No Note-For-Note Cooking Here

One of my stated culinary New Year’s resolutions was to make more use of my many hundreds of cookbooks and actually bother to try more recipes from them, more or less as they are written.

And I have actually mostly kept to that. Okay, the Spaghetti with Creamed Eggplant and Walnuts recipe counts more as “inspired” by Diane Seed’s recipe from The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces, than it was followed word for word, but, I actually opened the book, read the recipe more than once, absorbed what she meant by it and then riffed off on it my ownself. But yeah, I changed it considerably, to the point that I don’t really count it as the same recipe anymore.

I don’t see much of anything wrong with such an approach. I mean, I can’t stand guitarists that slavishly copy guitar solos from the original artists. I mean, okay, so sure, you can play the solo to “Stairway to Heaven” note-for-note, but it still doesn’t make you into Jimmy Page, okay? Only Jimmy Page is Jimmy Page, okay? You are still pudgy, with spots on your face and chicks are just not impressed, so dammit, play your own guitar solo, already. (In fact, I would go so far as to say, if you want to impress chicks, don’t even play “Stairway to Heaven” in the first damned place, play something else, but I am digressing here.) (Can we tell I have been married to two guitarists in my life, and have listened to way, way too many amateur guitarists wanking in guitar stores? Can we tell it has made me jaded in my middle age?)

Anyway, I am not a “note-for-note” cook. I never have been and never will be. I have given up on it, and that is okay with me.

And it seems to be okay with everyone else, because folks eat my food with great glee and keep coming back for more.

So, last night, Zak said, “I want something with beef in it. Something stir fried.”

And, not having much in the way of inspiration in my head at that moment, I thrust my hand into the cookbook shelf and pulled out one of my favorite cookbooks which I have never cooked from, The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young. It is one of my favorite cookbooks, because it is an astounding piece of culinary anthropology, and is a great read. I learned as much from reading Grace’s book as I have in experimenting on my own for ten years. She has a gift for conveying useful information that she gleans from interviewing chefs, home cooks and cooking instructors by weaving into tightly written and beautifully composed prose, and I know her recipes are great, because while I haven’t personally cooked from them–I have eaten what I helped her cook in a class in Columbus.

Besides, after years of study, one can usually look at a recipe and tell if it is going to be a good one or not. And the ones in The Breath of a Wok, are definately good ones. And I keep meaning to cook from it, and keep forgetting.

Until last night.

I went right to the recipe I knew Zak would like.

Martin Yan’s Genghis Khan Beef, on page 91.

It involves garlic, Thai chiles, hoisin sauce, chile sambal and sesame oil–five of his favorite things.

So, that is what I made.

To go with it, I made some plain steamed broccoli; the crisp broccoli went fantastically with the chewy, tender beef in its rich sauce, which was sweet from the hoisin and redolent of garlic and chile.

Though I have to admit–I was out of sambal, so I used chile garlic paste instead, and at the end, along with the sliced scallion tops, I added cilantro leaves for a garnish. I found that the green, fresh flavor of the cilantro cut through the richness of the sauce, and married it to the green flavor of the broccoli. Oh, and I put a splash of shao hsing wine in to help deglaze the wok after I put in the hoisin. (I am just terrible at following recipes, I know–I even deviated from his method of stir-frying, even though it was very close to the way in which I tend to stir fry.)

It was definately a recipe worth trying and in the future, repeating.

Next time, though, instead of playing quite so close to Martin Yan’s melody line, I think I will improvise by removing the garlic and replacing it with ginger, as I love the way that ginger lightens the deep flavor of the beef and gives it a shining top note that somehow seems to lighten a dish immeasureably. And I might try lighening up on the hoisin sauce, too–it is one of Zak’s favorite flavors, but not so much one of mine. Maybe I will use ground bean paste instead, and see what happens.

Of course, if I do that, I suspect I will have to give the recipe a new name….

Martin Yan’s Genghis Khan Beef

Ingredients (as I cooked it, not as it was written–for that, I suggest you go out and get a copy of the book. You won’t regret it.):

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon thin soy sauce
2 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
12 ounces lean flank steak, cut across the grain into thin slices about 1″ wide, 2″ long and 1/4″ thick
2 tablespoons peanut oil
6 scallions
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
6 fresh Thai chiles, stemmed, but left whole
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
3 teaspoons chile garlic paste
2 tablespoons shao hsing wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves


In a bowl, toss together the soy sauces, cornstarch and meat, and marinate for about twenty minutes.

Slice white and light green parts of the scallions on the diagonal, very thinly. Cut the dark green parts into 1″ diagonal slices. Keep them separate.

Heat wok until it smokes, add oil and heat until the oil is quite hot.

Add the white part of the scallions, the garlic and the whole chiles. Stir fry for about thirty seconds.

Add the meat, reserving any liquid marinade that is left in the bowl. Lay the meat into a single layer and allow to brown on one side–depending on how hot your stove gets, this could take from about thirty seconds (like mine does) to about a minute and a half. Once it browns, start stir frying. When there is still some good red in the meat, add the hoisin sauce and chile garlic paste, along with any marinade still in the bowl. Keep stir frying.

If the hoisin sauce sticks to the wok (it will), pour in the shao hsing wine and deglaze.

When the meat is mostly done, add the dark green tops of the scallions and the cilantro, stir in the sesame oil, and stir well, then pull off of the heat. Scrape into a heated platter and garnish with steamed broccoli if you like.

Serve immediately.

Serves four for a multi-course meal, or three, with steamed rice, for a full meal.

Note: While someone else carries the platter to the table, do yourself a favor and carry your wok right to the sink, turn the hot water on high and scrub it while it is still warm. If you leave your wok while you go eat, the hoisin sauce will harden up like concrete and be an evil mess to chip away later. While, if you scrub it with the bamboo brush and really hot water right away, it takes about a minute to clean it properly right then and there.


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  1. I was with you till you hit the ditch weed (Cilantro) I did not know untill today that it was the leaves and stems from the coriander plant. Funny that I /like/ coriander, yet cannot stand cillantro. Stupid stuff tastes like soap ๐Ÿ™

    Other than that it sounds wonderful!

    Comment by Bryian — March 31, 2006 #

  2. Bryian – when I first started Chinese cooking classes years ago I felt the same way about cilantro. I thought the flavor was vile. Then I discovered a different variety of cilantro and my world changed. Unfortunately I don’t know the name but can tell by the leaves the difference.

    Barbara while you were on your trip to Washington I went on a little one of my own. It was only across town in San Diego to a small cookbook store. Treasures – what treasures! I found Breath of Wok and Dancing Shrimp (for the wonderful price of $14 instead of $80 everywhere else I looked). I danced my way to the restaurant next door ordered a huge mug of coffee and their lemon bread pudding swimming in blueberry sauce with a small scoop of gelato. The rest of the afternoon was spent in blissful warm sunshine, reading from my new treasures, happily munching on bread pudding. Now what to make for dinner…..

    Comment by Maureen — March 31, 2006 #

  3. Hi Barbara – As soon as we dry up and get a bit warmer, I’m determined to do some cooking using Breath of a Wok, on the Big Kahuna, like you I really enjoy reading it!

    Comment by Kirk — April 3, 2006 #

  4. Barbara, Breath of a Wok is an astonishing book, not just for the culture, history and anthropology of wok cooking, but because the glorious recipes actually work รขโ‚ฌโ€œ even if you add the dreaded cilantro! My husband gave me this book as a gift, and we made six dishes from it for a New Year’s Eve feast last year.

    Comment by lydia — April 3, 2006 #

  5. I just got that book from the library and it’s amazing. I don’t want to give it back! Perhaps I’ll have to splurge and actually buy it.

    Comment by Kady — April 5, 2006 #

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