Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Basic Directions for a Stir-fry

There's no right way or wrong way to do this: and I'm sure
that all cooks will have slightly different methods and ways
of doing a stir-fry. I can only tell you how I do it... but
please feel free to improvise and change things.

I don't recommend trying to make a stir-fry for more than
four people on a typical home kitchen gas or electric stove.
You'd need to use two woks, and I can't picture doing two
stir-fries at once (way too confusing). It would be better,
if you need to feed more than four people, to cook several
other non-stir-fry dishes.

Your stove needs to get good and hot in order for you to
make a decent stir-fry. It the stove won't get really hot,
you will not be able to achieve the same results, but you
can probably simmer-fry and come out with a passable dinner.

There is only one rule: Do *not* use a non-stick pan. You
need high heat for a stir-fry and non-stick pans can release
toxic gas if used over a high heat. I thought this was just
a rumor until I investigated and found that duPont, the
maker of Teflon, has a warning to this effect on its
website. OK, that's authoritative enough for me.

Equipment: knife, cutting board, wok or frying pan that
cooks well, cover for the pan, wok tools (ladle and spatula)
or similar. Two wooden spoons can be used instead of the
wok tools; or a wooden spoon and wooden paddle. You can use
whatever will work to turn and toss things.

The basic idea is to have everything ready before you start
to cook. You can do all the preparation far ahead of time,
if you prefer, then refrigerate the ingredients until you
are ready to cook them.

Get out: oil (not olive oil, it won't cook well at high
temperatures), tamari (a superior form of soy sauce; you can
substitute regular soy sauce if you wish, but the tamari
really is very much better in my opinion), rice wine or dry
sherry. Please don't buy 'cooking sherry' in the grocery
store: it's full of preservatives and sodium. I buy the
cheapest dry sherry I can find, generally Gallo. (See
Variation #1, below.)

Get out your 'wok tools' (or similar) and your wok or frying
pan.

Basics: Cut and peel a piece of fresh gingerroot somewhat
larger than a quarter. Put the flat side of a cleaver or
large knife blade on the ginger and thump it with your fist.
This crushes the ginger. Get out a couple of cloves of
garlic: peel them (using the same method you just used to
crush the ginger: thump them, and the peel falls right
off). Now crush the garlic: put it under the cleaver blade
or knife blade, and thump it with your fist. Now both
ginger and garlic are crushed. (Skip either if you detest
it. But it won't be the same.....) (See Variation #2,
below.)

Cornstarch: put about a tablespoon of cornstarch in a cup.
Add cold water and stir until it's all liquid. (See
Variation #3, below.)

Let's cut the meat now - this can be chicken (we use
boneless, skinless chicken breast bought on sale), beef
(round is especially good for stir-fries), pork (I just cut
up a pork chop or two), or shrimp. To prepare the shrimp,
clean, shell, and butterfly it. (I think that's how I did
shrimp, but cannot remember for sure. We cannot get good
fresh seafood where we live now, so we don't buy shrimp
anymore.)

To prepare the other meats: you want to cut them in very
thin strips - this is so that they will cook fast. They
should be short enough thin strips to be bite size. Chicken
and the other meats can be cut into the desired very thin
strips much more easily if they are partly frozen - if
necessary, put them in the freezer for a little while first.
Or if frozen already, you can hopefully catch them just when
they're not fully defrosted. Cut the meat across the grain.
Put the thin strips of meat in a small dish.

I use around a quarter of a pound of meat for two people;
sometimes a bit more. This is plenty. You're serving the
stir-fry over rice or noodles, and it has lots of good
veggies - it doesn't need a lot of meat. A small quantity
of meat adds good flavor but meat is not necessary at all.
All-veggie stir-fries are excellent too, or you can use tofu
instead of meat. Tempeh can also be substituted for meat.

Now get out whatever veggies you want to use - for me, this
always includes an onion (skip the onion if you detest
them). Wash and peel (if necessary) all the veggies.

Cut up all the veggies into bite-size pieces. Put each
separate veggie in a little dish or in a separate little
pile on a large tray. I use a tray because it's a nuisance
to have a lot of little dishes to wash, dry, and put away.
If you are adding tofu, cut it up into cubes now, and put it
on the tray (or in a little dish).

Admire everything. :) Sit down and have a cup of tea or a
glass of wine (or whatever you enjoy as a pre-dinner drink).
Almost all the work is over now.

Now you are ready to cook the stir-fry.

Put the wok (or frying pan) on the stove and heat it over
high heat. When the wok is hot, drizzle in some oil.
Drizzle it all around the top edge of the pan, so it will
run down and oil the entire pan.

Now drop in your crushed gingerroot and crushed garlic. Toss
them about for a minute or two. Then drop in your meat.
Toss the meat (just pick up, turn over, toss down). Keep
doing this (over high heat). Add more oil if it starts to
stick, or lower the flame a little. But if you are steadily
tossing it, it probably won't stick.

The meat does not take long to cook - maybe 2 or 3 minutes
if you have cut it nice and thin. Cut into a piece and
taste a piece. If it's adequately cooked, scoop out all the
meat (or pick up the wok and dump it out) into a clean dish
(not the dish that the raw meat was in, although I'm sure
you wouldn't do that anyway....). Set it aside. If the
ginger and garlic come out with the meat, I put them back in
the pan.

Why cook the meat separately first? You want it to be
cooked enough, and not raw, but you don't want it
overcooked. If you overcook meat at high temperatures, it
will become tough, and if you put the meat in with the
veggies, it will be overcooked by the time the veggies are
ready. If you cut the meat thinly and cook it just a few
minutes, it's *very* tender - even beef round, which tends
to otherwise be tough.

Now you are ready to add the vegetables. Add the hardest
ones first (these will be the ones that take longest to
cook). Toss-and-turn steadily. I put the onions in first,
then I add all the other veggies, in order of hardness, from the hardest working down to the softest: beans sprouts, snow peas, and green leafy vegetables are the last to go in. Keep on stirring, tossing, and turning the vegetables until they are just about ready to eat: their colors will intensify, and they should be still crisp, but not raw. Then you'll simmer them just a few minutes to finish cooking.

Now drizzle in (or measure and add) the tamari and dry
sherry. I use my wok ladle to measure them roughly. I use
about two parts of sherry to one part of tamari. Add the tofu cubes now if you are using tofu. Put the meat back in at this point.

Lower the flame, and watch until it settles down to a gentle
simmer. Then cover the pot and let it simmer gently for a
minute or two.

The keywords for the veggies are 'crisp tender'. They don't
want to be overcooked; not mushy and not even really soft. I
want them to have some crunch, some bite. If they were
pasta, you could say 'al dente'. (But this is *your*
stir-fry, cook them to your own preferred texture.)

Now you are going to add the cornstarch and water mixture, to thicken the juices. Stir the cornstarch-water mixture, and while the stir-fry simmers gently, stir the cornstarch mixture into the center of the pan. Stir for a few minutes. Just cook long enough now for the cornstarch to turn translucent and to taste 'cooked' - taste something to see. :)

Remove the garlic clove and piece of gingerroot if you can
find them, and - if not - warn people that they are there
somewhere.

Serve over rice or any kind of Asian noodles.

Variation #1 - Instead of using tamari and sherry, you can
pre-mix a stir-fry sauce. This is a nice way to do it also,
and there are various recipes for stir-fry sauces.

Variation #2 - Sometimes instead of using the smashed piece
of gingerroot and smashed garlic clove, I chop them both and
use them that way. Then they are not removed, obviously. It
just depends on which way I feel like doing it. Both are
good.

Variation #3 - Thickening the juices with the cornstarch is optional - there's no *need* to do this. Some people prefer it without the thickener, my husband for one. So we usually do not use cornstarch.

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