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My mother is one of those amazing, self-taught cooks who never uses any recipes or measurements, which is wonderful if you’re eating her food, but frustrating if you’re trying to learn how to cook like her.
One year, I decided to try to document some my favorite recipes of hers. I shadowed her when I was home during Thanksgiving and Christmas, continually asking how many cups of this and how many teaspoons of that she was using. She was happy to teach me, but I could sense that she was a little confused, and even slightly annoyed, at how persistent I was in making sure I recorded every little measurement correctly. What she didn’t know was that I was going to make all these dishes at home and photograph them to create a cookbook to give her.
The week before her birthday, I called her to tell her to expect something in the mail, since the book was being delivered without a card or message. Since my mom hates surprises, she demanded to know what it was, and I finally relented, telling her she could guess.
First, she figured out that it was a book, and then that it was a cookbook, which only made her even more annoyed—she was offended that I thought she’d need a cookbook. Well, the joke was on her. When she finally received the book in the mail, she called me up and was crying so hard I was actually scared that something awful had happened. Eventually she stopped crying long enough to tell me she loved the book and to thank me for it.
This beef and broccoli recipe is one of my favorite recipes from that book because it uses quite a few of my mom’s Taiwanese cooking techniques. To keep the beef tender and not chewy, it's important to slice the strips against the grain (and another tip from my mom: Stick the steak in the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes to make it easier to cut thin slices). By adding cornstarch and rice wine in the marinade, you'll further improve the texture of the beef. And since the broccoli takes a lot longer to cook than the beef, it is cooked separately while the beef is marinating, then added back in at the end. You'll want to use a large pan with a lid so that you can steam the broccoli after a quick stir-fry.
The best part about this recipe is the beef marinade, which thickens into a flavorful sauce once it's stir-fried with the meat. It's already quite fragrant due to the soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil, but my mom adds a secret ingredient that really brings it over the top: cinnamon! It's such a tiny amount that you can't really identify it on its own, but the aromatic spice somehow boosts all the other flavors in the sauce in a way you wouldn't expect.
I always make my friends try to guess what it is when I make this for them for the first time, but so far no one has been able to guess—even after multiple hints. Try and see if your friends can figure it out!
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 4 tablespoons rice wine
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 pound flank or sirloin steak, sliced thinly against the grain
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 6 cups broccoli florets
- Salt, to taste
- 1/2 cup water
What's the best recipe or cooking technique you learned from your mom (or mother figure)? Tell us in the comments below.