Last Saturday at the farmer’s market I rounded corner into the back stalls to see a beautiful sight: we’ve apparently hit peak green bean, and one particular vendors had a table literally overflowing with baskets of that vegetable I love so well. As I got closer, I realized that it was even better than I’d first thought: not only was there a gigantic heaping mound of green beans, but the cardboard sign in front said “1 for $3, 3 for $5.”
As if there were any question at all at that point.
Because both my husband and I really enjoy green beans, I’ve already cooked a lot of them this summer. As a simple side, with bacon in a skillet, in soups, slow-simmered with lots of olive oil and tomato, you got it. But I hadn’t made Chinese-American green beans.
To be fair, that’s partly because it feels traitorous. Moy’s Chinese Restaurant is a little place near Ohio State’s campus that’s been there since the early 90s, and while I usually brown-bag it to work, the days when I don’t have any leftovers to bring are a special treat because I can go and be greeted by Mrs. Moy: “It’s so good to see you! It’s been so long since you’ve been in!” While I have a rotation of favorites, I’d say that at least 50% of the time I order Szechuan Strings Beans with Tofu. It’s that good. To try to recreate it would be almost sinful.
But still, this hill of beans I’d just purchased… Well. I already knew I wasn’t going to try to recreate Mr. Moy’s dish, with its deepfried tofu planks — I’m not averse to deep-frying when necessary, but it’s still in the 80s here. But I thought, perhaps, with my preferred vegetarian protein I could create an homage, and maybe spice it up a little further than their preferences would allow.
So instead of deep-fried tofu, slices of pan-fried seitan. And in addition to the salted black beans that give Moy’s sauce its rich, funky flavor, a dash of chili-garlic paste and some Szechuan peppercorns for some zing. And oh, those green beans: crisp-tender, salty and oily, redolent of garlic and soy sauce. And oh, that seitan: just the right chew, sucking up all the flavor into its fried-crisp crust, providing a beautiful counterpoint to the bright-green vegetables.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll keep eating Moy’s string beans for years to come. But for those occasions when I have a hankering at home (or I have an excess of green beans to handle!), this recipe is a more than satisfying homage.
Green beans and seitan in black bean sauce
If you already have seitan made and ready, this is a super-fast weeknight meal, but the depth of flavor from the salted black beans makes it feel like a much more involved dish than it really is. It’s salty and spicy and satisfying, and I think I’ll be making it a lot.
Inspired by the Szechuan String Beans at Moy’s Chinese Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, and with some reference help from Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Black Bean Chicken” and “Sichuanese ‘Dry-Fried’ Green Beans (Vegetarian Version)” in Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking.
3/4 lb green beans, trimmed and snapped in half
8 oz seitan (1/4 batch of Basic seitan), sliced into quarter-inch thick bitesize planks
1/4 c vegetable oil (approximately)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp salted black beans
1/2 tsp whole Szechuan peppercorns (opt.)
1 Tbsp chili-garlic paste
1/2 c vegetable or chicken stock
1 1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp cornstarch
Rice, to serve
Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil and blanch green beans until they are tender but not limp, about five minutes. Drain and reserve.
In a wide skillet, heat the vegetable oil on medium-high until it shimmers and a piece of seitan sizzles furiously when dipped in. (Seitan is notorious for sticking, so you want more than a minimal thin slick of oil; it doesn’t need to be very deep, but it should be plenty to cover. I used about a quarter-cup, but you might need more if you use a very wide skillet.) Fry the seitan slices for about 1 minute, until they’re nicely browned, then flip and fry the other side for another minute. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels.
Stir together the stock, soy sauce, and cornstarch so you’ll have it ready; the rest goes very quickly.
Pour off all but 1 Tbsp of the oil, discarding the rest. Heat the oil again and fry the black beans, garlic, and Szechuan peppercorns (if you are using them) until fragrant. Add the chili-garlic paste and fry briefly, just enough to distribute it.
Add the seitan and green beans to the pan, along with the stock mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce comes to a bowl and thickens somewhat. Serve immediately over rice, and enjoy!
Szechuan peppercorns can be a little tricky to find, but I think they’re worth it: they have a mild citrus flavor, which is pleasant, as well as tongue-numbing effect that’s really fun. That said, you can leave them out without harming this dish.
The dish that inspired this one comes from a Cantonese restaurant, and though they mark it as spicy, I can’t agree. (Mrs. Moy and I differ a lot in our spice tolerance.) If you’d like a non-spicy version, feel free to reduce or omit the chili-garlic paste. But the same token, you can up the ante if you like.
Unlike many Chinese-American dishes, there’s no real stirfrying here, so doubling the recipe should work just fine. You may need to fry the seitan in batches, but the rest of the method can go unchanged.
Yes, of course you can use chicken or another meat, but you should really try the seitan. Mmm, seitan.