Beef and Broccoli on a Bird’s Nest

芥蘭炒牛肉

This dish is a pretty landscape of food—a mound of slivered, stir-fried beef with fresh broccoli flowerets and coins cut from the tender stems, all served atop a crispy, white bed of deep-fried bean threads. It is simple to do, yet the appearance is so festive that it should be saved for a special dinner. The seasonings are light, either oyster sauce or a bit of chili, as you wish.

  • Perfectly fresh broccoli is essential. The flowers should be deep green and packed densely together, and the stems should be smooth and also solid when you look at them from the bottom. The stems are the real beauty of this preparation, so look for thick, columnular ones that will have an attractively irregular and cloud-like shape when peeled.
  • The broccoli may be trimmed, the meat marinated, and the mock bird’s nest fried all a full day in advance of cooking. The final stir-frying takes only 5–10 minutes.

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Ingredients

  • 1 ounce bean threads (glass noodles)
  • 3–4 cups fresh corn or peanut oil
  • ½ pound round steak or flank steak, trimmed of all fat and tough sinew (weight after trimming)

To marinate the beef

  • 2 tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon white or brown sugar (I use white if I am seasoning the dish with oyster sauce, brown if I am seasoning it with red pepper.)
  • teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon corn or peanut oil
  • 1–1½ pounds fresh broccoli, preferably with thick, solid stems
  • about 6 tablespoons corn or peanut oil, for stir-frying
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1–2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger (use lesser amount with oyster sauce)
  • ⅛–¼ teaspoon dried red chili flakes, or 1 tablespoon oyster sauce mixed with 2 teaspoons water

Method

Preparations

Cut the noodles, fry the noodle nest, and strain the frying oil. Instead of breaking the nest into bits, I like to leave it whole so it looks dramatic. (If you are serving the dish on individual plates, Western-style, make a small noodle nest for each guest’s plate; it’s no more work and it’s very pretty.) The nest(s) may be fried a day in advance, then left at room temperature on a paper-towel-lined tray. If your kitchen is humid, store them in an oven with a lit pilot.

Slice the beef crosswise against the grain into thin slices evenly ⅛ inch thick, holding your knife on a diagonal to broaden the slices. Cut the slices crosswise into pieces 1½ inches long. Blend the soy, sugar, cornstarch, and oil until smooth, then toss with the beef, stirring well with your fingers to coat each slice. Seal airtight and set aside to marinate for 30 minutes to 2 hours at room temperature or up to a full day in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before cooking.

Cut the broccoli flowerets from the main stem at the point where the thin stalks join the main stem. (To a Chinese eye, a floweret atop a longish stalk is especially attractive.) If the flowerets are more than two bites large, cut them in half lengthwise. With a sharp paring knife, carefully peel the outer skin from the thin stalks, beginning from the cut end. Cut off the base of the main stem at a 30° angle and remove the thicker outer bark, pulling the bark away after each shallow cut as if stringing celery. As best you can, keep the naturally irregular shape of the stem intact. Cut the peeled stem on the diagonal into elongated coins a scant ¼ inch thick. If you had a cooperatively irregular-shaped stem, the coins will look like “clouds.” Cut and peeled, the broccoli may be refrigerated overnight in a lightly misted plastic bag.

Stir-frying the dish

About 10–15 minutes in advance of serving, have all the ingredients and a bowl to hold the broccoli within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a large serving platter or individual plates of a contrasting color in a low oven to warm. Stir the beef with your fingers to loosen the slices.

Put a wok or a large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 3 tablespoons oil, swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a piece of broccoli, add the broccoli and stir-fry briskly to glaze the pieces evenly, adjusting the heat to maintain a merry sizzle without scorching the vegetable. When glazed, after 30 seconds or so, sprinkle with salt and sugar and toss briskly to coat. Sprinkle the wine into the pan, wait a split second for it to “explode” in a fragrant hiss, then add the water. Stir to coat, shake the pan to even the contents, then raise the heat if required to bring the liquids to a simmer. Cover, then steam-cook the broccoli for 3–4 minutes, until tender but still crisp. Test a piece to be sure. Raise the heat to evaporate any remaining liquid, then remove the broccoli to the bowl and cover it to keep warm.

Quickly wipe the pan clean and return it to high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 3 tablespoons oil, swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-high.’ When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one bit of ginger, add the ginger. Adjust the heat so it foams without browning, then add the chili flakes if you are using them, stirring to infuse the oil with the aromatics. When fully fragrant, in about 10 seconds, add the beef and toss briskly to separate the slices, adjusting the heat to maintain a merry sizzle. When the meat is 90 percent gray, add the oyster mixture if you are using it, stir to combine, and remove the pan from the heat.

Assembling and serving the dish

Move quickly, lest things get cold. Put the noodle nest(s) on the platter or plates. Distribute the broccoli on top, arranging the flowerets so they face out and leaving a border of noodles showing all around. Finally mound the beef in the center, leaving a border of green around the beef.

Leftovers are good at room temperature or may be steamed in a covered bowl until hot. Discard the noodles, which become mushy.

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