What's easier than a stir-fry? It's tempting to say "nothing," because stir-frying is so versatile and beloved that we all like to think we can do it, even if what we really are doing is tossing around ingredients in a not-hot-enough skillet, then wondering why the results aren't as good as those from the Chinese restaurant.
I used to be one of you. Then, thanks in no small part to cookbook author Grace Young, I bought a carbon-steel wok, seasoned it properly and, over the past couple of years, have become more than merely comfortable with it. I use it several nights a week, so much so that it pretty much lives on my stove top. I fry eggs and bacon in it. I pan-fry chicken breasts in it. I've deep-fried tofu in it.
But mostly, I stir-fry in it, cooking various combinations of proteins, vegetables and aromatics over high heat, scooping and tossing until they're perfect.
Still, everybody needs a refresher course from time to time, so when Young offered to give me a stir-fry lesson connected to her latest book, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" (Simon & Schuster, 2010), I couldn't say no.
LESSON NO. 1
In stir-frying, more so than in other techniques, it's critical to have all of the ingredients measured and ready, because once the cooking starts, it goes quickly.
LESSON NO. 2
Preparing the wok is crucial. Young heats it until a drop of water evaporates within a second, then swirls in canola oil."Remember: hot wok, cold oil," Young says. That ensures that the metal expands first, creating an even heating surface over which the oil and food can glide. "If the wok is cold when the oil goes in, things will stick, guaranteed."
LESSON NO. 3
Make use of the whole wok. Young stir-fries ginger and garlic for a minute or so, then pushes them up the sides of the wok and makes room for the shrimp, spreading it into one layer without overlapping and letting it sear undisturbed for a full minute. She adds salt and then all of the vegetables (onion, tomato, green bell pepper) and starts stir-frying, using a spatula to scoop and turn over the food as it sizzles in the wok. "You should constantly hear that sizzle, which is telling you all is right with the world," she says.
When Young adds the sauce, she swirls it in around the sides of the wok, rather than into the center of the ingredients, so that it hits hot metal and doesn't bring down the temperature.
It's done in a flash: lightly caramelized shrimp, crisp-tender veggies and a haunting sauce made with dark rum instead of the traditional rice wine.
SHRIMP FRIED RICE
From cookbook author Grace Young.
1 1/2 cups leftover Chinese Trinidadian Stir-Fried Shrimp With Rum (see accompanying recipe)
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
2 scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped (1/3 cup), or more for optional garnish
1 cup cooked rice
3/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the Trinidadian shrimp mixture to room temperature; this will take about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cut its shrimp, green bell pepper, tomato and onions into chunks; reserve its sauce.
2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water tossed in vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil to coat, then add the scallions and stir-fry for 10 seconds or until the light-green parts of the scallions are bright green. Add the rice and curry powder; stir-fry for 1 minute or until the rice is broken up and the curry powder is well incorporated.
3. Add the chopped shrimp mixture and the salt; stir-fry for 1 minute or until heated through. Stir in the reserved sauce.
Transfer to a plate; sprinkle with additional chopped scallions, if desired. Makes 1 serving.
CHINESE TRINIDADIAN STIR-FRIED SHRIMP WITH RUM
Adapted from Young's "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lime (1 or 2 teaspoons)
3 tablespoons ketchup
3 tablespoons dark Jamaica rum
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 to 4 medium cloves garlic
1 (2-inch) piece peeled ginger root, minced (1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 medium ripe tomato, cut into thin wedges
1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 small onion, cut into thin wedges
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro leaves
1. Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.
2. Toss together the shrimp and lime juice in a mixing bowl for a few seconds, then rinse and drain.
3. Whisk together the ketchup, rum, soy sauce and white pepper in a small bowl to form a sauce.
4. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat, until a bead of water tossed in vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil, then add the garlic and ginger. Stir-fry for 10 seconds or until fragrant.
5. Push the garlic and ginger to the sides, then carefully add the shrimp in a single layer. Cook undisturbed for 1 minute, allowing the shrimp to sear on one side. Sprinkle the salt evenly over them, then stir-fry for 30 seconds or until the shrimp begin to turn bright pink.
6. Add the tomato, bell pepper and onion; stir-fry for 1 minute or until the shrimp are orange on both sides.
7. Swirl the sauce into the wok or skillet and stir-fry for 1 minute or until the shrimp are just cooked through (opaque) and coated with the sauce. Stir in the cilantro; transfer to a plate. Makes 2 to 3 servings.