Chinese for Christmas: beef with broccoli

In honor of Christmas, here’s a cheesy joke:

A Jewish guy and a Chinese guy sit next to each other at (where else?) a bar. After a couple of drinks, they begin arguing over whose civilization is the greater and more venerable. The Chinese guy says, “My people have been around for four thousand years!” The Jewish guy retorts, “Oh, yeah? Well, my people have been around for five thousand years!”

“Really?” says the Chinese guy. “What did they eat for the first thousand years?”

For folks like me, eating Chinese food on Christmas is a storied tradition, as American as apple pie and just about as beloved. It’s simple, really: Chinese restaurants are usually the only ones open on Christmas–both Eve and Day–and so that’s where all the hungry Jews ended up.

So, as this toddling food blog celebrates its first holiday season, I’m instituting that tradition here. Chinese food for Christmas. It shall be so.

My family actually came to the Chinese-on-Christmas tradition fairly late. For many years, we spent the last week of December with my grandmother and my vegan aunt, whose birthday is on Christmas Eve. So I grew up thinking Christmas meant my grandmother’s bean-and-tomato soup (but that’s another show) and vegan chocolate cake with raspberries (ditto). A delicious tradition, to be sure, but also not terribly universal.

Then, about five years ago, my family decided to go to Monterey for Christmas instead. It was a beautiful but chilly Eve, and the quaint downtown was almost completely deserted. Unsurprisingly, all the restaurants on the main drag were shuttered–except for a homey little Chinese place. So that’s where we ate, and the tradition stuck.

So. What’s a natural American Chinese dish to start this tradition off right? I can’t think of anything better than the classic, the beloved, the entirely inoffensive and warmingly familiar (drumroll, please) beef with broccoli. It’s a staple of American Chinese cuisine, and would probably be nearly unrecognized in China itself. Children love it; adults love it; it’s the only Chinese takeout staple that everyone around the table can agree on, every time. Except the vegetarians. But they get to eat other delicious things.

Plus, it’s an absolute cinch to make–as most stir-fries are. The entire process takes about 15 minutes from start to finish–20 if you’re slow with a knife, like me. Plus, the majority of the ingredients are things you should already have in the cupboard. I bought beef, broccoli and oyster sauce, and relied on my pantry for everything else.

I will say, normally, I’m not a big beef eater. Not out of any sense of political or ethical conviction–I’m just not crazy about it. I’ll have something beefy once every couple months, and I’ll feel weird about it the whole time. But I make an exception for this particular dish. When it comes to the Chinese takeout options “…with broccoli,” as far as I’m concerned, it’s beef or nothing. This is what I grew up eating, and nostalgia is a powerful force.

That being said: this dish is really about the broccoli, not the beef. I always find myself shoveling the scraps of beef in first, to get it out of the way, because what I really want is big bites of broccoli–jewel-green, just tender, florets impregnated with that insidiously addictive sauce. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that this is one of the few greatly beloved dishes where the vegetable outclasses the meat, hands-down.

So there you have it. A Chinese food classic, for a venerable Christmas tradition. Not a bad first holiday for us here at Dare to Eat a Peach. Merry Christmas–whether you’re trimming a tree or eating takeout with your family–and I’ll see you on the other side.

(Wait, Hanukkah? What’s that?)

Beef with Broccoli (serves 3-4)

Adapted, just barely, from Simply Recipes

3/4 pound flank steak or sirloin, sliced thinly across the grain

3/4 pound broccoli florets

2 tbsp peanut oil (or canola, or vegetable)

2 cloves garlic, finely grated or run through a garlic press

1 tsp cornstarch

1 tbsp water

Toasted sesame seeds for garnish (optional)

For marinating the beef:

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp rice vinegar

1 tsp sesame oil

1/2 tsp cornstarch

1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper

For the stir-fry sauce:

2 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp soy sauce

1/4 cup chicken broth

In a medium bowl, whisk together the marinade ingredients. Add the sliced beef and toss to coat–it will look like there’s barely anything on the meat, but have faith. Let stand for 10 minutes, while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

Whisk together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the broccoli for two minutes, or just until it’s barely starting to get tender. Drain and dry thoroughly; I spread the florets on a paper towel-lined baking sheet and let them steam themselves dry until I was ready to saute them, which worked perfectly.

Heat a large wok or frying pan over high heat, until a drop of water flicked into the pan skitters and evaporates on contact. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the beef, spreading it out in a single layer so one side of each piece is in full contact with the pan. Let fry for one minute, undisturbed. Flip the beef slices over, add the garlic, and stir to combine, then let fry undisturbed for another minute or so, until there’s no trace of pink left and the beef is starting to brown. Add the blanched broccoli and the sauce, and bring to a boil. Stir the cornstarch and water together to make a slurry, then pour the slurry into the boiling sauce. Stir so everything gets incorporated, then stir-fry for another 30 seconds or so, until the sauce has thickened. You’re done!

Evacuate the stir-fry to plates, and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds (if you like). Of course, you’ve also made a batch of rice (white or brown, as you like) to eat this over. Right?

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