The wonders from your wok

Celebration: It's the Chinese Year of the Snake, and American cooks can mark the occasion with a nutritious stir-fry dish.

January 24, 2001|By Marlene Parrish | Marlene Parrish,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE INTERNATIONAL

The Chinese Year of the Snake begins today, and it will be celebrated with banquets and the fanciest of foods. With names like Buddha's Delight and Eight Precious Sweet Rice, the cuisine and its dishes sound intimidating and daunting - nothing you'd ever want to try at home.

Most of us think that all of Chinese cooking is like that. Complicated. Mysterious. Inscrutable.

Think again. Do the words quick and easy have any allure for you? How about appetizing, nutritious and flexible? Because behind the bamboo curtain, the Chinese method of stir-fry cooking in a wok is all of the above, and anyone can learn to do it. You don't have to go through a complicated course of study, either. All the little pointers, principles and tips have been worked out over the last 5,000 years or so. We're talking scrutable cooking for average American cooks in home kitchens.

Stir-frying is easy. Small pieces of food are toss-cooked in a small amount of oil for just a few minutes over intense heat in a coolie-hat-shaped pan called a wok. The foods aren't really fried, but are flash-cooked and seared. With this technique, the colors of vegetables remain bright, their textures crisp, their nutrients intact, and meat, poultry and fish retain unusual succulence. A stir-fried dish is nutritious, looks fresh and tastes superb.

Nah, you say, you don't have the ingredients. Well, you probably do have the makings of a good Italian supper from your stock of olive oil, garlic, onions, canned tomatoes, pasta, oregano, parsley and grated cheese. It wouldn't take much more thought or effort to put together a Chinese supper if you'd make just one run to the market to get some staples.

Basic to almost all the dishes are garlic, fresh ginger, green onions and soy sauce. For authentic flavor and texture, you also need cornstarch, hoisin sauce, various noodles, peanut oil, toasted sesame oil, water chestnuts, long-grain rice, fresh or dried chilies, oyster sauce and rice vinegar.

Although stir-frying can be done in a big skillet or saute pan, a wok is recommended. You can use it on either an electric or gas range, on the grids of a barbecue grill or on top of a circle of rocks around a fire at a campsite. A wok can also double as a steamer, a skillet or a deep-fryer.

The shape of the wok has remained unchanged for centuries and was originally determined by the shape of early Chinese stoves. These were open cylinders of clay, fueled by wood or coal. A round-bottomed wok sat securely at the top. Chronic scarcity of food and fuel made it imperative that whatever food was found, caught or picked had to be cooked as quickly as possible.

The wok, because of its shape and construction, was ideal for rapid cooking. Its thin metal quickly concentrated the heat from the single small fire, while its smooth curving sides conducted the heat evenly over its large cooking surface. Small pieces of food could be cooked in just about the same amount of time that a fire made from hastily gathered sticks and thin branches would last before burning to ashes. Such was the birth of stir-frying.

The cardinal rule of stir-frying today is still the same. Have everything ready to go before you start to cook; there's no time to assemble ingredients midstream. You begin by cutting each vegetable and meat called for in a recipe into uniform shapes - usually thin slices or shreds - of a size that will cook tender-crisp in one to two minutes.

If you have one, use a cleaver, another traditional piece of Chinese equipment. A good French knife works just as well. All the chopping is not just busy work; ingredients are cut uniformly so that they will cook uniformly.

Just as location, location, location is the motto of those who sell real estate, hot, hot, hot is the chant for the wok. When stir-frying on either a gas or electric range, turn the large burner to medium-high or high and keep it there. Place the wok on the hot burner and let it heat up. When a mixture is cooking too fast, slide the wok back and forth, on and off the burner to regulate the heat, but don't mess with the fire.

After a stir-fried Chinese dinner, serve a dessert that runs to plain and refreshing. Vanilla ice cream or sweetened orange sections both work well.

What beverage do you serve with a spicy Chinese meal? Some folks like beer, but I prefer wine. I use the ABC rule: Anything But Chardonnay. The spices and flavors of a Chinese dish would make that full-bodied wine taste bitter. Lower-alcohol German wines that are fruity and floral can stand up to the spiciness of the dishes.

Hunan-Style Pork

Makes 4 servings

1/2 pound boneless pork loin

1 tablespoon plus 4 teaspoons cornstarch, divided

3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 pound fresh broccoli, trimmed

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

1 tablespoon slivered fresh ginger root

1 onion, chunked and separated

10 cherry tomatoes, halved

hot cooked rice

Cut pork across grain into thin slices; coat with mixture of 1 tablespoon each cornstarch and soy sauce, sugar and garlic. Let stand 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine remaining 4 teaspoons cornstarch and 2 tablespoons soy sauce with red pepper and 1 1/4 cups water. Cut broccoli into bite-size florets and stems into thin slices. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in hot wok or large skillet over high heat. Add pork and stir-fry 2 minutes; remove. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in same pan. Add ginger; stir-fry 30 seconds. Add onion and broccoli; stir-fry 4 minutes. Stir in pork, tomatoes and soy-sauce mixture; cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens. Serve over rice.

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