Linguini with clam sauce was once Gourmandistan’s “can’t screw it up” champion. Other than (duh) clams and clam juice, the basic ingredients (garlic, olive oil, white wine, onions, black pepper, parsley) could be added in just about any proportion and the sauce would still taste great on any pasta (linguini or whatever) we had around. It was something that could be thrown together in (well, for Gourmandistan) a short amount of time, and didn’t make (again, at least from our perspective) too much of a mess. Then came Fuchsia Dunlop and her Land of Plenty, and Gourmandistan was introduced to gan bian niu rou si, or dry-fried beef slivers.
The dish pretty much comes down to tiny meat pieces stir-fried until they’re crisp and dark, with some celery added at the last minute for an oil-cutting excuse for a green. The dish is full of deep flavor and delightful crunch, and is a regular feature for somewhat-busy dinner nights.
The original recipe calls for lean beef, Sichuan pepper, Shaoxing rice wine and Sichuanese bean paste, but don’t worry—as long as you have some protein, a crisp-ish green veg and a few other bits to chuck in your wok, you can’t screw this up. We always cut down on the amount of oil called for in the Dunlop recipe. At various times, we’ve replaced beef with pork, buffalo, chicken and tofu. We’ve skipped the Sichuan pepper and added garlic, left out the rice wine, used onion instead of scallion and upped the heat with everything from pepper flakes to Sriracha hot sauce. It doesn’t matter. It’s still delicious. Flank or another chewy steak is perhaps the best choice, but tenderloin filet (yes, at times we’re that decadent) dry fries to an almost-powdery-yet-still-moist bite. Chicken breast and pork loin become jerky-esque and savory with a peppery snap.
One wok, a cutting board, a little meat, veg and spice, a bit of direct heat, some steamed rice and there’s your dinner. (Or if you, like Michelle, insist upon on a real vegetable accompaniment, you can use a second wok to stir-fry some baby bok choy or another Chinese greens.) Sorry, clams—Gourmandistan has a new king of quick meals.
DRY-FRIED BEEF SLIVERS (gan bian niu rou si)
(adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty: authentic sichuan recipes personally gathered in the chinese province of sichuan)
(serves 2-3 as a main dish with rice and a vegetable)
- 3/4 to 1 lb. lean meat (beef is called for, but any lean cut of anything will work)
- 4 celery stalks
- 1-½” piece fresh ginger
- 2 scallions, white parts only (onion, leek, shallot or other allium will also work)
- 3 TB peanut oil (or whatever high-smoke-point oil you have)
- 1 TB Shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
- 2-3 TB Sichuanese chili bean paste
- 1 tsp. light soy sauce
- ½ tsp. sesame oil
- ½ tsp. ground roast Sichuan pepper (optional)
Cut the beef evenly into thin slices and then into fine slivers, about ¼” thick. Try to chuck out any fat or gristle. Set aside.
Using a serrated table knife, scrape off the tough outer strings from the celery stalks. Cut the stalks into three-inch sections, then sliver these lengthwise into pieces matching the beef. Put the celery in a bowl and sprinkle it with a bit of salt to draw out some water.
Peel and slice the ginger, cutting it into fine slivers. Sliver the scallion whites into pieces about the size of the ginger.
Heat your wok, then add a few tablespoons of oil. Heat over a high flame until smoking, then add the meat and mix well. The wok will fill with cloudy liquid as the beef releases its juices. Keep stir-frying for about 5-10 minutes, until the liquid has cleared and the beef has lost most of its water. As the beef begins to crisp up, sprinkle the rice wine onto the beef and let it sizzle down as well.
When the oil is clear, turn the heat down to medium and push the beef up to one side of the wok. Tilt the wok so the oil runs down into the open space (you may add a bit more oil at this point). Drop the chili bean paste into the oil and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the oil is red. Add the ginger and scallions, mix everything together and stir fry for about 10 seconds, until the ginger becomes fragrant. Then add the celery strips and soy sauce, continuing to stir fry until the celery is just cooked. Remove the wok from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and put on a serving plate. If you like, add a few pinches of Sichuan pepper.
Serve over steamed rice, with a vegetable dish.