Beef and asparagus stir fry is a riff on Chinese beef and broccoli, with amazingly tender beef thanks to the method learned from Kenji Lopez-Alt.
I want to cook like Kenji
Kenji Lopez-Alt’s YouTube channel, the source of this recipe, is super entertaining and informative; also my recent obsession.
Kenji is the cook and food writer for New York Times and Serious Eats and probably the most laid-back whilst casually accomplished cookery presenter. His POV filming technique is so remote from the self-promoting TV chefs it’s like a breath of fresh air.
And most importantly, though it doesn’t happen often these days that I want to cook now! today! tomorrow! what I’ve just watched on YT, it is invariably the case with Kenji’s dishes.
Wash your beef!
The beef and asparagus (tenderstem broccoli in his version) recipe had me intrigued not only because the result looked mouth-wateringly perfect but also because Kenji washed the meat.
You’ve read it right: beef cut into strips was plonked into cold water and thoroughly washed (without soap before you ask), then drained and squeezed so that too much moisture didn’t dilute the marinade. I was fascinated.
Other secrets to a good stir fry
Before I reveal the effect of the meat washing exercise, a few points about how blooming difficult it is, and how to get a stir fry right, at least to a western home cook.
Marinating is not saucing
Firstly, for the meat/fish/tofu marinade, less is more. This isn’t sauce: this serves only to tenderise the protein, and to enhance its flavour.
Sauce is made separately and added at the end of the cooking, but often we tend to slosh the liquids around the meat so it becomes soupy and ends up burning and sticking when it hits the wok. There should be little enough of it so it’s practically absorbed by the meat.
Wok (dragon) breath
Secondly, it’s all very well to say that wok must be smoking hot for cooking but in practice we never give it long enough.
‘Smoking hot’ means indeed a wisp of smoke coming out of the wok set over high heat (and whatever you do, induction will never make the grade), and you mustn’t mistake it for the initial wisp of smoke produced by the oil brushed onto the wok after you last washed it. It will take much longer than this.
But if you let the wok get roaring hot, the meat/fish/whatever will slide in like a dream, and won’t even need much stirring but a gentle toss. And the end result will bear the noble flavour of ‘wok hei’, wok breath, the (almost) inimitable taste just like in Asian restaurants.
All the chores before the wok comes out
Finally, the easiest bits: don’t overcrowd the wok, work swiftly and add vegetable ingredients in the order of how long they require to cook for.
It’s the perfect cooking process for a slightly OCD person like me: preparing everything separately in their own neat little bowls, arranged in a queue for the wok. And once everything is bowled-up and ready, it takes seconds to produce the meal.
How to make the perfect beef stir fry
Asparagus can be blanched in the wok, with some boiling salty water. There’s no point in using up another pan. Drain the asparagus and put it aside, then wipe the wok dry and start to seriously heat it up.
The beef will take half a minute to sear, and that’s when the ginger and garlic should be added. Take care not to burn them – it often happens to me.
Then the Shaoxing wine is drizzled around the sides of the wok, followed by the sauce mix – if you pour it all over the centre, it will cool the stir fry down.
After the asparagus is tossed in to coat in the sauce and warm up, you can adjust the thickness of the sauce with the cornflour slurry, which is Kenji’s genius idea. Not all of it might be needed but if you like your stir fries saucy, add a splash of water too.
And then all you need is plain white rice to serve alongside.
And? What’s the beef like after all the washing?
Unbelievable. First time I cooked it I used a not very choice piece of rump that looked quite tough. The washing did a magic trick on it – it was tenderer than beef fillet.
I have since washed sirloin as well as pork and even chicken for my stir fries and it is a wholly reliable hack.
I think, counterintuitively, the washing process expels excess moisture which in turn allows the marinade to permeate, tenderise and flavour it. But it’s only my totally un-scientific conjecture: I do not hold a graduate degree from MIT.
More stir fry recipes
Kung pao, or gong bao chicken recipe, is a chicken and peanuts stir fry with thick and spicy sauce. Authentic taste of a good kung pao chicken takeaway made at home, with the spiciness from chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.
Sweet and sour duck stir fry with pineapple and red peppers, topped with duck scratchings. Skinless duck breast is used in the stir fry and the skin makes crispy topping.
Velvet fish and asparagus stir fry with garlic and ginger sauce. Velveting, or marinating the fish in egg white, wine and corn flour keeps it wonderfully juicy in this unusual Chinese dish.