Shanghai-style nian gao with soy-braised short ribs and broccoli

I dunno. I totally made this up. A few weeks ago Scott and I ate at Castagna, in the more casual cafe (we save the restaurant for fancy occasions). Scott had the cassoulet (of course) and I had their pasta dish de la saison: maltagliati with braised short ribs and turnip greens. It came sauced in butter thickened with Parm Redge. It was fucking insane, and a perfect toe-curl, and I knew I had to recreate it with Asian flavors. It was such a logical translation – the bitter greens with the sultry beef and chewy, stubby noodles.

A few months ago, Claudia (the sylph behind cook eat FRET) tried some nian gao in Cleveland right about the time I first saw them at Fubonn. I knew then that I needed to try them, but wasn’t really feeling the arbitrary purchase at the time. It took me this long to get around to actually picking some up to experiment.

I also picked up a couple pounds of rough-cut flanken-style beef ribs (labeled “back ribs” – I think these were the castoffs from cutting galbi), which were comprised primarily of sinew, tallow and bone. The meat that remained was sufficiently laced with connective tissue and marbling that a 4-hour braise melted it to goulash. I browned the ribs in a Dutch oven with a knob of young ginger and half a head of garlic, a couple bay leaves and some peppercorns, then covered it in soy sauce (laochou that I thinned with some water), Chinese black vinegar, mirin and a spoonful of veal demiglace. When it came to a simmer, I plunked it into a 250-degree oven and went about my day.

I actually shopped for this dish a week ago, and it took me this long to muster the motivation (and time) necessary to properly execute a braise. During this time span, I used up almost all of the Shanghai pak choi (qingcai ). I buy these greens by the bagful, and usually never use up the whole thing until they’re almost compost. My garden greens got pwned by snow, and I didn’t want to make another trip to the store just for greens, so I gave a “meh” and used broccoli.

The nian gao cooked up in about a minute, then I tossed them with the beef, broccoli, and a ladleful of the braising liquid to coat. At the last minute, I decided it needed a shred of omelet on top. I cooked the egg with a little sugar and chile flake, and it lightened up the dish nicely.

My mental picture of nian gao as the Asian answer to bite-sized maltagliati (translates to “badly cut”) proved eerily accurate, and this odd dish worked, rendering this disjointed, disorganized conversation about it a propos. I’ll try this again, with an easier cut of meat (maybe pork – we bought a quarter pig yesterday) and the shred of greens for which the nian gao’s density yearns.