This Hong Kong winter has been maddeningly wishy-washy – a couple of days of warm weather, then it gets cool before quickly turning warm again. Fickle temperatures make planning meals difficult – you buy the ingredients for a cold-weather braised dish but before you have time to cook them, it’s hot and you crave something light instead. These dishes are for when the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celsius.
Red-cooked beef cheeks or brisket
There are many regional variations on red-cooked dishes, so named because of the colour of the sauce (although, in truth, it’s more brown than red, but “brown-cooked” doesn’t sound as appetising). Beef cheeks are wonderful in a red-cooked dish but brisket – preferably layered with tendon – is also delicious. There are two ways to do this (well, three, if you count sous-vide, but not everyone has the equipment for that): in a pressure cooker (which will result in tender meat in about 30 minutes) or low and slow in a heavy pot on the stove. I’ve given the recipe for the latter method; if you use a pressure cooker (or an immersion circulator, for sous-vide) start with only 300ml of stock; you can add more later, if needed.
1kg beef cheeks or brisket
30ml cooking oil
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
A 35 gram chunk of ginger, peeled
1-2 whole dried chillies
2 whole star anise
½ tsp whole black peppercorns
6cm cinnamon stick
1 whole piece of chun pei (dried tangerine peel)
40ml rice wine
60ml soy sauce
30 grams Chinese rock sugar (or use granulated)
1 tsp fine sea salt, or more to taste
About 500ml unsalted chicken or beef stock, preferably home-made
2-3 spring onions
Put the Sichuan peppercorns into an unoiled skillet and heat over a medium flame. Shake the pan constantly so the peppercorns don’t burn and cook them until lightly toasted. Lightly crush the ginger by hitting it with the side of a cleaver.
Cut the beef cheeks or brisket into 3cm chunks. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the beef and blanch for about 30 seconds. Drain the beef, rinse with cold water and drain again. Dry the beef with paper towels.
Heat the cooking oil in a heavy pan (preferably enamelled cast-iron) placed over a medium flame. When the oil is hot, sear the beef chunks on all sides (it will spatter furiously); do this in batches – do not crowd the pan. When the pieces are browned, put them in a bowl while searing the rest of the meat.
If there’s a lot of fat in the pan after browning all the meat, pour off most of it, leaving behind about 15ml. Place the pan (no need to wash it) over a medium flame and add the ginger and whole dried chillies. Cook, stirring often, for about a minute, to lightly brown the aromatics. Put the star anise, black peppercorns and toasted Sichuan peppercorns into a small disposable filter bag (the type used for loose tea) and seal the top (the bag makes it easier to fish the spices out of the dish before serving). Place the bag in the pan and add the cinnamon stick and chun pei. Stir in the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar and salt, then add the beef into the pan. Pour in the chicken or beef stock and stir well. Bring to the boil then lower the flame, cover the pan with the lid and cook at a low simmer for about an hour. Taste the sauce and correct it as needed (be sparing with the salt, as the sauce will intensify as it cooks). Continue to cook until the meat is tender. If there’s too much liquid, simmer the meat uncovered to reduce the sauce to a very light coating consistency.
When the dish is ready, remove the bag containing the spices, and fish out the cinnamon stick and chun pei. Cut the spring onions into 5mm pieces and scatter them over the meat before serving with steamed white rice.
Braised pork belly with taro
Don’t make this if you dislike fat; it isn’t nearly as delicious with a lean cut of meat. Serve with stir-fried mustard greens because the bitterness will help balance the richness of the pork belly.
A 600-gram piece (about 8cm wide) of skin-on, well-layered pork belly
One piece of taro, about 300 grams
2 garlic cloves
2 spring onions
2-3 thin slices ginger, peeled
30ml dark soy sauce, divided
30ml light soy sauce
4 squares red fermented bean curd (naam yu), mashed with a fork
30ml rice wine
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
Cooking oil, as needed
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the pork belly and simmer for five minutes. Drain the meat and pat it dry with paper towels. Coat the surface of the pork belly with half of the dark soy sauce. Lightly coat a skillet with oil and heat it over a medium flame. Brown the pork belly on all sides in the skillet (it will spatter a lot). After browning the meat, blot off the excess oil with paper towels. Slice the pork belly into pieces about 6mm thick.
Peel the taro and cut it into even slices about the same size as the pork belly. Pour cooking oil to the depth of about 4cm in a pan. When the oil is 170 degrees Celsius, fry the taro slices in batches until pale golden. Drain the fried taro on paper towels.
Mince the garlic cloves and spring onions, and cut the ginger into fine shreds. Place the skillet used to brown the pork belly (no need to wash it) over a medium flame and, when it’s hot, add the garlic, spring onion and ginger. Stir-fry for about a minute. Transfer the ingredients into a Chinese clay pot (or enamelled cast-iron pan) that will snugly hold the pork belly and taro in one layer. Stir in the remaining dark soy sauce and the light soy sauce, fermented bean curd, rice wine, sugar and cornstarch and bring to a simmer over a medium flame. Put the pork belly (skin-side up) and taro into the pot in alternating slices. Pour in 250ml of water and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, cover the pot with the lid and simmer for about an hour, or until the meat and taro are very tender, but not falling apart. While it’s cooking, occasionally check the amount of liquid and add more water if the sauce reduces too much. Just before serving, taste the sauce and correct the seasonings, if needed. Serve with white rice.