Thursday, November 02, 2006

Asian Inspired Beef Braise

I know it’s a little vague to use the term “Asian Inspired” when describing this, or any, dish. Possibly Asian fusion works better, or simply, fusion braise (to go along with all the fusion restaurants we have these days).

For a few weeks now, D has been eyeing the 4-inch thick cuts of beef chuck at the butcher. They called out meat-protein overload to him, so when I finally okayed the purchase he was in heaven. As we headed next door to the vegetable stand and D picked out a few potatoes for the braise, he eyed me warily as I bagged up chestnuts and shiitake mushrooms. More than once I was told not to “ruin” his beef.

Last summer I was in China finishing up a Masters degree. Between tastings of dehydrated “rope” pork, emperor banquets of delicately crafted dim sum, ogling beetles and snakes on a stick and falling in love with the velvety sweet pulp of mangosteens, I became enthralled by the vibrant offerings of vegetables. Each dish was a still life: Broccoli was reshaped into flowering blossoms, mushrooms became lotus roots and lotus roots became dragon scales. I was constantly amazed by the care that was put into presentation, regardless of the establishment.

It was in these dishes that I came to re-appreciate the texture and versatility of the shiitake mushroom, amazed how it holds up in cooking. And it was here that I learned to love the chestnut-- popping up to add a rich flavor and thick creaminess to dishes I hadn’t known before. Used sparingly, mostly as a holiday embellishment (accordingly with their season), I don’t think the chestnut receives its fair exposure.

This dish is in some ways a remembrance of China, but more so, a way to incorporate the ingredients I came to appreciate in a succulent braise. We ate the braise bare at first and on the second and third day cracked an egg on top and enjoyed it baked. The egg adds another wonderful depth of texture and fabulous richness once the yolk is broken. And those little potatoes D gathered for the braise? Perfect for sopping all the juices up.

Serves 6 persons. Active time= 20 minutes. Inactive time= 3-½ hours (depending on thickness of meat).
* 1 pound chestnuts, roasted and shelled
*5-6 pound cut of beef chuck (or other inexpensive cut)
* ½ pound shiitake mushrooms, cut into quarters
* 1 medium onion, sliced (or 2 bunches scallions)
* 3 tablespoons soy sauce
* 1 tablespoon sesame oil
* 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
* ½ bottle red wine
* water
* ¾-1 pound (small) new potatoes, red or white, left whole

1) Roast the chestnuts before beginning. I apparently did not slice into the shells deep enough and a few exploded in the oven. Preheat oven to 350F. Carefully slice an “x” into the bottom flat nub of the chestnut. Place on a pan and roast for 30 minutes, until shells begin to peel away (or blow up in my case). Allow to cool and remove shells. Place meat aside in a bowl (okay if meat breaks apart).
2) Warm a dutch oven over medium high heat with a 1 tablespoon butter-1 tablespoon olive oil combination. Once warm, rinse off beef and pat dry. Salt and pepper both sides of the beef. Once pot of hot, add beef and brown on all sides, about 4-5 minutes each side. Remove meat from pot, set aside.
3) Add mushrooms, chestnuts and onion to pot. Sauté until onions turn translucent, mushrooms brown and chestnuts break down slightly; about 8 minutes.
4) Add soy sauce, chili flakes and sesame oil, stir to incorporate.
5) Push contents of pot to the sides and replace meat in the pot. Add red wine and enough water to come just below the top edge of the beef (depending on how thick your meat is, you might not need any).
6) Place potatoes around the top, but not in the liquid. Cover tightly, turn heat to low and allow to braise (slow cook) for 3-½-4 hours. Check on the pot once an hour. Turn heat down if liquid is boiling. Add more water if all liquid evaporates out. The dish is done when meat easily falls apart and sauce has thickened.
7) Enjoy warm as is or with a baked egg on top (see below).
8) With baked egg: Preheat oven to 350F. Dish up a portion in an oven safe bowl. Create a small divot and crack egg into the space. Place dish on cookie sheet for easy transport and place on middle rack in oven. For a runny yolk, bake for about 10 minutes, until yolk just begins to form a white covering.

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