Like most food lovers, I am a sucker for a food holiday. Whether it’s Christmas, Passover, or Tet, if I can learn about traditional celebrations and make splendid dishes, I’ll be a happy bunny. Hey, I said bunny! Yup, this week marks the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Rabbit and I’ve been busily shopping for oranges, black fungus, and all manner of other exciting ingredients. While I’m happy to celebrate most anything, I have a soft spot for Chinese New Year from my years of living in downtown Manhattan. Every year, I would go down to Mott St. to find the crowds and watch the dragon and lion dances. All the shops would be full of New Year decorations — and the bakeries full of moon cakes, which I have to confess I think are vile. I tended to go for celebratory pork buns which might not be traditional but are nonetheless delicious on a cold day.

According to the Chinese horoscope sites I’ve been reading, the year of the rabbit promises a relaxing, laid back year after the dynamic tiger last year. Calmness, leisure and an unhurried pace are promised, which sounds like a Very Good Thing to me. In that spirit, my first new year recipe is a leisurely braise, using oranges, which are a common ingredient in Chinese New Year cooking. It’s rich, meaty and spicy, and I’m going to complement it with a light and crunchy lucky vegetable dish in my next post.

Sichuan braised beef with orange

This dish has a lot of ingredients but you’re mostly chucking them in a pot and leaving for hours, so it’s not hard. It begins with a braise and then adds the braised meat into a final stir fry. However, if you felt especially laid back (it is the year of the rabbit, after all) you could simply stop there and serve the braised beef with some steamed or wok-fried greens.

for the braise:

  • stick of cinnamon
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
  • 8 dried red chilies
  • 3 star anise
  • 2 pieces of dried mandarin peel
  • 2 strips fresh orange peel
  • 2 heaping tsp chili bean paste
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
  • 1 beef cheek

Trim the cheek of any visible fat and season with salt and pepper. Brown in vegetable oil in an ovenproof casserole. Meanwhile, toast the peppercorns, cinnamon, star anise, chilies, and dried mandarin peel one at a time on a dry skillet until they release their scent. It will only take a few seconds per ingredient, so be careful not to burn them. Crush the garlic cloves roughly. When the meat is browned all over, take it out and put it on a plate for a moment. In the same pot, add the chili bean paste and fry. Add all the other ingredients, put the meat back in, and add 2 cups of water. Bring to the boil, then cover and put in a medium-low oven (gas mark 3, 325 F, 170 C). Cook for 3 hours, turning the meat occasionally.

for the stir fry:

  • vegetable oil
  • bunch of spring onions
  • 1 red pepper
  • 2 handfuls of sugar snap peas
  • 1 tbsp chili bean paste
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
  • 12–15 dried red chilies
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
  • the peel and juice of 1/2 orange

Towards the end of the braising time, prep the next stage. Cut the onions into 1/2 inch slices, slice the red pepper thinly, top and tail the sugar snaps, chop the garlic to a paste, and julienne the orange peel very finely. Juice the orange. Make the sauce by mixing bean paste, soy sauce, wine and a little orange juice. Taste for flavour balance.

Once the meat is cooked, let it sit for a few minutes then shred it with a fork. You want it to look like pulled pork. Heat a wok or large frying pan and, once it’s very hot, add a tbsp of oil. When the oil shimmers, fry the spring onions and peppers. Stir for a minute then add the dried chilies, sichuan peppercorns, and orange peel, then the sugar snaps, then the garlic. Stir until the garlic no longer looks raw, then add the meat. Mix well and pour in the sauce. Fry for another minute until everything is well-combined.

Serves 3-4

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