In recent years, one of the most popular ways for busy families to enjoy a home-cooked dinner together has come via slow-cooking – a trend that took off with the Crock Pot in the 1970s. Yet with the broader embrace of Asian flavors, it seems high time we also embrace one of the world’s oldest cooking methods, which also has to be one of the quickest.
Stir-frying is the world’s ultimate fast food.
Built around brief times spent over intense heat, the cooking method flings open the doors not only to fresh, flavorful Chinese food, arguably the most ancient of all cuisines still being enjoyed, but to all other Asian cuisines that felt China’s influence through conquest and commerce. In particular, this includes two styles also enjoying immense popularity, Thai and Vietnamese.
They themselves have intermingled a bit, history tells us, yet both show in their love of quick stir-frying a commitment to fresh, colorful dishes of protein and vegetables that haven’t been cooked to a gray mush. With a little bit of easy, practical know-how, a skillet or preferably a wok, and a sauce that combines essential elements of sweet, savory and spicy, dinner worthy of a restaurant can be on the table quicker than most of us can get to a restaurant.
There is a certain kind of wishful thinking about a nonstick skillet being every bit as good with Asian food as a traditional wok. We think that’s confusing “every bit as good” with “able to turn raw food into cooked food,” which a skillet obviously can. By its very design (an ancient one at that), a wok puts foods on its flat bottom very close to the heat, while offering sides that allow the cook to move food away from the heat as needed. A wok, even the least expensive one from your nearest Asian grocery, lies at the heart of every true stir-fry.
Though it sounds like the “ancient wisdom” associated with Asians in old Hollywood movies, to this day lots of home cooks miss a very important lesson. Food for stir-frying needs to be dry. That means drained if you happen to marinate the meat or seafood, and it means wiped with a towel if you’ve washed your vegetables. Liquid produces steaming, boiling or braising, all techniques utterly foreign to the taste and textures that come from stir-frying.
If you make a stir-fry at home, or indeed order one in an Asian restaurant, and you get proteins that are soggy, tough or mushy mixed with vegetables that have little color or snap, you’ll know exactly what went wrong. Asian food often features a tangy sauce, but it’s seldom a sauce you’ve cooked in for a long time. If liquid gathers in your wok during your stir-frying, do your best to spoon it out.
Finally, any number of tricks go into keeping heat high constant on the bottom of the wok. As you become more comfortable, you can add them to your personal skill set. One is “heat the wok, not the oil,” meaning the pan is heated with nothing it, then room-temperature oil is poured in carefully right before the cooking begins.
The same technique directs adding sauce late in the recipe. Pouring it down the sides helps collect all kinds of great flavors that have gathered there, much as the French “deglaze the pan.” It’s also essential never to overcrowd the wok. Work with proteins and vegetables in smaller batches if you need to.
All this said, with a few thousand years of culinary tradition to honor, your first effort to stir-fry in a wok is going to be great. The system works, plain and simple. And by using the highest-quality Asian sauce as your finishing touch, you can make your family meal’s centerpiece in as little as five minutes. It did, however, take a lot of centuries to teach us how.
THAI BEEF & VEGETABLES
One of the beauties of this recipe is that it works well with beef, chicken, pork and shrimp. You certainly can mix two or more of these popular proteins, though we tend to prefer dishes with a single focus. And you won’t even regret if you leave out the protein entirely. Here is our master recipe, from which so many quick and easy dinners for your busy family can flow.
3 tablespoons Dr. Foo’s Kitchen Thai Sweet Garlic & Ginger Sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¼ cup dry sherry or rice wine
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound beef round, thinly sliced
1 cup broccoli florets
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 green onion, cut in sections
Cooked jasmine rice
In a bowl, combine the Dr. Foo’s sauce with soy and sherry. Heat a wok or nonstick skillet until it’s very hot, then add the oil followed quickly by the slices of beef. Stir quickly just until cooked but before they become tough, about 2 minutes, then transfer from the now-hot oil to another bowl. Stir-fry the broccoli, red pepper, onion and green onion until crisp-tender, being careful not to overcook. Return the beef to the wok. Pour the sauce over the mixture and toss briefly. Squeeze the lime and toss again. Leave on heat only until the sauce begins to bubble, then spoon over jasmine rice. Serves 4-6.
Buy & Try