Flash in the Pan 

Learning at the feet of the stir-master

During my growing-up years, I learned many important things from my mom. How to make stir-fry, however, was not one of them. In front of the wok, mom’s perfectionistic tendencies took a momentary leave of absence as she meandered through stir-fries that were equal parts stream-of-consciousness and random improbability.

Once I watched Mom add broccoli first, and tofu last. But she’s not the only one capable of chopping without a clear plan, or adding ingredients without any logical order. Perhaps you’ve tasted the junior stir-fry, swimming in broth, with overcooked broccoli, sloppy tofu and soggy carrots.

Making stir-fry is a microcosm for cooking in general. You have many ingredients, all with different needs. The cook’s job is to bring out the best from each component, drawing these diverse elements together so as to maximize the feng-shui of the whole package. Like a conductor synchronizing the talents of an orchestra box full of musicians, the stir-fry cook is the mastermind of how it all comes together. Now that the Farmer’s Market is swelling with midsummer produce, and your neighbors are preparing to knock down your doors with armloads of zucchini, it’s time for a clinic on stir-fry orchestration.

The first step is to make a plan, aesthetic or otherwise, for how you want the flavor, texture, and color to add up. A spontaneous cleaning-out-the-fridge session can work if you know what you are doing, but punting like this can also lead to a fried yard sale. In a stir-fry that’s too busy, the main ingredients don’t get to shine. Consider, instead, the elegantly simple Chinese classic: beef with broccoli.

Many ingredients, including protein, mushrooms and greens, will weep water when cooked. Some you want crispy, with a brown on. Others, like greens, peas or broccoli, you want crunchy. Occasionally it helps to pre-prepare—slicing and salting zucchini half an hour ahead of time, for example, does wonders for its flavor; previously frozen tofu cubes have extra body.

Whatever protein you aspire to, be it chicken, tofu, bacon, tempe, dog…if you want it brown and crispy, cut it down to size and cook it first in hot oil until the water is gone. High-frying oils, like peanut, canola, grapeseed, or a combination thereof, are ideal for this phase. Olive oil will break down at high heat, and butter will burn.

When the protein is crispy, put it aside. Then pre-cook whatever else needs extra attention, like the delicate or potentially neon greens, peas, or broccoli.

Finally, you must consider seasoning. Soy sauce is good, but if you add it too early, or to a dry pan, it can burn and stick. Wine or vinegar is important for acidity. I also like oyster sauce, because it adds a deep, rich, fullness of flavor—but if you add it directly to a stir-fry, it can be overpowering. I found a nice recipe for an oyster based stir-fry sauce on a website called “chefdecuisine.com.” This preparation dilutes the oyster sauce with other ingredients, so that the oyster flavor is more subtle, yet enhanced.

And here is an easy four-serving stir-fry of carrot, kale and tofu that I created especially for this sauce. You should also know enough, by the end of this story, to whip out a beef and broccoli stir-fry using this sauce as well.

Stir 2 teaspoons corn starch into 1 tablespoon sherry. Set aside. Mince or crush 2 teaspoons garlic and 2 teaspoons ginger and add to 1 tablespoon peanut oil in a medium hot pan, along with 2 chopped scallions. Stir for one minute, then add 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, and 2/3 cup chicken stock. Stir in the cornstarch solution and cook until it starts to thicken.

Now, prepare the stir-fry as follows:

Cut a block of tofu into half-inch cubes. Add it to the 2 tablespoons canola oil on medium heat, stirring occasionally while you prepare: one large carrot, julienned (sliced into long, thin spears); six leaves of kale, cut perpendicular to the stem into 1-inch strips; one medium onion and four cloves garlic, minced.

When the tofu is crispy, set aside. Next, fry the carrots—with crushed, dried chili peppers, if you like—in hot oil until they get start to brown, and store with the tofu. Then, stir-fry the kale until it wilts and cooks down. Remove the kale before it turns soggy and set aside with carrots and tofu.

Now, quickly, it all comes together. Fry the onion and garlic briefly, then add the sauce to the sizzling pan, empty in the bowl with all the other veggies, and mix it all together. Remove heat, and serve immediately with rice.

The Missoula Farmer’s Market is open twice a week now, Tuesday evenings from 5:45 to 7:15, and Saturday morning from 9 to noon.


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