In the interests of leading a full and meaningful life, I am keen to commit as little time as possible cutting vegetables into tiny cubes. This tedious activity is occasionally necessary to make a “hidden vegetable” dish of some kind. Motivated by concern and guilt that, in the last 48 hours, a child (or children) you are responsible for may only have eaten yoghurt and crackers, you ensure vegetables enter the digestive tract by cutting them into such small pieces they go unnoticed. Helpfully, to achieve the same without all that chopping, and in the case of celery, the equally fussy “de-stringing” bit, you can buy “Soffrito mix” from Waitrose (fresh or frozen) or frozen “Vegetable base mix” from Morrison’s, Asda, or Sainsbury’s which contain pre-cubed onion, carrot, and celery. These are great for making all kinds of pasta sauces or soups, saving prep time and sanity.
I have also used these mixes as a substitute for the celery in Sichuanese ‘Send-the-rice-down’ chopped celery with minced beef. You will find the original recipe in Fuchsia Dunlop’s brilliant cookbook Every Grain of Rice, and she credits this version to Chef Zhang Xiaozhong. The onion and carrot make it slightly sweeter, but the overall spirit is there – nice tasty bits mixed with rice. Pork and beef mince work equally well, and for a vegetarian and vegan option, you need a mince substitute that you can fry, such as Vivera veggie mince, rather than the ‘boil in a sauce’ kind.
The recipe requires Sichuan chilli bean paste. Though I’m sure there are more authentic versions available, a jar of Lee Kum Kee “Chilli Bean Sauce” is relatively easy to find in supermarkets and very delicious. It has earned the nickname “Spicy yum sauce” in my house. It keeps for a long time, is suitable for vegans, and is a useful ingredient in lots of Sichuan recipes.
You’ll need some rice. A microwaveable rice pouch is useful on nights when you’re short on time or want one less thing to watch. You don’t even need a microwave, just empty the rice straight into the wok or frying pan during step 6, and cook through with the rest of the mix for 3-4 minutes at the end. Don’t worry if you find you’re somehow not ‘good’ at rice. A slightly boggy batch can be mixed in at the end, dry out a bit in the pan, and taste just fine.
The ingredients can be cooked and siphoned off to make a version for children, without the spicy sauce or too much salt. Save some of the vegetables once they have boiled, and some mince once fried, and either serve with the rice or mix with a bit of tomato sauce to create a makeshift bolognese, or whatever vegetable disguise works best in your house.
Sichuanese ‘Send the Rice Down’
Time: 30 minutes
250g of fresh or frozen soffrito or vegetable base mix (or your own combination of cubed celery, carrot, and onion)
3 tablespoons groundnut oil
250g minced beef, pork or fry-able vegan mince
1.5 tablespoons Sichuan chilli bean paste (e.g. Lee Kum Kee “Chilli Bean Sauce)
1.5 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
1 tsp Chinkiang vinegar, balsamic vinegar, or soy-sauce
1.5 tablespoons fermented black beans (optional)
- Start making the rice according to the pack instructions.
- Boil up a small pan of water, and cook the base vegetable mix for 4 minutes, then drain and set aside. (If your saucepan is already in use making the rice, just add the vegetables to the wok/frying pan instead with 1 tablespoon of the oil and fry for 5-6 minutes. Empty the vegetables into a bowl, and add the 2 tablespoons of oil into the wok/frying pan ready for step 3.)
- Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan on a high heat and fry the mince until brown and cooked through.
- Add the chilli bean paste and stir so that the oil starts to turn red (20-30 seconds).
- Add the ginger and stir in until you start to smell it (20 seconds).
- Add all the vegetables back into the wok/pan, along with the black beans if you are using them, and stir together until the vegetables are hot (3-4 minutes)
- Stir in the Chinkiang vinegar, balsamic vinegar, or soysauce and serve on or mixed in with the rice.