Lettuce-Wrapped Oyster Beef

燦豉牛肉

Chinese, like most other people, have a penchant for wrapping one thing inside another and then eating it. Mandarin pancakes, spring-rolls, dumplings, and lettuce-wrapped dishes such as this one are all part of the passion for wrapping. (From whence this passion stems I do not know, but that it is a matter far more interesting than mere convenience or neatness I am certain. Otherwise, a hot dog without its bun, or mu-shu pork without its pancake would not seem so sad, so deprived, and so deliberately dull.)

  • This is a dish that each diner wraps by him- or herself. The filling is a warm, rich, oystery beef, and the wrapping is a cold and crisp leaf of lettuce. It is a dish for a party, because it’s fun, or a dish for dieters, because it’s riceless. When in season, my preference is for romaine lettuce. Its sturdy, thick-ribbed character stands up beautifully to the beef, whereas a more delicate leaf gets overwhelmed.*
  • The preparation is simple and may be done in advance, with only the 3-minute stir-frying left for last.

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* Raw lettuce wrappers are of Cantonese origin and of very recent date and are probably a reflection of foreign taste. The Chinese traditionally use human excrement as fertilizer—witness one of my favorite book titles, Poo-Poo Make Plant Glow—so raw lettuce (on account of the poo-poo) was a no-no.

Ingredients

  • ½ pound ground top round beef

To marinate the beef

  • 1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • teaspoons cornstarch
  • pinch sugar
  • ⅓–½ cup baby lima beans or green peas, fresh or frozen
  • 3–4 ounce can smoked oysters, well drained of packing oil
  • ½–1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 12–16 washed and trimmed perfect lettuce leaves, preferably romaine
  • 2 tablespoons corn or peanut oil

To garnish (optional)

  • ¼–½ ounce bean threads (glass noodles)
  • 3–4 cups corn or peanut oil

Method

Preparations

In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, mix the soy, wine, and cornstarch until smooth. Add the beef and process with several on-off turns to “polish” the texture of the meat and blend it with the marinade. Do not overprocess to a paste. Alternatively, whack-mince the beef with one or two equally weighted knives to loosen its formation and polish the texture. Blend the marinade ingredients until smooth, then combine with the beef, stirring in one direction until blended. Throw the beef lightly several times against the inside of the bowl to compact it.

Seal the beef airtight with a piece of plastic wrap pressed directly on the surface, then put aside to marinate for 20 minutes to several hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before stir-frying.

Blanch fresh lima beans or peas in plain boiling water for about 4 minutes, or just until tender. Drain immediately, then rush under cold running water until chilled. Shake dry. Simply defrost frozen beans or peas. Either may be refrigerated overnight, sealed airtight.

Mince the oysters by hand. Combine the oysters, beans or peas, and ½ tablespoon oyster sauce in a small dish. Seal airtight until use or refrigerate overnight.

Pat the lettuce dry, then arrange it in a pretty spiral on a serving platter or tray. Cover with damp paper towels or a damp lint-free cloth, then chill thoroughly before serving. For overnight storage, bag the towel-draped tray in plastic.

To make the optional noodle nest, follow the directions. You may fry the nest up to 1½ days in advance.

Stir-frying the beef

Have the beef, the oyster mixture, 2 tablespoons oil, the extra oyster sauce, and the broken noodles all within reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter of a color to contrast with the white noodles and brown beef in a low oven to warm.

About 5 minutes before serving, heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil and swirl to glaze the pan. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a bit of beef, add the beef and stir-fry briskly, poking, chopping, and pressing to break it into small bits, adjusting the heat so the meat sizzles without scorching. If the beef sticks, dribble in a bit more oil from the side of the pan.

When the beef is 90 percent gray, add the oyster mixture and stir briskly to combine, and heat the-mixture through. Turn off the heat, taste, and adjust with a bit more oyster sauce if needed, stirring to blend. The taste should be pronounced, so it can be savored once the beef is inside the lettuce.

Mound the mixture at once on the heated platter. Sprinkle the noodles evenly around the edge. Serve immediately, accompanied by the lettuce.

Each guest should help him- or herself. The traditional approach is to put a boat-like leaf on one’s plate or palm, add a dollop of beef to the middle, wrap or curl the lettuce around the beef, and eat it like a taco. A very neat dish if you’re not greedy with the beef and there’s not a hole in the lettuce!

Leftovers may be resteamed in a tightly covered bowl until hot.