cointreau. And as said, I omitted the cornstarch.

2. Heat a wok or wide, nonstick frying pan over high heat. When pan is hot, add beef and ginger. Cook, stirring, until the beef is browned (2 to 3 minutes). With a slotted spoon, transfer beef to a bowl.

Tut, tut, tut. Why abuse beef like this? First you do not feed it with a marinade. Then you cook it to death with ginger and no oil. You can do that if the beef is thick enough to take the punishment but not when it is already in thin strips. You'll dry them out instead. This is when I decided to hell with this silly recipe. I was going to try a technique I’d read in Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites for Black and Blue Beef.

a. I used the sauce to marinate the beef whole in a Ziploc bag. Then I realised there was no oil in the sauce to aid the beef during the char grilling so I added 1 tsp of sesame oil with 1 tbsp of the minced ginger, saving the rest of the ginger for the vegetables.

b. I marinated the flank steak for about 1 hour at room temperature. Next time I will marinate it overnight as Nigella Lawson advises … when I have time.

c. I heated the nonstick pan on very high heat till smoking hot. Placing the steak in the middle, I allowed it to char for about 1 ½ minutes unmolested before flipping it over and repeating the same. The steak should be nicely caramelised and charred on the outside but still pink and tender on the inside – hence the Black & Blue Beef!

d. I removed the steak from the pan and set it aside to stand while I cooked the vegetables. This standing part is important. Always let the meat stand for a while before you carve it up. The meat will initially release some of its juices and then as it cools, will suck it back within itself. This ensures that the meat remains nice and succulent instead of running dry as the juices seep out of all the cut surfaces.

3. Pour orange juice mixture into pan and bring to a simmer. Add bean sprouts and pea pods; cook, stirring until pea pods turn a brighter green (about 1 minute). Mix in beef and serve.

I was still disturbed that the vegetables will not be stir-fried first in oil and then the sauce added in later as that is the basic technique of stir-fry but I tried to give the recipe a last benefit of doubt.

a. Added the beef marinade & remaining ginger into the same pan which I had cooked the beef and deglazed.

b. Added the broccoli florets and cooked for about 30 seconds till they were half-cooked

c. Added the sugar snap peas, baby corn and asparagus and realised that the sauce was insufficient. I quickly added a more orange juice.

d. Added the carrots and tasted. It was too bland. I added 1 tbsp of soy sauce.

e. All the vegetables were almost cooked by now so I added the red cabbage and stir fried briskly. I did not want to overcook the red cabbage as I wanted them fairly crisp and retaining their vivid, purplish hue.

f. I sliced the beef into thin strips and served them over the vegetables with hot steamed rice.

This recipe as is scores a mere 5/10 on the taste meter. After all my deviations, it scores a 7/10, and purely because of the beef. The Black & Blue Beef actually scores a 9/10 as the beef is so meltingly tender that it truly is like velveteen silk slithering down your throat, coating your tongue with its succulence as it glides through. I think Ms Lawson is a bloody genius for that technique. Next time I will try her marinade too.

The taste test is let down by the original recipe’s sauce. It definitely needed more spice and flavour. If I had not added additional ginger and soy sauce, it would have been a disastrous debacle of blandness. As is, even with all my machinations, it is still a study of mediocrity. I much prefer my usual stir-fry sauce of tom yam paste, lime juice, brown sugar and nam pla. I give the sauce a pathetic 5.5/10.

Health wise, because of the almost non-existent oil, the over-abundance of vegetables and the citrus undertones, this recipe deserves a respectable 9/10.

I now realize why I never use this cookbook. The recipes are fairly ambitious but lacking in imagination and spice. It is obvious the publishers wanted to elevate it to a semi-gourmet cookbook for busy housewives and amateur cooks. However, I find the cooking techniques lacking and the combinations of flavours inadequate and wanting. The lack of spice or real taste is the reason why I never used this cookbook. In fact, I find this cookbook an insult to my culinary intelligence.

I now realise it may be time to set this cookbook free just as I set it’s equally unimaginative and boring giver free years ago. I’m glad I decided to take up the Weekend Cookbook Challenge to revisit a dull elephant taking up precious real estate in my life. Tomorrow, ole 30 Minutes and I will be paying a visit to our friendly used book store.

Categories - Meat Me For Dinner, VeggieMight


Blogger Alicat said...

WOW! That looks so amazing and delicious!! We are so glad to have you participate in the challenge -- weekend or not, identical recipe or not, we love everyone and welcome all submissions!

(You don't have to post on a weekend, by the way, you can post anytime you want, up until the deadline.) ;)

1:32 am  
Anonymous ces said...

that's terrific! looks really good! and tedious! hahaha..wonder if i can come up with something like chef cousin just gave my fridge an overhaul too over the was really getting so cluttered all over..thanks to her, now it's back to its original state..nothing inside! lol!

2:23 am  
Blogger 3A Gurl said...

Feel free to drop by and peruse my 4 never-used volumes of recipes...

8:44 am  
Anonymous joanna said...

Mana This is by far your strongest literay prowess though.
You wrote with such wonderful choices of VERBS!

9:24 pm  
Blogger a said...

Hi MM,

Delicious look and for sure very tasty steak you have there...I will try your recipe one of this day..thanks for sharing it!


5:20 am  
Blogger michelle said...

That beef looks stunning - and I absolutely love your description of it! I love how you clean out your fridge in the same way we do!

On another note: I'm sorry about your recent situation - both the asthma and the police officer. Don't let your guilt get the best of you - you didn't do anything wrong and these kinds of things do happen. Guilt will just continue to weigh you down (trust me - guilt has been a BIG player in my life!), so chin up my dear, and hang in there!

8:34 am  
Anonymous sha said...

this is so funny
is there a first aid on vegetables
sometimes i soak mine of ice water to revive them

I do a weekly overhaul on mine
but since i have been having guests
we have been eating out a lot

so tom my guest will go somewhere else
time to check my fridge

marinating meat overnight not only add flavours
it softens the meat too

8:46 am  
Blogger MM said...

Alicat - Aw, thanks so much! I had fun doing this despite the crappy recipe. And I really like how relaxed and cool the food bloggers are - such a refreshing change from uptight, pompous and delusional "industry experts".

Ces - LOL, actually it was not very tedious at all. Just the preparation of the vegetables to sort out the deadweights from the salvageable! I'm very good at Dead Food Woking actually ... LOL.

3A- Oooohh ... I am so coming over!

Thanks so much, Joanna!

CJ - yeah, the steak was really awesome and do let me know when you try it.

Thanks so much, Michelle. I really appreciate your words of encouragement.

Sha - thanks so much for visiting. LOL, I try to revive my vegetables with ice water but it's a bit of a lost cause sometimes! That's how dead they are!

11:24 pm  
Blogger mg said...

Though you weren't happy with the way this had turned out, it still looks fabulous! WOW!!! on photographic side, eatability... scores 100 points! The composition and the write up is superb too. What a great read. I love your style of writing. Keep it up and i'll keep reading maybe note down a few inspirations from you... that is if you don't mind....

1:58 am  
Anonymous keiko said...

Hi MM - this is one of the most beautiful stir-fry dishes I've ever seen! Just looking at your pictures make me drool...

1:44 am  
Blogger MM said...

Oh man, thanks Mae & Keiko! I'm blushing here. I will continue to strive for Cheese Sammich Supremacy. Bwahahahaha! *Choke*

9:19 pm  

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