It’s been a while since I’ve done an installment of my fixing Chinese-American cuisine series (you can check out some past installments here). My goal with this series isn’t to return these dishes to their Chinese roots, but to celebrate the uniqueness of Chinese-American food, a cuisine that forked with the immigrants who brought it over, adapting to local tastes and ingredients.
Broccoli Beef originates from a Chinese dish called Gai Lan Chao Niu Rou (芥兰炒牛肉) or Chinese Broccoli Fried Beef, but since early immigrants could not find Gai Lan in the US, American broccoli became an easy substitute. With the florets ability to absorb the flavors of the beef and sauce, the stunning contrast of colors, and a vaguely healthy aura, it’s no surprise that this dish now graces the pages of almost every Chinese-American restaurant.
Unlike Gai Lan, which cooks very quickly, regular broccoli doesn’t work particularly well in stir-fries because of its thick dense stem. By the time your broccoli is cooked though, it ends up nearly burnt on the outside, and the beef ends up resembling strips of boot leather.
Many recipes get around this by blanching the broccoli first, but having to boil a separate pot of water defeats the quick simplicity of a stir-fry. What’s worse, broccoli florets tend to retain water when they are blanched, which comes out into the sauce, watering it down.
My solution is to quickly fry the beef, remove it from the pan, adding the broccoli with just a bit of water to let it steam, before returning the beef along with the sauce. This ensures that the broccoli is cooked to a crisp vibrant green, while the beef is still tender and moist. Most importantly by gently steaming the broccoli, you avoid subjecting it to high temperatures, which releases dimethyl sulfide; the compound responsible for that funky smell when members of the cabbage family are overcooked.
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