Saturday, September 26, 2009

Anatomy of a stir fry

There's a reason there are so many stir fries on this blog—well, several reasons. Stir fries are generally fast, not too difficult, can be infinitely tweaked so that each one has an original look and flavour combination, you can make just exactly as much as you want and no more which is a real bonus when you're cooking for one, they taste great, they're nutritious, and they're usually very pretty, taking full advantage of the natural beauty of the ingredients and sometimes—as with broccoli just very lightly stir fried—enticing them to bloom into even greater gorgeousness than in their raw state.

But I've never really posted about the method, even though it's not a no-brainer. It's easy to wreck a stir fry, and I've wrecked many in my time, so that you're left with a brownish, soggy, overcooked mess or, arguably worse, with chunks of unappetizing sweet potato so raw you can't stab them with a fork distributed throughout the finished dish like little bombs. Here are a few simple tips:

1. Prepare everything before you even get out your wok. Stir fries go fast, and if you think you'll have time to chop the green pepper while the garlic and ginger are frying, I'm here to tell you from experience that it doesn't work that way. If you need to pre-cook anything, like breaded tofu, have that done. Your sauces should be mixed and right at hand, and any toppings or accessories should be ready. Stir fries need to be served immediately and hot, so, again, it's a good idea to have the table set and your workspace tidied before you cook.

2. Chop your vegetables with a mind to how long they'll be cooking for, which is sometimes mere seconds. Keep the pieces small and thin with lots of surface area unless you're going for raw-ish crunchiness in the case of something naturally tender like, for example, zucchini. You may want to parboil vegetables like carrots or sweet potatoes, or put them in the microwave for a few seconds to give them a head start.

3. Heat the wok before you add any oil, and heat the oil before you add any stir fry ingredients. (This, by the way, is also the secret to successful cooking on cast iron.) When the vegetables hit the oil, their surfaces should sear slightly, sealing in the vegetable juices and quick-cooking the insides. What you don't want is to have them slowly sucking up oil while everything heats.

4. Once the oil is hot—on medium high heat—add the aromatics like onion, garlic, and ginger. Swirl them around for a few seconds until they're heated and beginning to cook, then add longer-cooking vegetables like carrots. Things should sizzle as you toss them in, not just sit there. Stir frying should be a noisy, steamy, fast process. It's better to cook individual batches of ingredients or individual stir fry servings than to have your vegetables steam instead of fry, and turn into stew.

5. Keep adding ingredients one at a time, energetically tossing everything with a spatula to keep it moving. There's an art to timing the additions that only comes with practice (in my case, a lot of practice, mostly because I was foolishly resistant for a long time to proper advance preparation). If the bottom of the wok begins to scorch, deglaze it with a tablespoon of water, broth, or wine. Some vegetables, like tender bok choy, snow peas, or bean sprouts, you won't add at all during this initial fry stage.

6. The vegetables should still be crisp when you add the cooking sauce, since they'll cook some more as the sauce is heating. I tend to like my stir fries a little soupy, so I try to have my cooking sauce at room temperature or a little warmer before I add it because, again, you don't want to boil the vegetables but keep them still crisp and just as it were embraced by the sauce. The cooking sauce will contain things like water or vegetable broth, soy sauce, sherry or mirin, rice vinegar, lemon juice, a little Sriracha or cayenne. Watch the salt content of the sauce; it should taste delicious by itself and not over-salty. When I add the sauce is usually when I also add the snow peas and fresh tofu (if I'm using that; in the stir fry shown here I used pre-soaked and marinated Soy Curls and browned them with the aromatics).

7. When the sauce is steaming hot and the vegetables are just on the brink of perfection, add a little cornstarch mixed with a little water and keep flipping everything until the sauce thickens and turns translucent. If everything is at the right temperature, this should take maybe 30 seconds.

8. Now sprinkle on your toppings and serve! The third little bowl in my sauces picture is "vegetarian nuoc mam" from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but it could be any strong-tasting sauce. This I would add to my individual stir fry bowl as a condiment, or have on my table for my guests to do the same according to their own tastes.

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