Sichuan Beef Noodle Soup with Pickled Mustard Greens and Cucumber Salad
Admittedly, for years, I’ve been a half-assed recipe follower. Let me clarify. I’ve always over-reached in my experimentations (yes, I’ve made some very eccentric dishes in my life), yet have only really read recipes to steal their essence and work things out in my own head, accordingly. So, if a recipe called for some rare type of purple pepper, it was probably going to inherit whatever color and derivation of pepper was on sale when I got to the grocery store. Part of this was because I’ve always lived and cooked on a strict budget, but other part is that frankly, I didn’t respect my ingredients. Tisk, tisk.
It was only 2 years ago, while contemplating a salad recipe, when I stepped out of my comfort zone. The recipe called for Sichuan pepper (also spelled “Szechuan”), and for the purpose of testing my “no frills” cooking theory, I decided to source this weird dried pepper just so I could prove that it was no different than anything else I had in my cabinet. (It was $9, plus $6 shipping, which was quite a splurge for the sake of proving myself right.)
When the pepper arrived, I opened the cap and a mysterious, romantic, almost lavender scent leapt out at me. I soon learned that this pepper, despite its name, is not at all related to the black pepper or chili pepper; in fact, part of a berry that comes the prickly ash tree (a flowering citrus tree that grows in the Szechuan region in China.)
This one small learning experience blew my world open. It was like realizing that, for years, you’ve had the wrong eyeglasses prescription or half-busted headphones; I wanted to make every dish again the way it was supposed to be made and experienced.
Since then, I’ve made several dishes with this mysterious Sichuan pepper. All were wonderful but the recipe below is my favorite, mostly because it exemplifies my cardinal soup-eating theory: fresh, complex flavors and textures with at least one interactive element. Yessiree, I like soups with colorful garnishes; ones that can be added onto your spoon in order to create a new symbiotic flavor.
My version of this beef noodle soup is served with pickled mustard greens and a Chinese cucumber salad. Together, these garnishes faceoff beautifully with every component of the broth: soft tomatoes vs. crunchy, pickled greens; fatty beef shank vs. acidic peppers; spicy anise vs. cool, sweet cucumbers. It’s an effect that is, at once, comforting, playful and inspiring.
2.5 pounds boneless beef shank
1/8 cup vegetable oil
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and diced
1-2 large garlic cloves, finely diced
1 cup chopped onions
1 heaping tablespoon chili bean paste (available at all Asian grocery stores)
1 whole green onions, trimmed of their white bottoms, plus 1 cups chopped green onions
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon salt
3 whole star anise
1 heaping tablespoon sugar
1/4 tablespoon ground Sichuan pepper
1 large plum tomato, cut into 4 wedges
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound Chinese wheat noodles
4 baby bok choy, each halved lengthwise, trimmed and rinsed
Chopped fresh cilantro
Bring large pot of water to boil. Add the beef, return water to a boil and then reduce the heat. Simmer the beef for 8 minutes, turning occasionally. Remove beef from the water and rinse in cold water. When the beef is cool enough to tough, cut it into 1” cubes.
Heat oil in the same large pot over medium-high heat. Add ginger and garlic, sautéing for 1 minute until the spices are lightly browned. Add the chopped onions and sauté until they’re translucent, about 3 minutes.
Stir in the chili bean paste, then cook for 30 seconds. Add 8 cups water, the whole green onions, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon salt, star anise, sugar and Sichuan pepper. Mix in beef and simmer, uncovered, 1.5 hours.
Add tomatoes to the pot. Continue to simmer soup for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile, cook noodles according to package directions (they should only take 3 minutes) and drain.
Recipe adapted from one originally published to Bon Appétit Magazine (March 2010) by Shih Yu Chen Kuo