One of our favorite Chinese restaurants to visit whenever we are in New York City is Grand Sichuan International on 9th Ave. I know, I know, there's much better Taiwanese food in Flushing, and probably some amazing Cantonese food in Chinatown as well. The problem is, we almost always stay in the Upper West Side with my aunt. Call it laziness, or hunger, or whatever, but typically by the time we're hungry, we're not in the mood to trek all the way out to Flushing or down to Chinatown for a good bite to eat. Plus, this is the best Sichuan restaurant I know of in Manhattan.
One of the dishes we almost always order is the spicy minced pork with sour string beans.
Sour string beans? Having grown up with mostly Taiwanese food, I had never heard of this dish either until my coworker told me about it. The first time we tried it, we fell in love with the dish. Spicy, sour, crunchy, and fragrant - it's a bold dish that goes perfectly with a nice, hot bowl of rice! It's now become one of our staples at Grand Sichuan International.
I recently discovered a recipe for this dish in a book titled Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop. Fuchsia Dunlop was the first foreigner to study Sichuanese cooking at the acclaimed Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, China. Because I have yet to find a restaurant in Boston that makes this dish, I knew the only way to enjoy it was to try making it at home.
Spicy Minced Pork with Sour String Beans
adapted from Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop
This recipe has two parts, the pickling of the string beans and the actual stir frying part. The pickling takes several days, so definitely plan ahead if you want to make this dish.
Part I: Pickling the String Beans
2 ¼ C water
¼ C rock or sea salt
4 dried chiles
½ teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 teaspoon strong rice wine or vodka
½ of a star anise
1 Tbs brown sugar
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled
a good piece of cassia bark or ⅓ of a cinnamon stick
Sterilize the jar (Boil in water or heat in the oven for a few minutes)
Bring water to a boil with the salt, stirring to dissolve the salt. Once completely dissolved, set aside and let cool. Once cool, pour the salt water into the sterilized jar. Add the remaining brine ingredients and stir.
Wash and trim beans and then dry them throughly. Immerse them in the pickling solution, seal, and store in the refrigerator or a cool place for 1 - 3 days.
Spicy Minced Pork with Sour String Beans(rou mo jiang dou)
½ lb string beans
¼ lb ground lean pork
½ teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or medium dry sherry
½ teaspoon light soy sauce
peanut oil for cooking
3 - 4 Sichuanese dried chiles, snipped in half, seeds discarded
½ teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper
Shortly before cooking, place the pork in a bowl with Shaoxing rice wine, soy sauce, and 3 generous pinches of salt. Set aside.
Remove the beans from the brining solution and rinse well. Chop the beans into ⅛ inch slices to complement the small grains of the ground pork.
Season wok, then add 1 Tbs peanut oil and heat over a high flame until smoking. Add the pork and stir-fry until it is dry and a little crispy. Remove pork from the wok and set aside.
Add 1Tbs of fresh oil to the hot wok. When the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the chiles and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until they are fragrant, taking care not to let them burn. Throw in the beans and pork and stir-fry for another minute or two until the beans are hot and fragrant.
I veered from this recipe in two ways: I pickled the string beans for 1 week (versus 1-3 days) and I replaced the cinnamon stick with 5-spice powder. Although the string bean recipe said to brine for 1-3 days, the general pickling solution recipe mentioned that vegetables taste best after being pickled for one week. I took the risk and let my string beans sit in the pickling solution for a week.
I had a hint that something was non-ideal when I observed the following:
1. The book says the jar should fizz when you open it. My jar did not fizz.
2. My string beans were really salty, but not that sour.
How to pickle?
I am still not sure how to get pickling to occur. Did I use a wrong type of jar? Do I need to add vinegar? Is something missing from the recipe? This dish had hints of the same flavors as the version at Grand Sichuan International, but something fell really short. I guess I still need to experiment with the pickling process. My guess is that I did not use a proper pickling container (I just used a random old jar), which might have resulted in gases escaping. Furthermore, brining for a week was way too long, and that alone probably accounts for the over-salted nature of the dish. I am confident that this recipe does work when followed exactly. Sometimes shortcuts are OK. In this case, I think I took too many!
Despite the possible mishap with the brining time, I could tell that the rest of the dish was still pretty good. The fragrant spiciness from the Sichuan peppercorns and the dry hot peppers definitely comes through. The pickled beans have a really nice crunchy texture, and the pork adds a nice complement. Unfortunately, the over-salted flavor of the beans was slightly distracting, but with a lot of rice, the dish was still enjoyable.
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