Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Good peasant food: Dr Coyote's stir-fry tips

Dr Coyote's stir-fry tips:

It's not supposed to be complicated--it's supposed to be simple. My German grandmother called the "whatever's left when the ice melted" soup/stew/casserole Oyupodweeda (German? Yiddish? no idea), and stir-fry is the East Asian equivalent. I'll save for another post the version that uses a sauce and freshly-cooked rice; this one is for stir-fry and added, pre-cooked "fried" rice. Good way to use up leftovers.


A decent and properly-seasoned wok is hugely useful: if you buy one, you'll never need a frying pan again, for anything from parboiling, to toasting, to stir-fry, to deep-fry. It's worth the investment. Failing that, a decent and well-seasoned frying pan. Either way, you want a tight lid: helps contain the spattering oil (easing clean-up) and also helps warm things through when the cooking portion is done.

Some combination of high-temperature oil (canola is the best combination of efficacy and low-calorie; failing that, peanut oil is good but fatty; olive oil scorches at too low a temperature) and flavoring oil: I like toasted sesame oil.

Wooden spoon: I'm old-school; would rather use a non-metallic or petroleum-based cooking utensil and I don't really give a shit about the germs.

A good-quality, properly sharpened cook's knife. You want something between 8 and 10 inches, with an offset blade to protect your knuckles. If you don't know how to properly sharpen and maintain a knife, get somebody to show you--it's probably the single most important skill in competent cooking.


You're going to cook things in reverse order of cooking time; e.g., the less time an item is going to take to cook, the later you introduce it to the pan. You want everything to be cooked through--but not overcooked--at the same time, which is right when you take it off the flame for serving. The only way to get all these ingredients' different cooking times coordinated is to introduce them in this reverse order.


Chop all your ingredients in roughly the same bite-sized pieces, no more than 1" on a side (smaller, as long as all are consistent, is OK). If you're cooking any kind of protein (tofu, seitan, any kind of meat), you're going to cook that first--basically searing it in the oil to hold in the juices--and then remove from the wok, while reserving the oil that's been flavored by that cooking. Hard (root) vegetables--potato, squash, onion, broccoli, carrot--and medium-hard vegetables--especially peppers, bok choi, cabbage--should be chopped to the same size but will be introduced in the reverse order.


Heat the oil in the wok. Use mostly vegetable (canola)--2 to 3 tablespoons if you're serving 4 people--with a splash of the flavoring--1/2 to 1 tablespoon. Get it hot, so that water flicked from the fingers will sizzle, but not so hot it's smoking: if it's smoking, it's starting to burn, and that scorch will come through in the flavor.

Sear and lightly cook whatever is the protein. No need to cook it through: you're flavoring, adding a nicely chewy texture, and locking in the moisture. Should take no more than 3 or 4 minutes. Toss regularly while cooking: this prevents sticking and allows all pieces to cook evenly. Remove from the wok and drain on a folded paper towel: this dries and de-greases the protein.

Now start cooking the veggies in the hot, protein-flavored oil. Start with the hardest (onions and broccoli), move to the next hardest (say, squash or potato), and finally to the least hard (peppers, bok choi, cabbage, etc). Continue tossing and stirring so all pieces cook evenly. Onions/broccoli will take 5-6 minutes, squash/potato 3-5, peppers/etc 1-3. Time the reverse order accordingly.


Note: you want to season once the veggies are starting to cook, as they will be softened and made more porous, thereby absorbing more of the seasoning. I like some combination of garlic, ginger, chili (or red pepper). Err on the side of more garlic than you think necessary. You'll want a splash of soy or tamari, but be aware of two things: (1) the soy is mostly water, so introducing too early will cause it to sizzle and spatter--better to wait until the veggies are closer to cooked, and therefore more absorbent; (2) soy is a very pervasive flavor, and (especially when cooked down), very salty. So when you add the soy, think in terms of a "splash"--not a larger amount.

Return the seared protein to the wok and lightly toss so that it re-warms. Note: do this only when you're 90% done cooking the veggies: adding the lukewarm protein will bring down the overall temperature and slow the cooking of the veggies--so make sure they're mostly done first.

If you're using, as suggested, pre-cooked rice (brown rice works beautifully here), add the rice here. If it's at all sticky, break up the clumps with your fingers: you want the flavored oil to be able to get at each separate grain. Stir lightly so that veggies, oil, protein, and rice are relatively evenly distributed. I like to add the splash of soy now, as that way it can get to all the components evenly.


The make-or-break in a pleasant stir-fry is not ingredients, or even seasoning, but texture: stir-fry is about actually tasting the ingredients themselves, not the seasonings or the char of the fry. Therefore, undercook, as this will preserve both the contrasting flavors and the contrasting textures of the hard/medium/soft veggies and chewy protein. As an added fillip of texture, I like something crunchy for a garnish: lots of Thai, Vietnamese, and South China Sea cooking uses grated peanuts, but I prefer grated (or food-processed) roasted/toasted almonds.


Serve in bowls (it is after all a one-pot meal). A really crisp white wine or a good Asian beer go very well.


The yin/yang balance of this meal is such that you'll probably develop a sweet tooth after finishing. Hence, it's nice to have on hand either (a) some chilled melon--maybe in a sweet sauce? or (b) some good-quality plain yogurt with a little bit of sweetened syrup. This will redress the yin/yang balance very well.

Good peasant food.

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