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Humble ingredients, wonderful food

When I was an inexperienced cook experimenting with different recipes and culinary traditions, I was often amazed to learn what could be done with one or two ingredients. A sack of tomatoes becomes marinara. An egg and oil becomes mayonnaise. Water and corn meal morph into polenta. And a small piece of cheap beef and four or five onions becomes a dark, rich oriental meal for four.

I made this Chinese dish recently and was again rewarded and delighted by what a little technique can do to humble ingredients.

The cheap beef would be tough and unappetizing cooked whole. Certainly nothing you would grill for your friends. But, chill it till almost frozen, slice it paper thin against the grain and cut the slices into tiny julienned sticks. Then toss these with an egg white, coat with corn starch and a little salt, heat oil in a wok and deep fry briefly. Remove and drain. That takes care of the meat.

For the onions, you slice them in half and stand each half on end. Then you slice these to get thin, julienne-ish pieces. Cook a wok-full of these onions slowly with a little oil for twenty minutes or so, stirring as you go. The onions get soft, then they start to brown and soon they caramelize and become sweet and soft.

Then you stir in the cooked beef, a little sugar, a little soy sauce, taste, adjust the seasoning, smile and serve it forth.

No one who tastes it would believe it’s humble origins, how little it costs and how simple it is to make.

It’s one more demonstration that some of the most interesting dishes in Chinese, French, Italian, Cajun, Southern American and other great traditions were created by inventive cooks who were scared of starving to death. Far from the kitchens of the rich, they originate in scarcity and necessity. And, we who wallow in an overabundance of everything, inherit the result of their genius. I am grateful.