One of the best parts about revisiting recipes from previous years is seeing how little changes can make a big difference. Take, for example, this Spicy Hunan Beef with Cumin dish. The version from June 2010 involved fresh red chilis with crushed red pepper flakes. Over the weekend, I tweaked the recipe with dried red chilis with chili oil and a bit of chili sauce. The result was an even better dish, with a hint of smokiness from the dried red chilis and chili oil that the first version didn’t have. It’ll be my go-to version from now on.
When I moved into my new apartment a few months ago, the first thing I did was take inventory of the cupboards. (The previous tenants had left a decent supply of spices, oils, and condiments.) The second thing I did, even though it was almost 10pm by the time I was done unpacking, was march over the Trader Joe’s and buy ground cumin. I had not planned on cooking that night. It just made me sleep better, knowing my kitchen was no longer egregiously understocked.
Other than sea salt, cumin is the spice that I cannot with without. If I were only allowed two spices on a deserted island (with an otherwise fully-stocked kitchen), and had to choose between cumin and a pepper grinder, the former might win out. Just a whiff of toasted cumin seeds brings back a flood of memories of the best foods I have ever eaten: melty lamb shoulder from a Yemeni restaurant in Brooklyn, late night beef kebabs from a street vendor in Beijing, or pilau from an Afghani restaurant near Boston.
On this blog already I have already made a good number of salads and other vegetarian dishes with cumin, but here’s one for red meat eaters. Cumin is normally used in western Chinese cooking, such as that from Xi’an or the Xinjiang province, but periodically shows up in Hunan and Sichuan cooking as well.
Hunan’s version of stir-fried beef with cumin combines cumin with the fresh and dried chilis the province is known for. My version is pretty spicy, but manageable (maybe 2 out of 3 chili pepper rating.) Buy the tenderest beef you can find and slice it very thin, for quick stir-frying. (Throwing it in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes before preparation firms it up to make slicing easier.) And feel free to add more fresh and dried chilis if you can withstand it.
Spicy Hunan Beef with Cumin
- 1 pound flank steak, sliced thinly against the grain (about 1/4-inch thick)
- 1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
- 6 to 8 dried red chilis
- 2 scallions, green parts thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 1 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 2 teaspoons chili oil
- 1 teaspoon chili sauce
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- Marinate the beef: In a large bowl, combine the marinade ingredients. Add the beef and toss well to coat. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes.
- In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the sauce.
- Heat the peanut or vegetable oil in a wok or pan over medium-high heat. Add the beef and spread it out over the bottom of the wok. Let it sear untouched for 1 minute. Stir-fry for another 1 minute. When the beef is still a little pink in the middle, add the ginger, garlic, and dried red chilis. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds, just until fragrant).
- Add the sauce and stir to coat. Continue cooking just until the beef is no longer pink, about another 1 minute. Remove from the heat, garnish with scallions, and serve.