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March 2014

Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuanese Chopped Celery with Beef

Blanched celery

My love affair with Fuchsia Dunlop and Chinese food continues unabated. My latest discovery: how to use up that pesky bunch of celery stalks you're forced to buy when you need but a single one. Ooh, how I hate the sight of those pale green stalks down in the crisper, how they fill me with regret and fury, taking up precious space, growing limp and moldy by the day, an affront to my self-regard as a resourceful, responsible cook! But no more. Thanks to Fuchsia, I've actually gone out and bought a bunch of celery on several occasions now, to use up in one fell swoop, no less. It's nothing short of a culinary miracle.

The dish has the lyrical name of "Send the Rice Down" in Chinese and the slightly more prosaic "chopped celery with beef" in English. But never mind the names - what you need to know is that this dish is one of the more addictive things to ever issue from my kitchen. Eating it is deeply pleasurable and almost painful because you cannot possibly eat as much of it as you would like to, lest you pop your trouser button after your third or fourth plate.

Stirfrying celery and beef

To make the dish, you need only two special ingredients (and special is a relative term depending on where you live): Sichuan chili bean paste, a reddish paste of fermented fava beans and chilis, and Chinkiang vinegar, a black, savory vinegar that you might recognize from your local dumpling shop. Buying both will only set you back a few dollars and will render you richer in the powerful-ingredient department. Besides, it can be fun to see what having these things in your home does to the people who live in it. Take, for example, my husband, who glances longingly, why almost lustfully, at the Chinkiang vinegar every time he passes it. If it were up to him, he'd be doing daily shots of the stuff.

Sichuanese chopped celery with ground beef

The rest of the work is a walk in the park. There is the slightly fussy step of blanching the celery, but after that tell your eating companions to hoof it to the table, because once you start cooking the beef and the chili-bean paste and ginger hits the pan and goes incredibly fragrant, you won't want to waste any more time with extraneous breaths when you could be eating (or shoveling) this fabulous meal into your mouth.

Oh, and one more thing: It should go without saying that this recipe is easily doubled. I think you'll need to do that.

Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuanese Chopped Celery with Beef
Adapted from Every Grain of Rice
Serves 2 as main with rice or 4 as part of a larger Chinese meal with other dishes

300 grams (11 ounces) celery
3 tablespoons cooking oil
100 grams (4 ounces) ground beef
1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean paste
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
Light soy sauce to taste (optional)
1 teaspoon Chinkiang vinegar

1. Destring the celery, if necessary, and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips. Finely dice the strips. Bring some water to the boil and blanch the celery for 30 seconds. Drain well.

2. Heat the oil in a seasoned wok or pan over high heat. Add the ground beef and stir-fry until it is cooked and fragrant, stirring and pressing it to separate the strands. Add the chili bean paste and continue to stir until the oil has reddened. Add the ginger and stir-fry for a few seconds to release its fragrance, then add all the celery.

3. Continue to stir-fry until the celery is piping hot and well-combined. Season with a little soy sauce, if desired. Finally, stir in the vinegar and serve immediately.


Martha Stewart's Hot Crab Dip

DSC_4820

Thank you, darlings, for all your lovely comments and well wishes. It did me good to crawl off and act like a wounded animal for a bit. I took lots of hot baths, baked a bunch of delicious, comforting things and read all the back issues of the New Yorker I had lying around the house. It was very restorative and I'm happy to say that besides a sore chin and a few remaining issues with my jaw, I'm feeling back to normal.

As for the delicious baked things, I will tell you about all of them, I promise, but first things first: This hot crab dip, which comes from the pages of Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook, was the Number One Most Delicious Thing I made over the holidays (we had it for our Christmas Eve appetizer) and while I realize it may be snooze-y for you to read the words "Christmas" and "holidays" in February, please trust me. You need to have this in your repertoire.

Hot crab dip was one of those things I'd vaguely heard about but had never actually seen in the flesh. I always assumed it had been very trendy and hip mid-century, but had gone the way of the three-martini lunch as the decades passed. When I was trying to think of what to serve to our guests on Christmas Eve (we always do a pretty simple fish-based meal that evening), I pulled down the Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook for inspiration. While much of the book's recipes are for much fussier (and more elegant) things than I'd ever have the energy to recreate, there are so many fantastic ideas for entertaining a crowd packed within its pages. Case in point, this hot crab dip.

DSC_4821

It's a silly-easy recipe and can be made in advance of serving, both big pluses for cooking for a crowd. You can make it with frozen crab meat as well as fresh, which is a boon to those of us who live in countries where fresh crabmeat is unheard of. (Berliners, I bought mine here.) And most importantly, of course, it is drop-dead delicious.

This is not diet food or temple food or whatever you're going to call it. It's rich with butter and cream and cheese, but a little goes a long way and it is guaranteed to please the people you're feeding. I'd go so far as to say that as long as the days are short and the weather biting, you owe it to your friends to make them hot crab dip. Not to overstate things, but it's the kind of food that make you feel all is right with the world as you eat it. The rich savoriness will warm your bones and the conviviality of scooping and dipping bits of toasted bread into it while clustered around a table together will warm your soul. Just the thing to keep us going through this next gray month.

(The Amazon links are affiliate.)

Martha Stewart's Hot Crab Dip
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook
Serves 8 as an hors d'oeuvres

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, minced
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
3/4 cup half-and-half
8 ounces cream cheese, cut into small pieces
4 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, grated on the large holes of a box grater (about 1 3/4 cups)
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
10 ounces lump crabmeat, picked over for cartilage
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 slices white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Toast points, for serving

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the center. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon water and simmer for 30 seconds. Stir in the cayenne, Old Bay, and dry mustard until well combined. Pour half-and-half into saucepan and bring to a simmer. Slowly whisk in the cream cheese, a few pieces at a time. When the cream cheese is fully incorporated, whisk in the cheddar cheese, a handful at a time. Stir the mixture for 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce; stir to combine. Stir in crabmeat and half of the parsley.

2. Transfer mixture to an ovenproof baking dish and sprinkle with bread pieces. Dot top of bread pieces with remaining tablespoons butter; sprinkle with paprika. Bake until bread pieces are golden and dip is hot, 18 to 22 minutes. Garnish with remaining 1/4 cup parsley and serve with toast points.