I cook a lot. I generally enjoy it. Still, some things have always seemed easier to buy than to make at home. Over the past few years, I’ve been chipping away at that notion. I’ve experimented with sausage-making, charcuterie, barbecue, cheesemongering, homemade pasta, homemade pizza, and a myriad of foreign foods. The elusive category that still seemed like too much work was Asian food.
Saying “Asian” is kind of a cop-out when you realize how many styles of food we’re talking about, and that’s before acknowledging that what most Americans think of as Asian food is about as authentic to Asia as fortune cookies. My main problem with cooking Asian-style food at home was based on three main concerns:
- Asian dishes typically require a lot of specialty ingredients.
- I can’t recreate the wok effect with my home range.
- Good Asian food necessitates good rice.
I generally prefer spicy, Sichuan-style Chinese food. Since I’ve started keeping a squirt bottle of Sambal Sauce in my refrigerator, I’ve come to realize that I can sauté any leftover vegetables with a little sauce and it comes out as good—if not better—than most of the stir fry I can buy at restaurants. That’s largely taken the mystery out of Asian ingredients. I’ve also realized that mise en place has as much of an impact on wok-style cooking as high heat does. The remainder of American-style Asian cooking seems to be made up of 80% protein, 10% corn starch, and 10% cooking oil. The remaining challenge for me was making good rice.
I don’t have a rice cooker and I don’t want one. I don’t make enough rice to justify one, and I’m not in a hurry to put any more gadgets on my kitchen counter. My breakthrough in recreating sticky white rice at home was to learn how to properly prepare Jasmine rice with coconut cream. It’s wonderfully sticky and acts as a perfect complement to anything salty, sweet, or savory. I just make a big batch and keep it in the pot. When I want to reheat it for a different recipe, I just warm it in a 300° oven and I don’t have to worry about it burning.
Cooking good rice makes you want to cook more Asian-style food. My go-to meal aside from Sambal chicken and vegetables is Mongolian Beef. It seems like most of the Chinese places I eat at have resorted to using less than desirable cuts of beef. Just one sinewy, inedible bite of food can ruin a meal. When you make Mongolian Beef at home, you control the quality of the ingredients. And since there are so few ingredients, this recipe is a perfect introduction to Asian-American-style cooking.
Coconut Cream Jasmine Rice
- 2 cups jasmine rice
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup canned coconut cream
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
There not much to this recipe. Rinse the rice in a fine mesh sieve to wash off as much of the starch as possible, and then toss it into a pot with all of the other ingredients. Bring to a boil and then immediately reduce to a very low simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes and rest for another 15. Fluff with a fork before serving.
When you first add all of the ingredients, the rice and coconut cream combine to make a lumpy mess. But when everything comes to a low boil, it smooths out.
You’ll need to scrape the bottom of the pot every now and then to make sure it’s not sticking. It’s fine if it does stick a little. That’s just the sugars in the cream caramelizing. Don’t sweat any brown bits that happen to accumulate. That’s pure flavor. Despite the coconut, this does not result in particularly sweet rice.
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger, minced
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 cup (low sodium) soy sauce
- 3/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- vegetable oil, for frying
- 1+ pounds skirt steak (you can add more without making more sauce)
- 1/4 cup plus two teaspoons cornstarch, divided
- 1/2 onion, sliced
- 1 red chile (like a fresno), seeded and sliced
- 2 large green onions (white parts sliced small, dark green parts sliced into 1″ lengths)
This recipe dirties some dishes, but it’s not hard to make. Just have everything measured out and chopped before you start cooking. First, prep your vegetables.
Next, trim as much fat as possible from the skirt steak. If the steak is unevenly thick in some places, butterfly it. Slice it into 1/4″ strips, making sure to cut against the grain.
Dredge all of the cutlets in 1/2 cup of corn starch and set aside.
In a small sauce pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger. While it’s simmering, whisk the 2 remaining teaspoons of corn starch into the water. As soon as the garlic is starting to brown, add the soy sauce, water/cornstarch slurry, and brown sugar. Boil for a couple of minutes to break down the sugar and then turn off the heat. This is your sauce.
Fill the bottom of a large skillet with vegetable oil. Set over medium-high heat. I do this outside on the side burner of my grill. Cook the beef strips in batches until browned on all sides. You don’t have to worry about cooking the beef all the way through. It’ll finish in the sauce. Remove the beef to a paper towel lined plate. Do this in batches so you don’t crowd the pan.
After the beef is finished cooking, add the sliced onion, red pepper, and the white parts of the green onions. Sauté until sweated through. Toss a big pinch of salt over the onions as they cook. This will draw out the water, helping to deglaze your pan. If you’re lucky, there should be very little oil left. If there’s a lot of oil left, remove the onions to the same plate as the beef. Pour off the excess oil and return the onions to the pan.
Add the sauce to the pan and deglaze any stubborn fond with a wooden spoon. Those browned cornstarch bits will thicken the sauce. Add the green onions and cook for a minute or two to wilt it. Finally, add the beef back to the pan and cook just long enough to make sure that each strip is cooked through.
Serve with the coconut cream rice for the best Mongolian Beef you’ve ever had.
UPDATE: If you’re wondering where you get the cllophane noodles that pair so well with Mongolian Beef, all you have to do is buy some rice stick (dry noodles) and fry them in canola oil at 375° for 15 seconds or so, flipping once. Here’s how fast it is.
The wife likes to munch on these as a snack. It’s like eating strands of rice cake.