(If you don’t know why we are on the irony train, then read the post right before this one. If you’ve read it, you are up to speed with me, so let’s go to the dining car and get comfy, shall we?)
I remember when I got my first tastes of really good, really homestyle Chinese food. It was when I worked at the fabled China Garden Restaurant, way, way back in the day, in Huntington, West Virginia.
Huy, the chef, had made an amazing red-braised dish with pork, and I said to him, “You know, this would be delicious on lamb. Or, maybe venison.” And his wife, Mei, shook her head and said, “Lamb? Oh, it is too strong-flavored. You like lamb?”
I nodded. Granted, I was one of the only people I knew growing up who ate lamb who wasn’t Greek, but our family, because they had owned a slaughterhouse and meat-market, and were recent European immigrants, had a tradition of eating lamb. By the time I came around, the meat-market and slaughterhouse were long gone, but the tradition and taste for lamb was well-ingrained. “Yeah, I love lamb. We didn’t eat it all the time, it was too expensive, but it is my favorite meat.”
Mei shook her head and said, “It is too strong–it smells funny. Most Chinese don’t like it. “
One of the younger cooks piped up with, “In the north, in Beijing, and farther north, they eat sheep meat. Only there. And in the far west.”
I read about it and found that he was correct. In Beijing and the northern parts of the country, because of the influence of the Mongolians and the prevalance of Muslims, mutton and lamb are widely eaten, and in a variety of ways. It is grilled, braised, stir fried and is made into a communal cooking and dining experience known as “Mongolian Hot Pot.” It is also used in steamed dumplings and other specialities.
Most folks from southern China, however, really dislike lamb, and do not eat it. My best friend in culinary school, a Singaporan Chinese of Cantonese descent, Nee Wee, really hated lamb. When we had to cook it, he refused to taste it, waving his hand in front of his nose and declaring it to be, “stinky meat.” He would wrinkle his face up whenever I tried to get him to eat it, and shudder.
But the memory of Huy’s wonderful braised dish and my idea that lamb would taste good cooked Chinese style stuck with me for a very long time. Later, in my cookbook-diving I found a few simple recipes for Beijing style stir-fried lamb, and the idea struck my fancy.
These recipes called for boneless leg of lamb, but when I mentioned to Cheryl at Bluescreek Farms in the North Market that I wanted lamb to stir fry, she smiled and said, “I have just the thing in the freezer.”
She dug around and pulled out lamb flank steaks–pictured to the left.
They are small, of course, being as a lamb is considerably smaller than a cow, but they are the exact same cut of meat, as we see in a beef flank steak. The muscle is structured exactly the same way; it is almost perfectly rectangular, lean, with just a bit of fat on the outside, with muscle fibers making an obvious grain longitudinally. All of the factors that make beef flank steak perfect for stir frying are present in the lamb version, with one big difference.
Because it comes from a younger animal, the meat is that much more tender.
This week, I decided that Wednsday was the day to attempt my experiment (long before I heard of Jamie Oliver’s lamb kerfluffle), so I thawed the lamb flank steaks overnight in the fridge.
Like their larger beef counterparts, lamb flank steaks come with a bit of silverskin–it is just a membrane, probably made of collagen, over one side of the meat. As you can see to the right, it is quickly and easily removed by just prying it off with your fingers. The larger bits of fat I trimmed off before slicing the steaks carefully-across the grain, not with it-into very thin slices. (This is standard practice in cutting flank steak for stir-fry–always cut it across the grain. If you cut with the grain, the long muscle fibers will be very tough, however if you cross-cut it, the meat turns out to be very tender.)
As for recipes, I found three to work from, and ended up synthesizing them into one fairly pared-down version. The books I used were Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking, Martin Yan’s Culinary Journey Through China and the Wei Chuan Cooking School’s Chinese Cuisine: Beijing Style by Lee Hwa Lin.
One thing all the recipes had in common was the pairing of lamb with highly-flavored aromatic ingredients, particularly scallions, garlic and Sichuan peppercorns. Both Kuo and Yan remarked that such strong flavorings countered the characteristic very strong native flavor of the lamb itself. I decided to follow in this path, but instead of the scallions, I used very small young leeks, which were fresh and delicious at the farmer’s market that morning. In addition, I noted that one recipe in the Wei Chuan book used cilantro and ginger with the lamb, so I incorporated those seasonings to the dish as well.
In order to cut the leeks in a way that was similar to the meat, I cut them into thin slices diagonally, then cut those slices in half longitudinally, as shown above. The garlic I sliced very thinly, and the ginger I cut into thin slices and then jullienned.
Dark soy sauce was cited by both Kuo and Yan, while Lin simply noted soy sauce. All three recipes used Shaoxing rice wine; I then chose to use dark soy sauce and the wine. Vinegar was present both in Kuo’s and Yan’s recipes. She stipulated cider vinegar–probably because her book came out in the 1970’s before many Chinese ingredients were commonly available in the US, while Yan calls for Chianking vinegar. They both noted that the sour flavor brings out the best in the lamb’s nature; knowing that a touch of sour will lighten the richness of meat gravies and braising liquids–a trick I learned from a French chef–I decided to follow their lead and include vinegar.
Yan was the only author to use hoisin sauce and chile garlic sauce–I decided to ditch both of those ingredients, because I feared that they would complicate the sauce too much and add too many layers of flavor and end up muddying it up.
The one ingredient that was used by all three authors that I did not was sesame oil–instead of adding another separate flavor, instead, at the end of cooking, I added a second, small amount of Sichuan peppercorn. Layering one flavor twice kept the recipe even more simple and uncluttered–besides–I really like the fragrance that Sichuan peppercorn imparts to a dish.
I also love sesame oil, but sometimes it can be very overpowering, and instead, I wanted the natural flavors of the lamb to be enhanced and the flowery aroma of the Sichuan peppercorn to “float” over the rich scents of the meat, cilantro and leeks.
In the end, I think that the version I put together captured the spirit of the original recipes, and I have to say, it was damned good. I will be making it again–very little of it was left over after Morganna and Zak and I got to it. Some folks may think that lamb is “stinky meat,” but I really believe that when cooked in this recipe, it showcases some of the best of Chinese cookery. It is an essentially simple recipe that relies on fresh ingredients and strong clear flavors. However, the tastes do all mingle in a mysterious way that makes the sauce itself difficult to define. It is not sweet, nor obviously sour, but instead is just sparkling with the natural flavor of the lamb that is beautifully enhanced by the sharpness of the Sichuan peppercorn. The leeks bring out the lamb’s sweetness and the cilantro brings a lovely fresh note of green earthiness.
Definately, it was worth the wait to find the lamb flank steaks and to research the recipe.
I cannot wait to make it again!
1 lb. lamb flank steaks, membrane removed and trimmed of excess fat
1 teaspoon roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 small leeks, root ends trimmed, and cleaned then dried
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1″ cube fresh garlic, peeled, and jullienned
1 bunch cilantro, washed, dried and coarsely chopped (optional–if you dislike cilantro, leave it out and use one more leek.)
4 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1 tablespoon Chianking vinegar (Chinese black vinegar–you can substitute balsamic, if you must)
2 pinches roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
Cut lamb flank steak into thin slices across the grain.
Toss with the Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, wine and cornstarch. Allow to marinate while preparing other ingredients.
Cut the leeks (white and pale green parts only) into thin diagonal slices (about 1/4″ thick) and then cut these longitudinally in half to give narrow, curling ribbons of jade green and white. Put in a bowl with the garlic and ginger.
Mix together sugar, soy sauce, wine and vinegar in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat wok until it is smoking, add oil, and heat until it shimmers. Add leeks, garlic and ginger, and stir fry until very fragrant about one minute.
Add strips of lamb, and carefully arrange in a single layer against the bottom of the wok and allow to brown undisturbed–about one and a half or two minutes. Once it starts to brown, start stirring vigorously.
When most of the pink is gone on the meat, add the cilantro, and continue stir frying. As soon as the meat is just about fully browned, add the sauce, and stir fry until it thickens–about thirty seconds.
Pour into heated platter and sprinkle with two pinches of the roasted, ground Sichuan peppercorns.
Serve immediately with steamed rice and some sort of stir fried, braised or steamed greens.
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