Reading a previous AWCE post about Sheila Chang’s sweet and sour chicken gave me a hankering to whip up a batch of her scrumptious chicken nuggets with their unusual, non-Chinese French bread crumb coating. There was a description buried at the end of the piece that triggered sentimental memories for me: a stir-fry Mrs.Chang made had included “trimmed mung bean sprouts (because they look better that way, she says), mushrooms, carrots, spicy red pepper and fried tofu (heart-achingly perfect, cut in matchsticks and seasoned only with salt and pepper).”
Heart-achingly perfect: I’d never ever thought of describing the preparation of stir-fry ingredients that way. But I suddenly realized this is the code of Chinese home cooks of a certain generation.
When I was a child, one of my favorite pastimes was watching Mama and Baba prepare our evening meals. Every vegetable was lovingly cut, with care and precise uniformity. I have witnessed many older home cooks perform the preparation of a stir-fry with the same meticulous attention as my parents’, understanding that delicately cut morsels are more delectable to savor.
Growing up in China, Mama and Baba were taught the preciousness of ingredients. It was this respect for food that influenced their mindful approach when it came to cutting anything from bamboo shoots to bok choy.
Mama, like Mrs. Chang, would patiently pull off the stringy tail and the little pin head from each bean sprout. The sight of Mama working her way through a huge pile of bean sprouts carefully trimming each one seemed so unnecessarily fussy, but she explained to me it was worth the effort. Bean sprouts, she said, were more pleasing to eat when properly trimmed.
Years later, when I traveled to Hong Kong and China, I discovered produce vendors selling the trimmed bean sprouts called “silver sprouts” for a higher price. And now when I eat a stir-fry in which the sprouts haven’t been trimmed I’m so conscious of the annoying stringy tails.
Sadly, Mama is now too frail to prepare her signature dishes, so it was wonderful to be reminded that there are still old-fashioned cooks like Mrs. Chang who approach kitchen tasks with Zen-like purpose. I confess that I don’t cut ingredients heart-achingly perfect, nor do I take the time to trim bean sprouts. My generation is lucky to get a home-cooked meal on the table.
It is important to remember that the ingredients for a stir-fry don’t have to be painstakingly cut to perfection. But even if your bell peppers or shiitake mushrooms are thickly sliced, it is essential to aim for cutting them with as much uniformity as possible so that everything cooks in the same amount of time.
Fortunately, even if you don’t possess Mrs. Chang’s extraordinary knife skills, the beauty of a stir-fry is that the tumbling of ingredients in the wok’s hot well still performs its magic. It transforms them into a wondrous concoction of flavors and textures laced with a seared aroma — all in a matter of minutes.
Tips for successful stir-frying:
* The 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok with a long wood handle is the best pan for stir-frying on a residential stove. The wok sits directly on the burner (unlike a round-bottomed wok which requires a wok ring) ensuring that the pan attains the necessary heat. Carbon-steel, like cast-iron, is ancient nonstick cookware — ideal because it forms a natural nonstick surface the more you cook. The Wokshop.com in San Francisco’s Chinatown has been in business for nearly 40 years, and has the most outstanding selection of woks.
* If you’re not ready to cook with a wok, use a 12-inch stainless-steel skillet. But never stir-fry with nonstick cookware.
* Invest in a high-quality chef’s knife or cleaver. Maintain the edge of the knife with a stone and steel or use a manual knife sharpener. There’s nothing more frustrating or dangerous than trying to cut ingredients with a dull knife.
* Choose an oil that has a high smoking point such as peanut, canola, grapeseed or avocado oil.
* Preheat the wok on high heat until a drop of water evaporates within a second or two, then immediately swirl in the oil. (If the oil is added to a cold wok and then any heated meat will stick to the wok.) Note: If the oil smokes wildly the moment it is added to the wok you’ve overheated the pan.
* Stir-fry with a metal fish or pancake spatula rather than a wooden spoon. The flexible spatula fits the contour of the wok and is thin enough to get under meat or poultry to prevent sticking.
* Shop in a farmers market or use seasonal vegetables. The quick cooking in a hot wok brings out the natural sweetness, flavors and textures of just-harvested vegetables.
* Don’t crowd the wok with too many ingredients; never add more than a pound of chicken, pork, shrimp (or 12 ounces of beef) — unless you want your stir-fry to turn into a soggy braise.
Young is the author, most recently, of “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories” (Simon and Schuster, 2010). A stir-fry cooking group has begun working its way through the book, at wokwednesdays.wordpress.com. Young’s Web site: www.GraceYoung.com.