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The trouble with stir-fries. February 19, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. I love stir-fries. But until recently, I’ve never been able to make them. Despite my best efforts, the vegetables inevitably overcooked. Yuck! A good stir-fry depends on vegetables cooked until hot through but crisp-tender, retaining their color and a little crunch. Those grey-green sugar snaps just weren’t making the cut.

All this changed when I “earned” a free pot or pan of my choice at my local grocery by racking up buying points. I immediately gravitated to the wok. It was large, like traditional woks, but was stainless steel—I can’t face the effort it takes to maintain carbon steel to keep it from rusting—and had a long handle for easy manuevering on the stove, plus a clear glass lid so you could steam the veggies that needed longer cooking, watch the stir-fry’s progress, and keep it hot once you’d turned off the heat. Perfect!

Not. Once I got the wok home and out of its packaging, I discovered to my horror that the inside had a nonstick coating. As I hope everyone knows, nonstick coatings are carcinogenic if they’re scratched, and God knows what they are even if they’re not scratched. I was crushed.

“Ben, look! A nonstick coating! What should I do with this, give it to the Goodwill? I can’t believe I chose this when I could have gotten a nice stainless pot instead!”

Our friend Ben looked at the wok. Then he looked at me. “Silence, why don’t you just use it? You know you’ll use bamboo spoons so you won’t scratch the surface. And if it does get scratched, you can recycle it. You might as well give it a try.”

I wasn’t too thrilled with this suggestion, but I couldn’t bear to throw my new wok out. And sure enough, a few weeks later, I came upon a tray of flame-seared Korean tofu at Wegman’s, a grocery that’s far from me but a real occasional treat because of its wonderful offerings. The tofu looked fabulous and was just screaming stir-fry. I brought some home and got to work with the new wok.

I stir-fried diced sweet onion (I used Vidalia), sliced shiitake mushrooms, minced fresh ginger, and the white part of scallions (green onions). At the same time, I was cooking basmati rice. When the onion had clarified, I added broccoli florets and a touch of veggie broth, then put on the glass lid to allow the broccoli to steam-cook.

Meanwhile, I diced red and yellow bell peppers, cut the sugar snaps in pieces, and diced the seared tofu. The second the broccoli looked hot, I removed the lid, added the tofu, peppers, sugar snaps, and shredded carrots, stirred well, and minced the green tops of the scallions and a bunch of cilantro leaves. I added a generous splash of shoyu (fresh soy sauce) to the stir-fry, and some sweet heat in the form of Frank’s Hot Sweet Chili Sauce. (You could use sriracha or chili oil instead if you wish.)

Taking the stir-fry off the heat, I sprinkled on some gomasio (a mix of sea salt, sesame seeds and seaweed). Then I served it up over the rice, topped with the green onions, cilantro, and mung bean sprouts. Ahhhh!!! It was SO good, every vegetable cooked exactly to perfection.

But why? Why had this stir-fry turned out perfectly when all previous attempts had failed? Giving it some thought, I realized that I’d been attempting to make stir-fry in the heavy enamelled cast-iron LeCreuset pans in which I so successfully cook everything else, and that the pans must hold so much heat that a stir-fry is doomed. The much lighter steel wok carried exactly enough heat to heat the veggies through without overcooking them.

Since that moment of revelation, I’ve cooked several more stir-fries in the wok with equal success. At last, the secret to a perfect stir-fry is mine! Now if only the wok hadn’t been lined with no-stick coating…

‘Til next time,




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