Cooking for One: A stir-fry lesson from the wok queen

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 2:19 PM

What's easier than a stir-fry? It's tempting to say "nothing," because stir-frying is so versatile and beloved that we all like to think we can do it, even if what we really are doing is tossing around ingredients in a not-hot-enough skillet, then wondering why the results aren't as good as those from our favorite Chinese restaurant.

I used to be one of you. Then, thanks in no small part to cookbook author Grace Young, I bought a carbon-steel wok, seasoned it properly and, over the past couple of years, have become more than merely comfortable with it. I use it several nights a week, so much so that it pretty much lives on my stove top. I fry eggs and bacon in it. I pan-fry chicken breasts in it. I've deep-fried tofu in it.

But mostly, I stir-fry in it, cooking various combinations of proteins, vegetables and aromatics over high heat, scooping and tossing until they're perfect - or at least perfect enough for me.

Still, everybody needs a refresher course from time to time, so when Young (a.k.a. the Wok Evangelist) offered to give me a stir-fry lesson connected to her latest book, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" (Simon & Schuster, 2010), I couldn't say no. The diminutive, bespectacled New Yorker packed her own 14-inch carbon-steel wok and hopped on a Bolt bus to join me in my kitchen.

One dish turned into another, then another. After we made a recipe that can serve up to three (or one person three times, in my case), she turned the leftovers into two other single-serving meals, something she often does when her husband travels or when she's home alone in need of a quick lunch.

But first, the stir-frying.

"I'm ready to cook, kids," Young says after she preps some shrimp and I cut up some vegetables. Lesson No. 1: In stir-frying, more so than in other techniques, it's critical to have all of the ingredients measured and ready, because once the cooking starts, it goes quickly.

She has tossed the shrimp in lime juice, a technique of the Chinese Trinidadian cook she got the recipe from, then has drained them and carefully patted them dry with paper towels, then patted some more. "You've got to get the shrimp bone-dry," she says. "It's really critical. If it's too wet, it's going to braise. You want a good sear."

Preparing the wok is crucial, of course. Young heats it until a drop of water evaporates within a second, then swirls in canola oil. (She prefers peanut, which also has a high smoking point, but I was fresh out.) "Remember: hot wok, cold oil," she says. That ensures that the metal expands first, creating an even heating surface over which the oil and food can glide. "If the wok is cold when the oil goes in, things will stick, guaranteed."

She stir-fries ginger and garlic for a minute or so, then pushes them up the sides of the wok and makes room for the shrimp, spreading it into one layer without overlapping and letting it sear undisturbed for a full minute. "A Chinese restaurant chef would never do this," she says, "but that's because they're cooking with 80,000 or even 100,000 BTUs." She adds salt and then all of the vegetables (onion, tomato, green bell pepper) and starts stir-frying, using a spatula to scoop and turn over the food as it sizzles in the wok.

"You should constantly hear that sizzle, which is telling you all is right with the world," she says. "If there isn't sizzle, something's wrong." When she adds the sauce, she swirls it in around the sides of the wok, rather than into the center of the ingredients, so that it hits hot metal and doesn't bring down the temperature.

It's done in a flash: lightly caramelized shrimp, crisp-tender veggies and a haunting sauce made with dark rum instead of the traditional rice wine. This dish serves two or three; three if Young is eating it, probably two when I'm the one holding the chopsticks. So what should this single cook do with the rest?

Young sees leftovers the way I do: as easily tiresome.

"Why do I want to eat the same thing over and over?" she asks.

At the same time, you might as well take advantage of the fact that you're cooking and try to get ahead. So the challenge is to use one meal as the basis for others, but hopefully with altered flavor profiles.

For the first spinoff recipe, she spikes store-bought chicken broth with ginger and crushed red pepper flakes, reheats a portion of the shrimp stir-fry in it, then tosses it all with Chinese wheat noodles and toasted sesame oil. For the second, she makes fried rice, using a generous amount of curry powder and chopped-up pieces of the remaining shrimp and vegetables.

The latter, naturally, sends her back to the wok, which, like mine, is waiting right on the stove top for yet another round of stir-frying.

Yonan is the author of "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," coming next spring from Ten Speed Press.

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