Stir-Fry: Simple and Sensational

Once upon a time in Oakland Chinatown, across the Bay from San Francisco, there was a corner diner called the Economy Café. It had been there forever, and its very plainness was its charm. The dining area was separated from the rest of the tiny restaurant by a counter and if you sat at one of those five seats, you could almost touch the white cotton t-shirts of the three cooks who worked non-stop with their backs to the customers, each manning a wide blackened wok.

You placed your order, the waiter shouted out in Chinese and one of the cooks tossed a small ladle of oil and a large pinch of salt into his smoking wok, followed by the vegetables, meat or tofu of your choice, stirred in great sizzling sweeps and in minutes your steaming plate was in front of you. This kind of cooking was exciting and athletic as well as quick and tasty. And like any activity performed by experts, it looked easy.

Selecting a wok or skillet

But my home adventures with wok cooking were sometimes a little too exciting and not quite so easy. I tried a round bottom wok (too wobbly, and if sitting on the ring, too far from the flame), a flat bottom wok, which burned on the bottom, and opted to bypass the electric woks due to their price and my already crowded countertops. I gave up trying to be authentic and discovered I could get good results with a cast iron skillet.

It heats up like a dream, and I use a silicone spatula to turn the food. A heavy skillet that holds the heat well is not hard to find—you may have one already. Curved sides are an asset when it comes to stirring. A lid is also necessary for some vegetables, which may require a few minutes of steaming. Once you find the right pan, you’ll be delighted to discover how easy and fast it is to stir-fry.

Choosing ingredients

The next stage is choosing your ingredients. You’ll need oil, water, broth or sauce, meat or tofu, and vegetables. Traditionally, Chinese cooks use peanut oil but you can also use canola or a mildly flavored olive oil. Raw meat or poultry should be chopped into thin slices that will cook fast, and tofu or cooked meat just needs to be heated long enough to absorb the flavors of the rest of the ingredients. In this style of cooking, meat is a condiment rather than the main course, so large amounts of meat are not necessary. Water, broth or sauce helps to cook the vegetables and add flavor.

Not all vegetables work for stir frying; use vegetables that are not too dense or dry (like winter squash or potatoes), as the heat of stir-fry cooks the vegetables in their own internal moisture. Onions, garlic, and all kinds of tender greens like spinach and chard, as well as bok choy and Chinese cabbage are stir-fry standards. Red and green cabbages, snow peas and sweet peppers, broccoli and asparagus, tomatoes, celery and Brussels sprouts all stir-fry well when cut to the right size. Asian vegetables like daikon, a giant white radish, gai-lan (Chinese kale), Chinese broccoli, which is mostly succulent stalks, and whole young pea plants are also delicious.  And for the brave, there are fresh hot peppers.

Preparing ingredients

Chop the vegetables and other ingredients into slices of approximately even thickness. You want the pieces big enough that they don’t fall apart and small enough that they can cook through fast. Soft vegetables like tomatoes can be chopped into halves, quarters or eighths , whereas carrots should be julienned or sliced into coins. Cut Brussels sprouts  in half, and slice vegetable stalks (which are nutritious and delicious) on the diagonal so they will cook quickly.

Cooking ingredients in sequence

Once you have your ingredients chopped, the remaining trick is to add them in the right sequence. Heat the skillet, add 2 tablespoons of oil heat it well. A drop of water should sizzle if added, but the oil should not be smoking. Once the oil is hot, onions and garlic go first. When they start to look transparent, add uncooked meat. Give that a couple of minutes and then remove it with a slotted spoon. Then come carrots, celery, broccoli or other vegetables with stalks.

Finish with tender greens, tomatoes or other more delicate vegetables and as they begin to soften, return meat or add tofu to the mix. Greens may require a few tablespoons of liquid and a minute or two of cover with the lid to cook properly. A minute or two before vegetables are finished cooking,  you can finish the dish by stirring in a light sauce of 1/2 cup water, 1 teaspoon soy sauce and 2 teaspoons of corn starch well mixed before it is added. This gives it that (mild) Chinese restaurant flavor. Or you can use other bottled sauces instead: Hoisin, sweet and sour, black bean or ginger sesame all work. Table condiments such as toasted sesame oil, hot chili oil, chili paste, soy sauce or Sriracha sauce are another way to pump of the flavor and, at the same time, allow eaters to tailor their dish to their individual preferences.

Steamed rice is the classic complement to a stir-fried meal—just remember to start it first, as it takes longer to cook than does the stir-fry. Rice noodles also make a delicious accompaniment; follow the instructions on the package to pre-soak them, and cook them separately from the vegetables. The more you stir-fry, the more you’ll appreciate the versatility of this technique---it’s great for a quick supper for the family, with fancy ingredients to impress company, and even as a way to turn veggies you have on hand into something tasty.

The Economy Café is gone, but delicious and inexpensive stir-fries are not, now that I know how to make them myself.