Sunday, November 18, 2007

Q and A: Stir Fries

Q: It would be most interesting to hear you address the topic of quick and easy stir fry sauces that can be made with plain (as opposed to pre-bottled) ingredients. Our stir fries tend to be fairly bland affairs (although we like the taste of plain veggies), and having a few recipes on hand to sauce them up would be swell. Since we eat gluten free, most of the bottled sauces available in the stores (like those yummy sounding peanut sauces) are either suspect or definitely off limits. But surely there's something simple we can make with rice vinegar and a little lemon, a little x and a little y...? Oh, and not too spicy, if that's in your repertoire.

A: Here are the things we do around here:

Saute ginger and garlic. Add coconut milk, fish sauce, and sugar (I also add chili paste, but with enough ginger and garlic, I think it would be fine without it).

Mix peanut butter, vinegar, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger. Add water to thin. Heat up carefully, or just toss with very hot vegetables.

Mix sherry or mirin, soy sauce, and rice vinegar. Heat the mixture in a pan, and add browned meat or vegetables. Heat thoroughly. Mix equal parts cornstarch and cold water, and use a tablespoon or two of that mixture to thicken the sauce. Add a drizzle of sesame oil. Once thickened, serve promptly.

Equal parts lime juice and fish sauce, plus sugar and minced garlic.

A note about sugar, salt, and fat: One reason all those bottled sauces are so delectable even though they don't have many high-quality ingredients is that they're packed with sugar, salt, fat, and often MSG. When you're making a sauce from scratch, you can use fresh garlic and ginger and top quality oils and vinegars, which will be delicious, but even so, don't leave out all the salt, sugar, and fat. Just a bit of each will enhance the fresh ingredients and take your sauce from ho-hum to oh-yum (heh). And remember that lots of things (mirin, fish sauce, soy sauce, coconut milk, peanut butter) may have a good amount of salt, fat, or sugar in them already. So taste it!

And now, to answer the question that you didn't ask: Another good way to boost flavor is by browning your vegetables and/or meat, a direction that's thrown around a lot, but is badly explained by most recipe-writers. So allow me to ramble on and on: For best possible browning, the first and unavoidable step is to get an excellent pan. My best friend in the kitchen is this giant, expensive, fantastic pan. I've used it almost every day in the year since I got it, which works out to about 57 cents per use so far. So, if you put fifty cents in a jar every time you want to brown something, make paella, sautee a ton of vegetables, or cook 12 slices of bacon at once, you'll have enough money for an excellent pan in no time.* The two things that make it so fantastic are its even heating and its huge surface area. In a normal pan that doesn't cost as much as the rent in my first apartment, only the middle of ever gets really hot, the edges are always cooler, and when you dump in a bunch of vegetables, a thin pan cools way down and your food ends up piled in a steaming heap. This is not browning.

This is browning: add a little fat to a giant, thick pan, and let it heat thoroughly . When one piece of food sizzles instantly when you throw it in, it's ready. Throw in just enough meat or veg to make one sparse layer (cook in batches if necessary). The pan should sound like an enthusiastic, sold-out stadium from a few blocks away (SHAaaa!). Meat will stick to the pan but if you just leave it there, it will develop a nicely seared surface and release when it's ready to be flipped or stirred. Watch carefully: adding the food will cool the pan down a bit, but a thick pan will heat up again quickly and start to smoke. Turn it down just enough so the food keeps browning but not smoking too much (a wisp or two is to be expected). Stir to brown the chunks on as many sides as possible. If the bottom of the pan starts to get lots of dark brown stuff building up on it before the food's all browned, keep it from burning by deglazing: add a splash of liquid (maybe 2 tablespoons) which will sizzle, boil furiously, and loosen the brown stuff, which you can then mix into the food. The bit of liquid will cook off quickly in a large, hot pan, and then you can keep browning. When vegetables are done, they will be crisp-tender and juicy, with a few dark brown spots on each piece. Meat is done when it's as cooked as you like it, with some dark brown spots. Set the browned food aside. Clean the pan by deglazing it with a quarter cup of liquid. Pour that liquid, with all the tasty brown bits, over the browned food. When I make stir fry, I brown the vegetables and meat separately, set them aside as they're cooked, make the sauce, and then add the food (and any deglazed liquid) to the simmering sauce and serve it when it's all hot through.

*A much cheaper pan option is a cast-iron pan, which many people swear by (hello, favorite sibling!). In my experience, you have to do a lot of frying in fat to keep a cast-iron pan in great shape. I'm not a fat-free cook by any means, but I don't use tons of oil when I sautee things, and I cook a lot of beans and tomatoes. My giant cast iron pan was not too happy about it. And for something that heavy and large, I want to be able to use it for everything. The other drawback, in my experience, was that I could never get the entire pan evenly hot. This could be just me. If you have doubts about throwing lots of money down on a pan, it's worth trying cast iron first.

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