The irony of being a private chef is that the cooking I do for others is often the biggest thing that gets in the way of the cooking I do for myself.
It’s a well-known pitfall in the restaurant business: chefs are great at taking care of others and terrible at taking care of themselves. This is in part due to the grueling physical nature of the work, the hours spent in a kitchen, and (sometimes) the Bourdain-level use of certain substances to get through a night of service.
As someone who works primarily in other peoples’ homes, I only experience a small degree of that end of day raggedness. But still, the work does take its toll. And during the height of when I used chef-ing as a bridge job, when I came home after a day of lugging twenty pounds of groceries across twenty city blocks, my biceps could barely muster picking up the phone to order takeout, let alone lifting a skillet to prepare dinner.
At the end of these demanding days, on nights when I actually got home from a catering gig in time for a meal, I did what I always did: I ordered Pad Thai. It was a luxury and a relief that this carby comfort food could arrive on my doorstep in fifteen minutes, and I usually ate it horizontal on the couch using my chest as a tray.
Healthy hedonism? I think not.
Needless to say, the scene I’m describing is pre-Wellness Project, back when my life lacked a lot of balance, and my body was beginning to unravel even further thanks to the long days of cooking, and the troughs of refined rice noodles that followed. Breaking this takeout habit was, surprisingly to many, a big lifestyle barrier I had to conquer during my year of wellness.
At the time, one of the few people in my life who could relate to this struggle was Julia Turshen. We met back in my BGSK days, when she did a write-up for Epicurious about my first book. And in the years that followed, a deeper friendship was forged around weekday glasses of tequila and tales from the catering trenches—clients with strange steamed artichoke diets, that time I accidentally left the first course in my fridge back home, the 8-year-old who only ate $40/pound grass-fed fillet mignon, and the list goes on.
Julia’s odd food jobs always seemed ten times more glamorous than mine. But at the end of the day, no matter who she was cooking for, she was just as prone to the unglamorous side effects of catering all day to someone else’s needs. And as I discovered in her brilliant new cookbook, the antidote came in the same plastic container. Only it was filled with dry-sautéed green beans and ginger-pork dumplings in chile oil.
Small Victories is jam-packed with the type of cooking tips that, when strung together overtime, amount to a huge dose of kitchen confidence. Many are the simple things I often tell my students during cooking classes (put a wet paper towel under your cutting board so it won’t slide around, mash your garlic into a paste to add even more flavor to dressings), but often feel silly to call-out in the context of a post. I’m so glad Julia celebrates and shares these small victories front and center, including a personal favorite in this recipe: don’t be afraid of high heat.
The key to getting that beautiful blistered texture on these stir fry green beans (and any wok-fired dish, for that matter) is to get the pan smoking hot, and not “crowd” it by adding too much food at once. If you don’t have a wok, I also think it helps to use a heavy-bottomed cast iron skillet. You may not be able to flip those beans around like a Benihana ninja, but the pan will retain much more heat than something flimsy (more on the health-related small victory here).
I made this recipe as an indulgent weekday breakfast before Charlie left for a work trip, and adding the rice and egg allowed me to try out two other tips from the book:
>> To get the egg whites set without losing your yolk porn, simply flick a few drops of water into the pan and cover with a lid. I was a little wary of adding water to hot oil, but being immediately ready with the cover meant no unfortunate splatters singeing my arm hair. And that was a big improvement on my usual technique: spooning the hot oil over the top of the egg.
>> It’s best to cook long grain rice like pasta, meaning boiling it in plenty of water, and then draining it once tender. This was news to me (!!) and the technique meant no more unintentionally crunchy brown rice on the bottom of my pot.
I’ll also note a few health-related small victories of my own that I added to this recipe:
>> Whenever you’re cooking over high heat (see previous stir-fry related small victory), try to use coconut oil. It has a much higher burning point than olive oil, and is a lot better for you than generic vegetable oil. Plus, the flavor marries well with Asian dishes. Also, because the pork I used rendered a lot of fat, I didn’t need the full amount called for in the recipe.
>> The hottest part of the chile is in the ribs and seeds. The opposite of a small victory is when you accidentally touch your eyes (or, er, other sensitive areas of the body) after handling one. Here’s a little prep video to make that process easier and safer.
>> If you’re vegetarian, you can easily omit the pork or swap it for mushrooms, which will add a little umami (shitake bacon!).
I’ll try to be better going forward about sharing each small victory of my own. But in the meantime, go pick up Julia’s book so we can cook our way through it together! Any meal made at home is a small victory in and of itself worth celebrating.
From one healthy hedonist to another,
Chinese Stir Fry Green Beans with Pork, Ginger and Chiles
- 1/4 cup neutral oil (I used coconut!), such as canola, grapeseed or safflower
- 1 pound green beans, tipped, tailed and halved
- 4 ounces ground pork
- 2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
- 1 fresh red or green chile, such as jalapeno or serrano, or 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, stemmed, seeded and minced
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce (I used gluten-free tamari)
- 2 tablespoons chicken stock, white wine or water
- Kosher salt
- Cooked brown rice, for serving
In the largest skillet you have (at least 12 inches in diameter), over high heat warm 2 tablespoons of the oil. Let it get nice and hot (it will smile). Add the green beans and cook, stirring, until they're charred in spots and just tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer the beans to a bowl and set aside.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan (I used a little less), along with the pork, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pork loses its rawness and is on its way to being browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the ginger and chile and cook, stirring, until the pork is browned and a little bit crisp, about 5 minutes.
Return the string beans to the skillet and drizzle over the soy sauce (or tamari) and chicken stock. Cook, stirring, just until everything is nicely combined and the liquid is mostly evaporated, a couple of minutes. Season the beans to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately next to or on top of rice. (Add a fried egg if you like!).