How to cook a stand out stir fry

I find that stir-fries are a great staple in my weekly menus – they are easy to prepare, and are a great way to use up bits of excess produce.   I will often prep my ingredients ahead of time and refrigerate them to speed things up in the evening. For these dishes to stand out in my opinion, you need two really important things working in your favor. One is proper cooking technique, and the other is a great sauce. If you get those two things right, you can create extraordinary stir-fries with very ordinary ingredients. Honestly, I have had dinner guests rave about my stir-fries, proclaiming them to be the best they’ve ever had. Let me clue you in on how this came about.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to take a cooking class at Sur La Table with Hugh Carpenter.   Hugh has authored a number of cookbooks, one of which is titled Wok Fast (now out of print). wok fastI use this book just about every week, but I don’t think I’ve ever made one of his entre recipes. So why then does this book get opened almost every week? It is really all about the sauces and marinades. Once you master his cooking techniques and stock your pantry as he describes in the opening pages of the book, he offers up 26 recipes for sauces and marinades that will rock your stir-fry world. In fact I have made 24 of the 26 recipes (many on a repeat basis) over the years.

For a great entre, all you need in terms of ingredients are a sauce, a protein, and 3-4 fresh vegetables. For my sauce selection, I think about sweet versus savory, and which flavor profile will best compliment my other ingredients. For this yummy production, I used Carpenter’s Really Risque sauce which combines Chinese rice wine and tomato sauce with common Chinese condiments (oyster and hoisin sauces), sesame oil, pepper and cornstarch. I usually combine my sauce ingredients in a bowl or measuring cup in advance, but always wait to add the cornstarch until the last minute. By the way, I always have a good supply of common Asian sauce ingredients on hand. Here in LA, all of these ingredients can be found at virtually any grocery store with one exception. shao xingChinese rice wine, also known as shao xing is the one ingredient that is hard to come by. The only local source is a large Asian grocery chain in the LA area called 99 Ranch Market. Their closest store is a half hour away with good traffic, and language can be an issue when wandering the aisles in search of an item. When I go there, I splurge and buy two bottles to postpone my next trip. Shao Xing typically sells for less than $2 per bottle.  If you can’t find Chinese rice wine, you can substitute a dry cooking sherry.

Carpenter recommends using no more than three veggies, but I typically use onion with three other veggies. I think of the onions as being an essential freebie. The veggies should be cut in consistently sized pieces for quick, even cooking and you also should consider quick cooking versus harder, longer cooking veggies when doing your prep work. In practice it means that you may need to give some of your vegetables (think carrots versus zucchini) a head start. I often use shrimp as my protein because I love shrimp, and it is relatively inexpensive (as low as $5.99 per pound) at my local grocery store. I will use other meats from time to time.

Note that prep work is critical since when stir frying over high heat you don’t have time to go search for a missing ingredient.   When you are ready to cook, you need to be ready to quickly do three stovetop steps. Remember that you really need to stay by the stove with your implements in hand to toss constantly – I use a couple of wooden spatulas. First, partially cook your meat and then remove it from the pan so that you can begin to cook the vegetables. Once they’re almost done, your third step is to put the meat back in the pan to finish cooking and add your sauce. The sauce will thicken quickly due to the cornstarch. Have your rice and any sides ready and waiting to serve. Qǐng màn yòng which translated means enjoy your meal!

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