From Tragic to Tasty

How I started out making Mark Bittman’s Beef Stew but ended up with my mother’s chop suey.

I love Mark Bittman. Actually, I don’t know the man. I mean, l love the way he cooks, the recipes he writes, and the way he makes me believe in my culinary acumen and drive to improve my cooking. He’s almost casual with how he adds ingredients, making me think that I can be casual too with recipe ingredients. Most of all, I like the way he almost always suggests substitutions and doesn’t insist on using fresh tomatoes, for example, when canned will be “just fine,” if not as tasty.

So, when I found myself with about a quarter-pound each of sliced sirloin beef and tenderloin beef cubes, I figured I had enough meat to repeat the Beef Stew recipe from his cookbook, How to Cook Everything. Of course, I have to substitute. I live in Tokyo, Japan, and many of the ingredients that are readily available in the US are impossible to find here, and if I can find them, they are incredibly expensive.

When I was making the stew, it started out well. I browned the meat but then decided that I didn’t want to use a starch, so I subbed out the potatoes his recipe listed for a glut of celery I had in the crisper. I could either weigh the potatoes or eyeball the volume. I used weight because it’s more precise, but I probably should have used volume in hindsight. Now, I realize that subbing out celery for potatoes stretches the concept of culinary substitutions to the max — in truth, it breaks it. Still, I didn’t want the starch, and I needed to use that celery — at a buck and a quarter a stalk, you think twice before you let it go south in the ‘fridge. In went the celery along with the onions.

Bittman’s recipe calls for beef stock or other stock or even plain old water. But I had a packaged demi-glaze sauce, and I figured, “Hey, that has a beefy flavor, maybe I can use that instead.” Bittman, if he’s reading this, is either rolling his eyes, ROTFL, or grimacing. You’ll have to ask him. I used the demi-glaze in the quantities called for in the recipe. I cheerfully stirred it up and gave it the taste test. It was not like any beef stew I had ever had before — not even close. But there was a bit of a flavor I recalled from my childhood — my mom’s “chop suey.”

My mom was a reasonably good cook, given that she was trying to feed a family of six on a tradesman’s salary. She worked as well, so time to shop prep and cook a weekday dinner was also limited. Her chop suey, like her carrot cake, was something reserved for the weekend.

For her chop suey, I recall a small amount of fresh beef and pork cuts, and basically, the rest came out of a can. Bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, bean sprouts were always canned. Celery and onions were fresh. I don’t think she used garlic in anything. At least I don’t remember it. The ’50s in the US was not a good time for ethnic food. My mom made an Asian-like sauce from a combination of Worchester sauce, blackstrap molasses (it was the only kind we had and possibly the only one available), soy sauce (Kikkoman, what else?), water, and probably something else. Salt and pepper, of course, but I don’t recall any other her using any other herbs or spices.

Measurements of all items were optional — add and taste, add and taste was her standard cooking method. Chop and fry the meat, add the fresh veg, give it a few minutes, add the canned veg, then the sauce ingredients. Boil everything. (Yes, boil. Even now, my sisters and I don’t remember a meal that was cooked on anything but high heat.) Serve with Minute Rice. I thought it was great! But I was also nine years old.

Flash forward to my kitchen today, where finally, I had to apply my mom’s “add and taste” logic — as what was in that pan would not be returning to beef stew — ever. Improvising my way through the rest of the ingredients, I added peeled and chopped fresh ginger and then did the same with lotus root.

The lotus root was a substitution for water chestnuts that are not readily available in Japanese retail grocers. I figured they were crunchy with a mild flavor, and both are the root (rhizome, actually) of unrelated aquatic plants. “Good enough for government work,” I thought and tossed them in.

So now I have the beef, ginger, celery, onion, and lotus root in the pan with the demi-glaze. It’s time to start The Alchemy of Sauce. I added some Blackstrap Molasses and tasted it — warmer. Added some Worchester sauce and tasted — colder. Added some soy sauce — warmer still. I have a sizeable arsenal of Asian sauces at my disposal, but I knew that none of the chili pepper-based sauces would do, and I thought the others were too sweet. So, I tamed my tendency to turn my kitchen into Frankenstein’s laboratory and stuck with the dark three — molasses, wo-sauce (as we call it in Japan), and soy sauce. I adjusted the three sauces little by little until the flavor was close to what I remembered.

Since I live alone, I also had to consider the amount of food being made. There is no such thing as making one meal. And I did not want to waste the four servings already in the pan by screwing up the sauce.

While the hardy veggies, beef, and sauce simmered, I dashed out the door to the local convenience store, seeking ready-cut veggies to add to the dish. I bought a small bag of prepared veg: bits of julienne carrot and daikon, probably eight small squares of cabbage, a small handful of fresh bean sprouts, some green onion and nira — a flat, thin, narrow leaf that resembles green onions but has more of a garlic flavor. The link is to a favorite blog of mine for Japanese dishes. It’s going to give you the “how to use” of nira, not the scientific construct of what nira is.

I tossed that in, gave it a stir, and let it bubble for about 10 minutes. The rice was made — and no, it was not Minute Rice. I live in the land of rice. I have my choice of at least six varieties of Japanese-grown short-grain rice at every grocery store — even the convenience stores. Also, I can choose my rice from the region where it was grown and whether it’s organic. Now was the time for the ultimate taste test. Could I serve it up and eat it, or would I lay down my fork, admit defeat and go out to eat?

I would say this was a limited success. It was certainly edible and actually tasty, just not the “right” tasty. The rice was naturally way better. But I also knew that my childhood memory might make it taste better in my brain than in my mouth. The sauce was silky smooth, and the meat/veg mix was just right (for me, meaning that there was a third or less meat to two-thirds veg mix). I will make it again, but I’m not rushing out to buy the meats just yet. I know it’s the amalgam of flavors from the meats and veg combined with the sauces, but just like my mom, this will be a couple of weekend sessions of add and taste, adjust, and add and taste again. I’ll be doing a bit of research — make the sauce separately and take notes as I make it, too. This first attempt was a big surprise halfway through cooking before realizing that ah, no, this was not Mark Bittman’s beef stew.

But back to my point and more to Chef Mark Bittman’s point. Be open to the possibilities, especially those that are already in your ‘fridge. My rather cavalier approach to creating a dish turned out pretty good this time. Still, there have been plenty of “from the frying pan to the garbage can” disasters. Bittman’s point is to use fresh ingredients when you can, frozen when you can’t, and canned if that is what is available. Explore new ingredients — look to his recipes on sardines — yes, surprisingly delicious sardines. Substitute when you must and certainly when your diet calls for it. When it comes to meats of all stripes, less is more — when you can, consider it as the main flavor rather than the main in a meal.

Who knew I would rediscover my mom’s recipe for an Asian dish that was never made in Asia? Who knew that I would be able to recapture a bit of my childhood through a dish that had no recipe, nothing but a flavor memory? This kind of success is a joy for me — stretching my cooking “legs” –using what I know and adding to it — a little at a time — add a little, taste a little.

In the end, I was happy with the dish, even though it was not Mark Bittman approved. I approved, and that’s what counted that night and for subsequent meals. It freezes well too.

NB. I almost always substitute fresh lotus root for celery now. It’s abundant and affordable in Japan, while celery is just abundant. I use it in tuna salad and potato salad, and any other salad that needs a toothsome crunch. I pan fry it and serve it as a side veg. I’ve deep fried it and served it as an appetizer, I’ve pickled it, then put the pickled lotus root on sandwiches, and I’ve prepared it as a side dish. The only place I can’t sub it out is chicken soup, stock, or Mirepoix — that classic mix of 1 part chopped celery, 1 part chopped carrots, and 2 parts chopped onion cooked in butter. If you can find fresh lotus root in your groceries, I encourage you to try it.