Kitchn Love Letters

This Stir-Fried Salad Is the Cure for Late-Winter Cooking Doldrums

published Feb 26, 2020
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Credit: Meghan Splawn

It happens every year around this time: I start to tire of eating homey casseroles and stews. I need a punch of flavor, color, and texture — with minimal ingredients and minimal cook time, thank you. If you’re in the same boat (the same bowl?), this romaine salad with hot beef dressing is for you.

Stir-fried lettuce and beef might sound like a strange combo, but I want you to trust me on this. It’s not only delicious, but it’s the easiest remedy for cooking boredom. It will completely change how you think about salad. What might sound like a one-off food experiment is actually so transformative, I’ve been making it on repeat all February and I have no plans to stop in March, either.

I’m not the only Kitchn editor who loves this quirky recipe. Editor in Chief Faith Durand wrote about it a few years ago. And a while back, when I was looking for something innovative to do with some lettuce, features director Ariel Knutson pointed me toward the dish. While I’ve made it a handful of times before, it feels like I’ve just rediscovered the recipe as a way to revive my weary winter cooking. This salad brings a big punch of flavor and texture and it has never been more satisfying or simple than it is right now.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

“Lettuce” Talk About Hot Beef Dressing

The star of this magical recipe is really the hot beef dressing. Landing somewhere between a stir-fry and a sauce, the hot beef part can be hard to categorize. You start with hot oil, ground beef, fresh garlic, and grated ginger. (All that garlic and ginger are ideal for any late-winter sniffles, by the way.) The beef gets browned and crisped, and perfumed with the aromatics, and then you quickly add more flavor in the form of soy sauce, black vinegar, and sesame oil. (Black vinegar is a vinegar aged in barrels; don’t stress if you can’t source it or don’t want to keep it on hand: Balsamic vinegar works just as well here.) Next, the sauce is thickened with a little water and cornstarch, turning into the silkiest, most flavorful sauce ever. Hands-on cooking time is about 10 minutes total.

You could swiftly toss this sauce with noodles and it would be a huge weeknight win but something wondrous happens when you add torn romaine into it instead. The crisp lettuce barely gets cooked, staying crisp in parts and getting wilted in others. Digging into what looks like just lettuce and beef reveals something so much more complex. There’s a contrast between the robust beef flavor and the sweetness and tang from the soy and vinegar. And, of course, the ginger and garlic flavors punch up every creamy, crunchy bite.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

You can eat this salad warm or let it cool to room temperature — I often eat it the next day for lunch. Lately I’ve taken to adding just a small spoonful of garlic chile crunch just before serving. Try it at least once exactly as written before you add noodles or extra spice — you’ll be surprised by how flavorful and filling it is with just a handful of ingredients.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.