Dispatches From Whitcomb Street

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stir-fry template


The other day, I was bemoaning the lack of good bad Chinese food in Colorado—you know, the salty/sweet/spicy/crunchy stuff that is about as authentic as Charlie Chan, but is well-made and reaches into every pleasure center of your brain. Everything here seems to be BAD bad Chinese food, or bad good Chinese food. Sometimes you just want to curl up with some delicious takeout, you know? Then we found China Gourmet in Boulder, and my world got a whole lot happier.

This creates a perverse dilemma, though—I crave Chinese takeout when I’m too lazy to cook. But driving to Boulder is just as much work as cooking. Foiled!

So there’s a loose template for stir-fry after the jump.

Anything stir-fry

The keys for delicious stir-fry that doesn’t taste like a big plate of sameness are heat and timing. This means getting out your heaviest pan (seasoned cast-iron will do, or a seasoned wok if you’re set up to cook properly with one) and having everything cut up into small pieces and ready to go. You want everything to cook quickly, without steaming from crowding—you’ll be stirring and swirling to help facilitate that.

General method:

Heat some high-heat oil (peanut, safflower, grapeseed) in a heavy pan till it’s screaming-hot. Add some protein, let it just crust on one side, and slide it around the pan. Season. Cook it more or less through and set aside.

Add oil if you need it. Cook your hard vegetables next—broccoli stems, carrots, that kind of thing, just letting them color before stirring and swirling to color some more. Cook them together if it won’t crowd the pan too much. Season. Set them aside.  

Add oil if you need it. Cook soft vegetables—thin-sliced onions, broccoli florets, peppers cut into strips, mushrooms, etc. Set them aside.

Put everything back in the pan and add the softest items—greens that wilt quickly, bean sprouts, etc. Throw in your garlic and ginger at this point. Heat everything through; add a sauce; let it boil. Eat quickly.


Protein: Cut your beef, chicken, and pork into small chunks or (better) strips. Or use medium-sized shrimp, or sliced squid, or smallish chunks of tofu. In any case, make sure the food is dry on the surface. Coat in seasoned cornstarch before cooking if you want a slightly crisp crust. 

Vegetables: Pretty much any vegetable goes in stir-fry; it’s a great way to clean out your fridge. Cut into smallish (under 1”) chunks or strips. Try paper-thin slices of lemon or orange or lime, too.

Soft things: Mustard greens, chard, or spinach are good. Cut sturdier greens into ribbons.

Sauces: Start with soy sauce and another base sauce—hoisin or oyster sauce from a bottle. Add sugar, citrus, rice wine vinegar, chili paste, and other flavorings as you like, remembering that the final product will be much more concentrated. Thin with broth or water if needed. Add a little toasted sesame oil if that sounds good. Whisk in a tablespoon of cornstarch if you want the sauce thick. Good combinations: ginger/garlic/lemon/soy for a bright, citrusy sauce; oyster/soy/garlic for a generic “brown” stir-fry sauce; soy/sugar/rice wine vinegar for sweet and sour; soy/fermented black beans/rice wine for black bean sauce; korean chili paste/soy/sugar/sesame oil for a generic Korean-style sauce; fish sauce/lime/sugar for a generic Thai-style sauce.


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