Have you ever cried in a Chinese restaurant? I’m not talking tears of joy because the food is so good or because your boyfriend just dumped you. I’m talking the kind of tears you weep because you can’t eat virtually anything on the menu. And you’re really effing hungry.
It happened to me. I cried. There wasn’t spillage, but my eyes welled up and I fought damn hard to keep them locked in tight. And it was all because of a plate piled high with luscious looking noodles.
Here’s what happened…
It was our first night in New York City. We were there last week for the long holiday weekend to pack in shows and the kinds of foods you really can only get in NYC, like hand-sliced smoked salmon and sable fish. And bagels. Really good bagels. But, alas, those are out for me now ($!*%!). So we went to a show and were going to meet up with my in-laws for dinner afterward. They said they’d select a restaurant and asked if I had a preference in cuisine. I told them to not worry about my new dietary restrictions (see last week’s post on not being a pain in the ass) and that I would, wherever we went, find something on the menu I could eat.
In hindsight, this was my first mistake. It should have occurred to me to let them know which were the most gluten-loaded cuisines and which were the “safest.” So, it really is completely my fault that the restaurant they chose was perhaps the worst as far as gluten goes: a Chinese noodle house. Why, you ask, is Chinese food so challenging? Soy sauce is in just about everything - hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, literally any brown sauce - and most of the noodles are wheat-based (though there are a few exceptions). A typical Chinese menu is a veritable land mine for those who can’t have gluten.
But I put on a brave face, girded my loins and entered Mee Noodle House, or whatever it was called, I blacked everything out after seeing “noodle” on the front door.
It was a lovely menu, everything you’d want in a Chinese restaurant. Dumplings, stir-fries, whole steamed fish, oodles and oodles of noodles, all bundled, tossed, fried, poached, and swimming laps in gluten. I whispered to my husband, “I’ll just go next door and order Mexican takeout.” My father-in-law overheard, “What? Why?” I explained the Great Gluten Dilemma. “But we ordered the whole steamed fish with ginger sauce! It’s safe,” he proudly announced. “It’s got soy sauce in it,” a young waiter said nonchalantly as he passed by. “They have rice! You can get a bowl of white rice!” my father-in-law stated theatrically (he gets really passionate, it’s what I love about him). “Really? White rice? I’m in one of the food meccas of the world and you want me to eat only white rice on my first night?” I teased sarcastically (inside I was really bawling like a newborn crying for a teat).
I explained the gluten problem to the waiter. They offered to fix me a fish and vegetable stir-fry with a “white sauce.” When I asked what the white sauce was she said, wait for it… “a sauce with salt.” Alrighty then, bring on my salted dish!
It was wonderful. It would have been even more wonderful had I remembered to bring my little travel packets of gluten-free soy sauce, but it truly was a lovely dish: tender and velvety with just the right amount of salt. The trick, it occurred to me, was the velveting of the fish, a technique frequently used in Chinese stir-fry cooking (the technique and recipe on how to make a perfect Chinese stir-fry is below) where the protein is first coated in a cornstarch-based slurry then wok-fried at blastingly high heat. The cornstarch creates a lusciously soft and tender texture that simply wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Who knew a Chinese white sauce could be so good? Certainly better than a bowl of white rice.
How to Velvet Stir-Fry
Velveting recipe adapted from Well Fed
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari (gluten free soy sauce)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar
Whisk ingredients together in a medium bowl and set aside.
Ginger Beef Broccoli Stir-Fry
2 tablespoons olive or avocado oil
1 pound beef (flank, sirloin, strip, top round), thinly sliced against the grain
1 medium-size head broccoli, cut into small florets (tip: use the stem, there’s tons of sweet flavor in it! With a vegetable peeler, peel the outer layer of the stem, which can be tough, then slice into coins or strips)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled and minced (tip: use the edge of a spoon to easily scrape away the peel. No cutting is necessary!)
2 tablespoons soy sauce or gluten free soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
First, prep all of your ingredients so they are at-the-ready (aka mise en place): thinly slice the beef against the grain and toss in the velveting liquid (set aside), cut the broccoli into florets, mince the garlic and ginger.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to a wok or large non-stick skillet and heat over medium-high, about 2 minutes.
Add the velveted beef to the pan, evenly distribute, and cook, without stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir until evenly distributed again, then cook another 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
Add another tablespoon oil to the pan and let it heat up for about a minute. Add the broccoli and stir-fry until just tender, about 4 minutes (poke with a fork to test tenderness). Push the broccoli to the side of the pan and add the garlic and ginger and quickly fry for about 15 seconds, then stir to combine with the broccoli.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, and the beef. Stir to combine for about 30 seconds.
Serve over riced cauliflower, rice, or noodles of your choice.
Note: image featured above is a only representation of this dish.