5 Steps to a Successful Stir-Fry

 

It was inevitable, the post-holiday heaviness has set in and the holidays are not even over yet. My mother made an amazing 20 pound rib roast for Christmas. Add to that more holiday feasts with friends, and raise it to the power of dozens of sugary sweets…and you will get a sense of how full I feel. My body is pretty good at telling me what it needs, and right now it is clamoring for something light, preferably with vegetables.

So I turned to Shrimp Stir-Fry with Carrots and Sugar Snap Peas. This is so quick to make that it is a nice break from the long slow cooking that is typical of holiday meals. You can add almost anything to a stir-fry. I happened to have carrots on hand from baking carrot cake, and decided to complement it with the sweet crispness of sugar snap peas. I also like to think of the color combination of ingredients in a dish because we also eat with our eyes. A palette of vibrant orange and bright green is a fantastic visual pick-me-up.

I am usually too lazy to lug out the large wok when cooking for only one or two people, even when making a stir-fry. (My Chinese ancestors are probably rolling in their graves.) Instead, I grabbed the Calphalon 10-inch Nonstick Covered Omelette Pan that Cooking.com sent me to try. It is a lightweight non-stick pan with a glass lid.

When I buy a pan, I want it to be a versatile workhorse so look for two things: 1) the pan can be used in the oven at 400-500 degrees F (so do not get one with a plastic handle and check the pan specifications), and 2) the pan has a glass lid. The first gives you the option of searing meat on the stove top then finishing off the meat in the oven for even cooking. The second option allows me to see inside without having to open the cover. This is useful when braising, or when adding some water to partially steam the food at the end of pan frying. I like to have a mix of stainless steel and non-stick surfaces because each has its place. For example, you want caramelized brown bits (fond) to stick to the bottom of the pan when searing meat so that you can de-glaze it to make a flavorful pan sauce. Variations such as copper, aluminum or cast iron cores are dependent on personal preferences and budgets.

I was impressed with how non-stick the Calphalon Omelette Pan is. Everything just slid around the pan with minimal oil. A good non-stick surface is important for a stir-fry dish because you cook the food quickly on high heat. Traditional cast iron and carbon steel woks need to be seasoned (rinsed without soap and wiped down with oil). Over time this creates layers that provide a flavorful non-stick coating. However, for most of us a non-stick pan works just as well.

When I was younger I used to botch up stir-fry dishes. I guess I was not paying enough attention when my grandmother cooked. Since then I figured out five key steps to a good stir-fry:

1) Use more than one seasoning. Similar to other cuisines, if you use only one seasoning or sauce such as soy sauce, oyster sauce, or black bean sauce your dish will fall flat. Layer the flavors with multiple seasonings. In this dish I combined light soy sauce, oyster sauce (use this strong sauce sparingly), sesame oil (also use this sparingly so that it does not overpower the dish) and rice wine.

2) Start with the “holy trinity” of Chinese cuisine. Scallions, ginger and garlic form the basis of many Chinese dishes. Use these aromatics to achieve the distinctive
Chinese flavor.

3) Marinate the meat with seasonings and cornstarch before cooking. At a minimum marinate with salt and pepper, but you can also add any other seasonings such as soy sauce depending on the type of dish you want to make. Cornstarch creates a protective coating around the meat, which keeps the small slices moist and tender when cooked.

4) Cook the meat first then transfer it to a plate before cooking the vegetables. If you cook the meat then add the vegetables to the meat in the pan, the meat will become over cooked. On the flip side, if you cook the vegetables first then add the meat to the vegetables in the pan the meat will boil in the water released by the vegetables instead of sautéing.

5) Finish cooking the vegetables two to three minutes before you think they are done. By the time you add the meat back in, add the sauce and season to taste, the vegetables will be perfectly cooked. I like my vegetables crisp tender because soggy vegetables have a mushy, unappealing mouthfeel.

In addition to the guidelines above, there is one more consideration when cooking seafood. Most fresh seafood should not taste fishy, but as an extra precaution use ginger in the dish. In this case, I sautéed half of the ginger with the shrimp. I also marinated the shrimp with rice wine for a light flavor.

I hope that incorporating quick stir-frys helps you get back on track with lighter fare after all of the holiday feasting. Do you have any stir-fry secrets to share? I would love to hear from you.

Shrimp Stir-Fry with Carrots and Sugar Snap Peas

Serves 2

12 shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon rice wine
pinch salt
pinch white pepper

2 carrots, peeled and julienned (cut into matchstick size pieces)
1 cup sugar snap peas, ends trimmed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 inch ginger, minced
1 scallion, sliced into 1/8 inch pieces (green and white parts separated)
3 teaspoons canola oil

Sauce
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon water
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon oyster sauce
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon rice wine
dash sesame oil

In a small bowl, mix together the shrimp, cornstarch, rice wine, salt and pepper. Let sit for 5 minutes.

In a small bowl, stir together the sauce ingredients. Set aside.

In a large pan, heat 1 teaspoon canola oil on medium-high heat. Add half of the ginger and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and stir-fry for 1 -2 minutes until it is pale pink and not quite cooked through yet. Transfer the shrimp to a plate and set aside.

In a large pan, heat 2 teaspoons canola oil on medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger and the white part of the scallion. Add the carrots and cook for 1 minute. Add the sugar snap peas and cook for 2 minutes, adding a pinch of salt during cooking.

Add the cooked shrimp and the sauce mixture. Cook until the sauce thickens slightly and coats the shrimp and the vegetables, approx. 30 seconds to 1 minute. This is a dry, non-saucy stir fry. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and garnish with the green part of the scallion.

Hazel Sy
December 2010

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