February 05, 2011

Four-Mushroom and Spicy Beef Stir-Fry

I've had beef and mushroom stir-fries in Chinese restaurants, but I've never found a good recipe for the dish in a cookbook, cooking magazine or online, so I decided to make up one of my own.   In order to produce a strong mushroom presence with a variety of textures and flavors, I decided to use four types of mushrooms I try to keep on hand at all times:  dried wood ear and shitake mushrooms, canned straw mushrooms and fresh button mushrooms.   The first three are commonly used in Asian cooking, though the wood ear mushrooms are more often used in soups than in stir-fries, while the common, white button mushroom is a good, basic mushroom around which to base a recipe. 

After deciding on the mix of mushrooms, the rest of the recipe came together pretty easily.  Since mushrooms have something of a beefy flavor of their own, I decided to focus on giving the beef itself some heat.  I achieved this with a variety of Asian ingredients that work well with beef - Chinese black vinegar, dried chili peppers, hot mustard and Szechuan peppercorns - plus a bit of garlic and some soy to round out the flavors.  With the heat centered in the beef, I could then focus on boosting and rounding out the earthy aspects of the mushrooms' flavor by adding some black bean and hoisin sauce, and by using some sesame oil to add a nutty undertone.   Ginger and white pepper would give the mushrooms a more subtle heat, while the orange zest would add a bit of sweetness and tartness.  After deciding to toss in some carrots and green onions for added color, texture and variety of flavors, I had a working recipe.

This is one of those recipes that worked great as written, resulting in a great-tasting stir-fry from the first try.  The mix of ingredients results in a really rich blend of flavors, all unified by a smooth sauce.  The bits of heat, sweetness and tartness serve to accent the core flavors of the mushrooms and beef.

I hope some of our readers will try out this recipe.   If you do, I am confident you'll find it a winner. 

Four-Mushroom and Spicy Beef Stir-Fry

yield = 6 servings

1/2    ounce dried shitake mushrooms
1/2    ounce dried wood ear mushrooms
1 1/2  cups water
1 1/2 pound beef flank steak, thinly-sliced against the grain
6       dried Chinese red chili peppers, chopped
2       tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
2       tablespoons peanut oil, divided
1       tablespoon soy sauce
2       teaspoons minced garlic + 1 teaspoon
2       teaspoons hot mustard powder
1       teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, ground
1       can (14 ounces) straw mushrooms, drained
3       tablespoons black bean sauce
1       tablespoon hoisin sauce
1       tablespoon cornstarch
1       tablespoon orange zest
1       teaspoon fresh peeled and grated ginger
1/2    teaspoon ground white pepper
2       large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced into long "matchsticks"
1       bunch green onions, white and green parts separated,
         white parts thinly sliced, green parts chopped
8       ounces fresh button mushrooms, quartered
2       teaspoons dark (Asian) sesame oil

Place dried mushrooms in a bowl.  Pour 1 1/2 cups boiling water over the dried mushrooms and allow them to soak for 30 minutes.   Remove softened mushrooms from the liquid, squeezing excess liquid back into the bowl.  Slice mushrooms into thin slices, discarding woody parts of stems, then set aside.   Strain soaking liquid through a fine-mesh strainer, retaining liquid and discarding silt and other solids collected in the strainer.

While the mushrooms are soaking, combine beef slices, chopped chili peppers, Chinese black vinegar, 1 tablespoon peanut oil, soy sauce, 2 teaspoons garlic, hot mustard powder and Szechuan peppercorns in a zipper-lock bag.  Shake to mix and evenly coat, then refrigerate for 1/2 hour. 

Combine black bean sauce, hoisin sauce, cornstarch, orange zest, ginger and white pepper in a bowl with the liquid retained from soaking the mushrooms.  Stir to mix thoroughly, then set aside.

Heat skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the beef mixture and stir-fry until the beef is browned.   Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

Add remaining tablespoon peanut oil and the sesame oil to the skillet and heat until shimmering.  Stir-fry carrots and the white parts of the green onions until the carrots have started to brown, about 5 minutes.  Add the remaining teaspoon garlic and stir-fry 30 seconds.  Add the shitake, wood ear, straw and button mushrooms to the skillet and stir-fry until they have softened and cooked through (about 4 minutes). 

Stir the black bean sauce mixture to the skillet, then stir in the beef and the green parts of the green onions.   Cook for about one minute or until the sauce thickens, then transfer to a serving bowl and serve with rice.

Depending on your tolerance for heat, you may want to remove the red pepper pieces after cooking the beef mixture.  They are edible, but are there primarily for flavoring purposes and can be quite hot to actually eat, and removing them after the beef is cooking won't hurt the flavor of the dish.

Crimini mushrooms can be used in place of button mushrooms in this recipe, but their stronger flavor might overwhelm the subtler flavors of the straw and shitake mushrooms.   Portabella and dried porcini mushrooms are not recommended for this recipe, as they will almost certainly overwhelm the other mushroom flavors.

Cooking Tip:  It's easier to thinly slice beef if  you
freeze it for a bit before slicing.  The same trick
works well for poultry and pork.

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