Beef Broccoli is a quintessential Chinese American dish, available in Chinese restaraunts all over the United States. Unfortunately it is all to easily ruined by gloppy sauces, often the result of too much cornstarch or (even worse) using processed sauce from a jar. Making beef broccoli from scratch is so simple and it’s also an affordable way to stretch expensive cuts of beef. And if you’re really hoping to trim your food budget in the meat department, it’s time to consider buying part of a cow from a local farm.
I used to have an idyllc view of farming, especially in regards to how animals are raised for food. When I bought beef in the store I often thought of the cows from my favorite childhood song, “Old McDonald”. Echoes of “here a moo, there a moo” lingered in the back of my mind with images of the happy California cows dancing through my head.
Unfortunately, I received a rude awakening one night when watching Dirty Jobs. I couldn’t believe the horrible animal mistreatment occuring as part of a days work. I began weeping as a farmer brushed away the anguished squeals of animals in pain saying, “They don’t feel anything.”
My naivety shattered, I began watching movies about the food industry, my horror growing at each example of cruelty. The chicken breasts and ground beef in my freezer lost their appeal, even bacon no longer brought the same satisfaction I enjoyed before my ignorance was destroyed.
I considered veganism, but the consideration was brief. All of my favorite foods, the ones you would choose to have with you were you trapped on a deserted island, were some form of meat or animal product. There had to be another way, some way to enjoy meat responsibly, and guilt free. That way was made apparent one spring when our friends mentioned that they raise cows for beef.
The answer struck me like a bolt of lightning (a description I can use because I have been struck like lightning, and this was almost as shocking). Let’s buy our beef directly from the farmer! To some of you this may seem obvious, I now know that to a lot of people who are passionate about food, this has always been the way to buy meat. But two years ago the idea seemed revolutionary to us.
So we eagerly planned a visit to their farm to see how their cows really lived. Our anticipation was well deserved, this was exactly what I imagined owning my own farm would be like! Several cows were spread out across acres of land munching on grass and blackberries. The care our friends felt for their livestock was apparent as they petted each one and called them by name.
But the names they’d given their cows demonstrated that they clearly understood that these cows were for food rather than pets. “This is Taco, this is Bell, and this is Burrito.” Once we’d stopped laughing they introduced the rest of their cows with similarly amusing names. We got to feed them a little treat of grain (I think grain is like ice cream for cows), pet them, and see that to the best of our ability to understand how animals feel, these were truly happy cows.
Our friends sent us home with a package of ground beef to make sure we liked the taste. Not only did we like it, we quickly agreed that it was like no other ground beef we’d ever tasted. I tried simply frying the beef, without any of the usual seasonings (garlic, onion, salt, pepper) that I add for flavor. The aroma that filled our house was rich and hearty, immediately causing our stomachs to growl. I made a basic spaghetti sauce with just the beef, basil and some diced tomatoes. The beef’s flavor shined through the sauce in a way that shouted “I’m a MEAT sauce baby!”
We immediately texted them that we’d like to reserve 1/4 a cow. We were slightly nervous, this was new territory for us. How much beef is that really? Will it fit in our freezer? Will we actually save money or break our budget? But we dove in wholeheartedly knowing that this beef we could eat 100% guilt free.
The next step in our journey was a phone call from a local butcher. Our friends suggested we get our ground beef in 1 lb packages and our roasts in 3-4 lb sizes. With those tips in mind I began going through the checklist with the butcher, yes we’d like ribs, yes to the stew meat, and so on. Then we began counting down the days until our beef would cut, wrapped and frozen for us to pick it up.
Once we got the call, we pulled out our coolers and checkbook and gleefully drove to the butcher. Our meat was perfectly packaged in white paper stamped with the name of each cut. It all fit into two coolers that we were JUST able to lift into the car. From there we drove to my parents’ house to split the beef with them. We arranged this in advance anticipating that it would be more meat than we would actually eat in a year.
Clearing off their dining room table we sorted the meat into piles by type, steaks in the middle, ground beef in the cooler, roasts on this end, miscellaneous cuts on that end. Next came the most thrilling game of one for you one for me that I’ve ever played. Each package of meat going into our cooler held the promise of a hearty meal certain to satisfy both stomach and conscience. I began chanting a mantra of recipe titles like Irish Beef Stew, Eggplant Zucchini Casserole, Steak Tacos as we sorted.
We took our beef home and discovered that it could nicely stack onto one freezer rack. Then we did the math. Our beef came out to just about $3/lb including slaughter, cutting and wrapping. That’s $3 a pound for EVERYTHING, from ground beef to tenderloin! Now yes, you can get ground beef cheaper than $3/lb, but not hormone free, antibiotic free, free range, grass fed beef. No way! You must also remember that ground beef you buy in the grocery store, especially the cheaper kind, is often injected with lots of water that cooks out, yielding much less meat than its packaged weight. Our beef was naturally lean and had nothing added, meaning we actually got the amount of meat we paid for.
This year we moved up to half of a cow, splitting it with three other households. The first appliance I hunted down on Craigslist when we got a house was a standing freezer, so we now have plenty of room for meat to last us the whole year. Once again we got a Hereford cow, which we’ve learned in multiple beef tastings is our favorite kind. We did some tasting tests of our own, cooking the same cut of steak from different stores (as well as our cow’s steak) the same way. Our cow was the winner, hands down.
We no longer buy beef from grocery stores, and have saved quite a bit of money in our food budget. You do have to save up in advance for the beef because it will be one lump payment, but in the long run it can save a great deal of money, especially if you eat a lot of meat.
With meat this good, you don’t need to work hard to make it taste great. I often season our steaks with just salt and pepper. Or if I want to stretch one steak for four to six people I’ll put it in a lightly seasoned curry, stroganoff, or stir fry like this beef broccoli. This broccoli beef recipe was taught to me by one of my Chinese aunties in Hawaii, I loved it so much I don’t think I’ll ever make it any other way.
To make beef broccoli you need a very few ingredients that are available cheaply at any Asian market. If you don’t have an Asian market near you, I’ve linked to the items online, but also provide some substitutions that will still taste great but lean more towards the American side of Chinese American cuisine. One last tip, when slicing your steak, it’s a lot easier if you freeze it for about 15 minutes. A firm cut of meat can be sliced very thinly.
Chinese Beef BroccoliServes 4 with rice
1 ½ tsp soy sauce (I use Aloha Shoyu)
1 tsp cornstarch
½ tsp cooking oil
Fresh ground black pepper (3-4 turns of grinder)
1 lb flank steak thinly sliced into 1/8 inch thick strips
3 TBS oyster sauce
2 tsp Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing) or dry sherry
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 ½ lbs broccoli cut into bite sized pieces
1 TBS high heat cooking oil
1 TBS minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
Combine soy sauce, cornstarch, ½ tsp cooking oil and ground pepper in a bowl. Add the sliced flank steak and mix to coat. Let it marinate for 10 minutes at room temperature. In another bowl mix together oyster sauce, rice wine and vinegar to make your stir fry sauce.
Add 1 inch of water to a large frying pan or wok and bring to a boil. Add the broccoli and cover the pan to steam the broccoli for 3 minutes, until it’s bright green and stem can just be pierced with a fork. Drain the broccoli and discard the water in the pan.
Dry the pan well and heat on high. Add the TBS of cooking oil and swirl to coat. Add the garlic and fry 15-30 seconds until just turning golden. Add the steak strips in a single layer and fry for about 30 seconds on each side.
Add the stir fry sauce and stir to combine. Simmer until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon (about 30 seconds). Add the cooked broccoli back in the pan and toss to coat well. Serve over rice.
Approximate cost/serving: You can buy your beef in bulk, or get thinly sliced flank steak at your local grocery store that’s about to expire. It’s often less than half the price it would originally be sold for. I grew my own broccoli, but it’s still a pretty cheap vegetable. Making this for the cooking class only cost $4, so just $1 a serving. Pretty good way to stretch your steak!
Gluten Free: Use tamari instead of soy sauce. Make sure to get a gluten free oyster sauce, Shauna (Gluten Free Girl) recommends Dragonfly brand.