A Cut Above: How to Stir-Fry

Every month, discover new ideas to enjoy the simple but elegant pleasures of a delicious, easy-to-prepare meal.
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Busy or not, here we come. Every month “A Cut Above” serves up new recipes, cooking tips and ideas for dishes that are elegant in taste and presentation, yet simple enough to prepare and enjoy in a snap.

When we were writing our new technique book, Cooking Know-How, we knew there was no quicker — or more storied — technique than stir-frying. Here’s the drill: you spend more time slicing and dicing the ingredients but a lot less time cooking them, all to end up with a fresh, flavorful dinner.

What you’ll need
1. A wok, preferably one that’s deep, with a good well that nonetheless has a flat bottom so the whole contraption sits right on the burner. Failing a wok, try a sauté pan: a deep skillet whose high sides come right up off the base, rather than sloping up. If you’re working with a nonstick wok, use only cookware designed for its special surface.

2. Two wooden paddles. One in each hand, these will keep the food moving over the heat. In a pinch, you can use two large wooden spoons or two heat-safe rubber spatulas.

Here’s the theory of stir-frying
1. High heat. Period. Turn the burner way up. The point here is to cook the ingredients quickly so they lose almost no natural moisture.

2. Layers of flavor. Stir-frying is about stacking flavors, keeping their tastes distinct in the final dish. By contrast, most American and European cooking — think about our recent braising column — is about melding and blending flavors.

Here’s what we can deduce from the theory
1. If it’s all about high heat, you have to keep the ingredients moving to avoid burning them. Stir and toss from the bottom of the wok up, the ingredients coming out of the very hot well, landing on the cooler sides, and then getting scraped back into the well. Picture this: tossing a salad with two wooden paddles over high heat.

2. Keep children and pets out of the way. Nothing ruins dinner worse than a bad burn.

3. To get layers of flavor, you’ve got to do good prep work. Don’t start cooking before you’ve chopped or minced all the ingredients. The vegetables and aromatics have to be in small bits to cook quickly, and to give you variety in each bite. If you don’t want to do too much mincing and dicing, look for pre-cut veggies in the produce section or at the salad bar at your market. Broccoli and cauliflower florets, sliced celery, diced zucchini and sliced bell peppers are always good choices. Some supermarkets even have baby corn, snow peas and water chestnuts. You can make a whole stir-fry melange from the salad bar!

And don’t neglect frozen, pre-cut veggies. Look for the frozen Asian blend in your market — but make sure it doesn’t come with any sauce or seasonings. Those you want to add yourself.

4. Chinese chefs add additional layers with condiments — here, with soy sauce, oyster sauce and rice vinegar. They’ll add various sour, salty and sweet notes which will further balance the dish — and provide a ready-made “sauce."

If you really want to get basic, you can make a stir-fry from 2 cups each of 2 different vegetables (broccoli florets, diced zucchini, snow peas, chopped bok choy or thinly sliced cabbage) and 1/4 cup bottled Asian black bean sauce. Spray the wok with nonstick spray, heat it up over high heat, toss and stir the veggies for a few minutes until crisp tender, and pour in the bottled sauce, stirring to coat (2 servings, each with a PointsPlus™ value of 2).

About the General Tsao’s Vegetables
Here’s the quintessence of stir-frying: fast and hot with a flavorful sauce of supermarket condiments, all to make this take-out classic. After you’ve chopped or minced the ingredients in advance, set them out in little bowls right beside the stove. Look for salty oyster sauce and velvety rice vinegar in the Asian aisle of your market. (Do not use seasoned rice vinegar which includes lots of sugar as the “seasoning.")

General Tsao’s Vegetables

Makes 4 servings

PointsPlus™ | 2 per serving

Ingredients

  • Cooking spray
  • 4 medium scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbsp peeled minced fresh ginger
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced; or 2 1/2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 1 pound shiitake mushroom caps, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups roughly chopped green beans
  • 2 cups diced yellow squash
  • 1 cup matchstick cut carrots
  • 2 Tbsp oyster sauce
  • 2 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp cornstarch whisked with 1 Tbsp water in a small bowl

  1. Coat a large, nonstick wok or sauté pan with cooking spray; heat over high heat until smoking, about 2 minutes.
  2. Add scallions, ginger, garlic and red pepper flakes. Stir and toss over the heat for 20 seconds.
  3. Add mushrooms, green beans, squash and carrots. Stir and toss over the heat until green beans and squash have begun to get tender but still have a little crunch, about 3 minutes.
  4. Pour in oyster sauce, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. Stir well until bubbling, about 30 seconds.
  5. Add cornstarch mixture and toss over the heat just until the sauce thickens, about 20 more seconds. Serving size: about 2 cups.

About the Shrimp and Snow Peas in Orange Sauce
You can circumvent some of the chopping and mincing for a stir-fry by buying convenience products. Look for pre-minced garlic and pre-minced ginger in jars in the produce section of your supermarket.

Shrimp and Snow Peas in Orange Sauce

Makes 4 servings

PointsPlus™ value | 4 per serving

Ingredients

  • 1 serving cooking spray
  • 4 medium scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbsp peeled minced fresh ginger
  • 1 Tbsp finely grated orange zest
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced; or 2 1/2 tsp minced garlic
  • 3 cups snow peas
  • 8 oz small shrimp (about 36 to 40 per pound), peeled and deveined
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • 1/2 cup orange juice (freshly squeezed is best!)
  • 2 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tsp honey
  • 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch whisked with 1 1/2 Tbsp rice vinegar in a small bowl
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil

Instructions

  1. Coat a large nonstick wok or sauté pan with cooking spray; heat to smoking over high heat, about 2 minutes.
  2. Toss in scallions, ginger, orange zest and garlic. Stir and toss constantly over the heat for 30 seconds.
  3. Add snow peas. Continue tossing until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add shrimp; continue cooking, tossing all the while, until pink and firm, about 2 minutes.
  5. Add sprouts, orange juice, soy sauce and honey. Toss until bubbling, about 1 minute.
  6. Stir in cornstarch mixture; continue cooking until sauce has thickened a bit, about 30 seconds. Remove wok or pan from heat and drizzle oil over the dish. Serving size: about 1 1/2 cups.

About the Kung Pao Chicken
Marinating a protein in advance lets you add yet another layer of flavor to a successful stir-fry. And here’s a trick: always add a little cornstarch to stir-fry marinades. It not only will thicken the sauce to come; it also adds a toothsome texture to the meat as it cooks.

Kung Pao Chicken

Makes 4 servings

PointsPlus™ value | 4 per serving

Ingredients

  • 8 oz uncooked boneless skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced into strips about 1/4-inch thick
  • 3 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce, divided
  • 3 Tbsp dry sherry or dry vermouth, divided
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • Cooking spray
  • 4 medium scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 Tbsp minced peeled chopped ginger
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced; or 2 1/2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 cups broccoli florets (see Note)
  • 2 medium red bell peppers, roughly chopped
  • 4 medium celery ribs, thinly sliced
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 3 Tbsp chopped roasted peanuts

Instructions

  1. Stir together chicken, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of sherry or vermouth and cornstarch in a large bowl until chicken is evenly coated and cornstarch has dissolved. Set aside for 10 minutes.
  2. Coat a large nonstick wok or a nonstick sauté pan with cooking spray; set over high heat until smoking, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add scallions, ginger, garlic and red pepper flakes. Toss and stir until aromatic, about 20 seconds.
  4. Add chicken and any remaining liquid in bowl. Cook, tossing constantly, until chicken is no longer pink and raw-looking, about 2 minutes.
  5. Stir in broccoli, pepper and celery. Continue tossing and stirring over the heat until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes.
  6. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of sherry or vermouth and rice vinegar. Bring to a full simmer, stirring all the while, until slightly thickened. Stir in peanuts just before serving. Serving size: about 1 1/2 cups.
  7. Note: Frozen broccoli florets, thawed, will cut down on the prep time quite a bit, but they do cook more quickly. Cut down their time over the heat to just 1 minute, adding the pepper and celery first in step 5, cooking them for 2 minutes, then adding the broccoli florets and stir-frying all the vegetables for 1 more minute.
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