This week we welcome the Chinese Year of the Snake with an installment in our periodic series on basic cooking technique…
If you’ve ever wanted to explore the basics of Chinese cooking, stir-frying is a perfect place to start. It’s a quick and simple process. Both fun and exhilarating. Ingredients are casually tossed around in a hot pan, over a dancing flame, allowing them to brown quickly at high heat, while preserving their vibrant color and crunch. The aroma alone will have you hooked. Plus you’ll have a tasty dinner on the table in a flash, without much effort, something you’re likely to appreciate after a long day. Simply chop up a favorite vegetable or two, grab a few staples from the pantry, and you’re on your way.
For a Chinese-inspired mix keep a few essentials on hand: stock (packaged, on the pantry shelf or frozen), rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil (for flavor), peanut or canola oil (for cooking), ginger root and garlic. Don’t underestimate stir-frying with other flavors too—Indian, Italian, Mexican—just vary the spices and herbs accordingly. A flat-bottomed wok, stir-fry pan or large skillet is the best vessel for the job. You want one wide enough to offer generous surface area, and deep enough that veggies don’t end up cascading onto the floor. For stirring, I prefer a flat, square-tipped wooden spoon that acts like a shovel, lifting and flipping with ease.
There aren’t many techniques more forgiving, but attention to a few details will guarantee success. Contact with a hot pan leads to caramelized flavor, so cut broccoli florets, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, and such, in half to maximize their flat surface area. Choose an oil with a high smoke point, like canola, peanut or grape seed (not olive this time), and heat the oil on medium-high until it’s ripply hot. When you toss in the veggies they’ll cool the pan down slightly, so crank the burner up a notch, to high. Stir-fry cooking (and overcooking) happens at warp speed and a watchful eye averts disaster. The truth though, is that the vegetable that ends up slightly charred is actually loaded with flavor, so don’t despair. In fact, resist the urge to stir now and then and let ingredients linger against the hot surface.
You can stir-fry nearly any vegetable, but the best candidates are those that cook quickly, and/or taste great with a crunch—broccoli, brussel sprouts, peppers, carrots, celery, greens, cabbage, onions and mushrooms to name a few. Potatoes, not so much. Vary colors to add interest for the eye and aromatics like onion and scallions for flavor. To finish, a sprinkling of nuts, frozen peas, edamame or toasted sesame seeds adds protein and even more crunch. All you need for serving is a bed of rice or long noodles, or more simply, a bowl, and you’re ready to usher in the Year of the Snake.
Recipes for the week:
And if you’re looking for something other than Chinese, try these favorites from the archives:
Green Salad with Roasted Squash (just substitute acorn squash for the pumpkin)
Creamy Sautéed Mushrooms (perfect over eggs or toast)
Spiced Carrots (Indian has never been easier)
Confetti Slaw (a colorful bowl of crunch)