The Special Stir-Fry

D uring my growing-up years, I learned many important things from my mom. How to make stir-fry, however, was not one of them. In front of the wok, mom's perfectionist tendencies would take a momentary leave of absence as she meandered through a fried yard sale that was equal parts stream-of-consciousness and random improbability.

Once, when I was a teen-ager, I watched Mom add broccoli first, and tofu last. I have never been so embarrassed. But she's not the only one capable of chopping without a clear plan, or adding ingredients without any logical order. Perhaps you've tasted the junior stir-fry, swimming in broth, with overcooked broccoli, sloppy tofu and soggy carrots.

Stir-fry is a microcosm for the greater act of cooking. You have many ingredients, all with different needs. The cook's job is to bring out the best from each, drawing together these diverse elements so as to maximize the feng-shui of the whole package. Like a conductor synchronizing the talents of an orchestra box full of musicians, the stir-fry cook masterminds how it all comes together. Now that the Farmer's Market is swelling with midsummer produce, and your neighbors are preparing to knock down your doors with armloads of zucchini, it's time for a clinic on stir-fry orchestration.

The first step is to make a plan, aesthetic or otherwise, for how you want the flavor, texture and color to add up. A spontaneous cleaning-out-the-fridge session can work if you're a black belt, but it can also lead to a stir-fry that's too busy, or confusing. Consider, instead, the elegantly simple Chinese classic: beef with broccoli. Here, the main ingredients get to shine.

Many ingredients, including protein, mushrooms and greens, will weep water when cooked. Some, like protein, you want crispy, with a brown on. Others, like greens, peas or broccoli, you want crunchy. Occasionally it helps to pre-prepare - slicing and salting zucchini half an hour ahead of time, for example, does wonders for its flavor; previously frozen tofu cubes have extra body.

Whatever protein you aspire to, be it chicken, tofu, bacon, tempe, dog 85 if you want it brown and crispy, cut it down to size and cook it first in hot oil until the water is gone. High-frying oils, like peanut, canola, grapeseed or a combination thereof, are ideal for this phase. Olive oil will break down at high heat, and butter will burn.

When the protein is crispy, put it aside. Then, pre-cook whatever else needs extra attention, like the delicate and neon greens, peas and broccoli.

Finally, you must consider seasoning. Soy sauce is good, but if you add it too early, or to a dry pan, it can burn and stick. Wine or vinegar is important for acidity. I also like oyster sauce, because it adds a deep, rich fullness of flavor. But if you add soy sauce directly to a stir-fry, it can be overpowering. I found a nice recipe for an oyster-based stir-fry sauce on a web site called "" This preparation dilutes the oyster sauce with other ingredients, so that the oyster flavor is more subtle, yet enhanced. I call it "Special Sauce."

Stir 2 teaspoons corn starch into 1 tablespoon sherry. Set aside. Mince or crush 2 teaspoons garlic and 2 teaspoons ginger and add to 1 tablespoon peanut oil in a medium-hot pan, along with 2 chopped scallions. Stir for one minute, then add 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, 1 tablespoon soy sauce and 2/3 cup chicken stock. Stir in the cornstarch water and cook until it starts to thicken.

Here is an easy four-serving stir-fry of carrot, kale and tofu that I created especially for the Special Sauce.

Cut a block of tofu into half-inch cubes. Add it to 2 tablespoons canola oil on medium heat, stirring occasionally while you prepare one large carrot, julienned (sliced into long, thin spears); six leaves of kale, cut perpendicular to the stem into 1-inch strips; one medium onion and four cloves garlic, minced.

When the tofu is crispy, set aside. Next, fry the carrots - with crushed, dried chili peppers, if you like - in hot oil until they get start to brown, and store them with the tofu. Then, stir-fry the kale until it gets wilty and neon. Remove the kale before it turns soggy and set aside with carrots and tofu.

Now, quickly, it all comes together. Fry the onion and garlic briefly, then add the Special Sauce to the sizzling pan. Stir it up, empty in the bowl with all the other veggies, and mix it all together. Remove heat, and serve immediately with rice.

And now, young grasshopper, a bonus: You have all the tools you need to whip out that beef and broccoli stir-fry, which goes great with Special Sauce as well, and some of those fried julienne carrots.







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