Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stir Crazy

Back in college, I was the only one out of my six roommates that had much of an interest in cooking. I made dinner for myself every night and tried to share with my roomies whenever possible, although the favor was seldom returned. I was the only adventurous eater and true carnivore in the house, so there were few meals that fit into all of our palates (especially mine). On the few occasions that the tables were turned, the meals almost always took the form of a stir-fry. Now, I don't have anything against the stir-fry. As a matter of fact, I made quite a few of them myself during my college days--they're a great way to stretch meat and veggies over a few weeks. My problem was always the lack of respect for the stir-fry. Contrary to what many think, there is more to this type of cooking than tossing everything into a pan and drowning it in soy sauce, which is what my roommates would usually do.

Stir-frying is a science just like any other cooking method. Certain elements must be present and applied in the appropriate order to maintain the structure, texture and flavor of the dish. Fortunately for all of us, cooking generally feels less like schoolwork and a lot more like recess--which is probably for the best, since I hated science. The basic principles of stir-frying are simple, but important. To start, a wok is useful but not at all necessary. Any wide pan will do, so long as it can get screaming hot. Secondly, the ingredients cannot just be tossed in willy-nilly. Any meat products should be sautéed first (I like to marinate them and then sauté) and removed when they're nearly done. That way, the pan won't overcrowd and drop in temperature, so the remaining ingredients will have plenty of room to brown. Once the meat has been removed, we add the rest of the ingredients one by one, starting with the most robust and working our way down to the most tender. The order is important so that everything cooks perfectly relative to it's own texture--if you just dumped everything in all at once, you'd have mushy overcooked mushrooms, while heartier ingredients like bell peppers and onions were practically raw.

Because this type of dish cooks rather quickly, its important to make sure you have everything chopped and handy before starting to cook. I always start out with my aromatics (garlic, ginger, onions, etc...) and work my way around to what cooks the fastest. It's also important not to drown your stir-fry in liquid. After all, you are looking to fry, not boil, so keep liquids down to just a few tablespoons. It's also important to balance flavors by adding some sweet, salty, and sour ingredients. We all love soy sauce, but a good stir-fry is full of complex flavors--which is why what comes from your favorite take-out place seems so hard to replicate. Just keep a few things like oyster sauce, shao hsing wine, and sesame oil in your pantry and you'll have no problem stir-frying for yourself (they're also really cheap ingredients, even in large quantities).

That's about it as far as stir-fry rules are concerned. It's a really easy and quick style of cooking, so long as you remember the three easy rules: super hot pan, cook everything according to texture, and don't add too much liquid. And voila, cheap, healthier take-out, right out of your own kitchen.

Beef and Mushroom Stir-Fry with Red Peppers

2 cups shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 cup oyster mushrooms
1 red bell pepper, julienned
3 scallions, cut into thirds
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 Tbsp ginger, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp shao hsing wine (sherry would work here as well)
1 Tbsp oyster sauce
1 Tbsp malt vinegar
1 tsp kecap manis
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp vegetable oil
3 cups cooked mei fun noodles (or your favorite noodles)
Lemon wedges

Beef Marinade
1 1/2 cups beef, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp shao hsing wine
1 Tbsp kecap manis
1Tbsp oyster sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp ginger, minced
1 Tbsp malt vinegar

1. Combine beef with all of the marinade ingredients and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

2. Heat a wok or sauté pan on high until almost smoking. Add beef, making sure to shake off any extra marinade. When the beef is almost cooked through but still a bit pink in the center, remove it from the pan and set aside.

3. Add vegetable oil to the same pan and sauté the ginger, garlic and scallions until they've just started to brown. Add the shao hsing wine to deglaze the pan, followed by the red peppers, and after two minutes, the mushrooms. Cook for another two minutes, then add the remaining liquid ingredients stirring to combine, and cook until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes.

4. Add the meat back to the pan along with the cooked noodles and stir to combine. Squeeze a lemon wedge over the mixture and serve. Enjoy!


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