Dry-Fried Mongolian Beef

I’m going to tell you a story about Mongolian beef: ever since I was ten years old, my family has been going to a Chinese restaurant in Sonoma County that makes the greatest Mongolian beef I’ve ever tasted. Scratch that, it’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. For over twenty years, it’s ranked among my top three favorite dishes of all time. Naturally, I’ve tried to guess the recipe for this Mongolian beef in an effort to replicate the results at home.

I’ve tried. And I’ve tried. And then I’ve tried at home. I’ve probably attempted fifteen different versions. I just can’t get it right. This version, adapted from an old Martin Yan recipe, is almost right. The original recipe employs lamb but beef works just as well. Curiously enough, this version includes leeks. Don’t omit them, as they’re key in building up a sweet onion flavor.

More than twenty years later, I still haven’t gotten that nostalgic dish 100% right, but until I do, this is the next best thing.

Mongolian lamb

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 pound boneless sirloin beef, thinly sliced across the grain
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
12 dried red chiles
2 small leek, cleaned, sliced into 3-inch long pieces and sliced lengthwise into long, thin shreds
1/2 white onion, thinly sliced
3 green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces

1. To make the marinade, combine 2 tablespoons soy sauce, rice wine, and cornstarch in a bowl and mix well. Add the beef and stir to coat evenly. Let marinade for at least 20 minutes.

2. To make the sauce, combine the hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, and remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce in a bowl and mix well.

3. Place a wok over high heat until hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, swirling to coat the sides. Add the beef and stir-fry until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Remove the meat to a plate and set aside.

4. Return the wok to high heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the garlic and chiles and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the leeks and onion and stir-fry until the leeks are wilted, about 1 minute. Return the meat to a pan. Add the sauce and toss to coat. Transfer to a serving plate and serve warm.

Pea Shoots with Soft Tofu

There’s something inherently comforting about soft tofu. Even if you didn’t grow up eating it (and I didn’t), soft tofu is, well, soft. Imagine a soy milk curd blanket, if you will. (Actually, please don’t imagine that.)

In this simple but delicious dish, soft tofu is quickly cooked with tender pea shoots in a light and gingery broth. It’s so good and incredibly healthy. If you can’t find pea shoots, baby spinach or bok choy make good substitutes.

Pea shoots with soft tofu

Ingredients:

1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound soft tofu, drained
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
4 cups fresh pea sprouts
1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspoons water

1. To make the sauce, combine the broth, oyster sauce, wine, soy sauce, and sugar in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves.

2. Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes.

3. Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add the oil, swirling to coat sides. Add the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the pea shoots and stir-fry until they just begin to wilt, about 30 seconds. Add the sauce and bring to a boil. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens slightly. Add the tofu and cook until heated through. Serve warm or room temperature.

China Village

Who would have thought that some of the best Sichuanese cuisine I’ve ever tasted would be in Albany in the East Bay? San Francisco boasts some terrific Sichuanese food but I thought it was slim pickings this side of the Bay Bridge until I discovered China Village in downtown Albany, just north of Berkeley. When the restaurant reopened in 2013, they kept their numbingly spicy signature dishes on the menu. My taste buds thank them for it.

Water dumplings with spicy sauce

I probably visit China Village every month and the one dish I always order are the housemade water dumplings with spicy sauce. These rustic dumplings are super garlicy and doused in an oh-so-satisfying chili oil. Mmm, healthy.

Spicy Sichuan boiled fish fillet

Speaking of excess chili oil, I often order the spicy Sichuan boiled fish fillet as well. Tender white fish served over heaps of leeks, onions, cabbage, and garlic, all topped with an fiery chili sauce and heaps of Sichuan peppercorns. What’s not to love? Keep the white rice nearby for this one as you’ll need it to cool down.

Lamb with cumin

China Village’s lamb with cumin is another standout dish. They make one of the best iterations of this regional specialty and the meat quality is wonderful as well.

The menu at China Village is long (and so are the wait times), but nearly everything I’ve ordered there has been stellar. Sure, it might not be the healthiest food, but with cuisine this spicy, it’s sort of an involuntary portion control type of situation. And thanks to China Village, now I can get my Sichuanese fix without having to cross the Bay Bridge.

White Beans with Broccolini and Lemon

Let’s talk about canned beans. They’re kind of bland, right? Well yeah, usually, unless you pair them with bold flavors. This white bean dish is spiked with loads of bright Meyer lemons and salty, briny anchovies, with some greens thrown in for good measure.

Best of all, this recipe takes less than half an hour to prepare.

White beans with broccolini and lemon

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small Meyer lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed
3 anchovy fillets packed in oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 bunch broccolini, sliced into 2-inch pieces
salt and pepper
2 15-ounce cans cannellini (white kidney) beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
red pepper flakes

Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add lemon, anchovies, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lemon is softened and brown in spots and anchovies fall apart, about 5 minutes. Add broccolini; season with salt and pepper and cook, tossing occasionally, until bright green and crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.

Add beans and 1/2 cup water to pot. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until flavors have melded and liquid is reduced by half (you still want it to be saucy), about 5 minutes. Mix in parsley and 2 tablespoons Parmesan.

Transfer to a platter, sprinkle with red pepper flakes, and top with more Parmesan.

Japchae

Japchae was the first Korean dish I tasted when I first tried the cuisine years ago as a teenager. It became one of my favorites but I rarely order it at a restaurant anymore because I’ve learned to cook it at home.

This recipe is laborous but the results were restaurant quality and totally worth the payoff. Don’t substitute these sweet potato noodles — they’re worth seeking out for their chewy, slippery texture that soaks up all the flavor. Best of all, japchae reheats well and tastes just as good the next day.

Japchae

Ingredients:

1/2 pound beef sirloin, cut into thin strips
3 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water to soften and cut into thin strips
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 egg
6 ounces spinach, washed and drained
6 ounces dangmyeon (sweet potato noodles)
3 green onions, sliced into 2 inch long pieces
1/2 onion (1 cup), thinly sliced
8 white mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 small carrot, cut into matchsticks
black pepper
salt
vegetable oil

Directions:

1. Put the beef and shiitake mushrooms into a bowl and mix with 1 clove of minced garlic, 1 teaspoon sugar, ΒΌ teaspoon ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon of sesame oil with a wooden spoon or by hand. Cover and marinade in the fridge.

2. Crack the egg, add a pinch of salt, and whisk with a fork. Add 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil to a heated nonstick pan. Pour the egg into the pan and tilt around so the mixture spreads thinly. Let the egg cook on low heat for about 1 minute. Flip it over and let it sit on the pan for 1 more minute. Remove from heat, let the egg cool, and slice into thin strips.

3. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the spinach and blanch for 30 seconds, then drain and rinse under cold water to keep from cooking further. Squeeze to remove any excess water. Coarsely chop spinach and place in a large mixing bowl. Mix with 1 teaspoon soy sauce and 1 teaspoon sesame oil.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and put the noodles into the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Stir noodles with a wooden spoon to keep them from sticking together. Partially cover the pot and keep cooking for another 7 minutes until the noodles are soft and chewy. Strain and cut noodles in half with kitchen scissors.

5. Put the noodles in the large bowl with the spinach. Add 2 teaspoons sesame oil, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Mix well.

6. Heat a skillet over medium high heat. Add 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and add the onion, green onion, and a pinch of salt. Stir-fry about 2 minutes until the onion is translucent. Transfer to the bowl with noodles.

7. Heat the skillet again and add 2 teaspoons vegetable oil. Add the white mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Stir-fry for 2 minutes until softened and the mushrooms have released a little juice. Transfer to the bowl with noodles.

8. Heat the skillet and add 1 teaspoon vegetable oil. Add the carrot and stir-fry for 20 seconds. Transfer to the bowl with noodles.

9. Heat the skillet and add 2 teaspoons vegetable oil. Add the beef and shiitake mushroom mixture and stir fry for a few minutes until the beef is cooked through and the mushrooms are soft. Transfer to the bowl with noodles.

10. Add 1 minced garlic clove, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, egg garnish, 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, and 2 teaspoons of sesame oil to the mixing bowl full of ingredients. Mix all together by hand, transfer to a large plate and serve.