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Cynthia Stone: Stir-fry 101

There are a few tricks to turning out a stir-fry that has an authentic taste.
There are a few tricks to turning out a stir-fry that has an authentic taste. - Cynthia Stone photo

Turning out an authentic stir-fry requires special tools and techniques most of us don’t have. Making a fabulous dish that celebrates those flavours and textures is, however, achievable and worth the effort in our home kitchens.

I talked my mother into buying an inexpensive wok when I was just starting to explore different cuisines. It never produced a great stir-fry because I could never get it hot enough on the old electric range.

When I started to cook with gas I thought I had the answer but, wrong again.

Long ago I figured out that I couldn’t magically reflect a food culture that wasn’t my own no matter how much I enjoyed eating it. So, I learned to adapt what I can do well to a result that might not be authentic, but it sure is delicious.

With that less-than-lofty goal in our sights today I will share with you what I’ve figured out.

Mongolian Beef, Broccoli, Mushroom and Red Pepper Stir-Fry

This dish is on many restaurant menus, although I’m not sure what the name really means.  It is always dark, sweet and smoky but doesn’t usually include the broccoli, mushrooms or red peppers—it is most often served with vegetable side dishes. I’ve combined them in one recipe that makes a meal in a pan.

A few tips are in order before you start.

Preparation is key to a good result. If you have everything standing by the cooking goes quickly. Prep the day before and this is a perfect weeknight supper.

Choose vegetables your family likes but dare to slip in one new thing in a small quantity, just to see how it goes over.

Think about the final bite when you’re chopping. You want to get as many different tastes and textures together in your mouth so don’t make the pieces too big. On the other hand, dice too small and they could get lost.

Before anything touches a hot pan, the oil should be shimmering and barely starting to smoke. The resulting char contributes to the characteristic flavor of a stir-fry so high heat is essential. While regular vegetable oil works, peanut oil has a higher smoke point. It is a bit more expensive, though. Never use olive oil or butter—both will burn.

This is a relatively sweet sauce so the spicy heat is important to balance it. Although hardly traditional to Asian cooking, jalapeno peppers give you lots of leeway to control the spice level because they are milder than most of the smaller chilies more common to stir fries. The amount of chili paste in the sauce also has a lot to say about the finished dish so start at the lower amount, especially if you are sensitive to spice, and work your way up.

Many stir-fries include cornstarch to thicken the sauce but the two bottled sauces in this recipe lend ready-to-serve texture so it’s not necessary. Because it is potent there isn’t much of it. If you like a saucier result feel free to double the quantities but add a bit more water and consider thickening at the end.

This amount serves 4 but quantities are flexible—tailor it to your tastes.

Sauce:
1 tsp. vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. grated fresh gingerroot
1/3 cup hoisin sauce
3 tbsp. oyster sauce
3 tbsp. soy sauce
1 to 2 tsp. bottled chili paste or hot sauce, optional
1 tbsp. rice or apple cider vinegar
¼ cup water
2 tbsp. firmly-packed dark brown sugar

Stir-Fry:
1 lb. flank or other inexpensive steak cut
2 tbsp. cornstarch
4 tbsp. vegetable oil, preferably peanut oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced pole-to-pole
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms, any variety
1 medium red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 head broccoli, divided into bite-sized florets
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. grated or minced fresh gingerroot
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and sliced, optional
½ cup low-sodium beef or chicken broth
4 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. sesame seeds

Prepare the sauce first. Heat oil in a small saucepan and fry garlic and ginger about a minute, just until fragrant. Add remaining ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer together a few minutes, until it thickens slightly. You can make this up to a day ahead but refrigerate if not using right away.

Slice the steak as thinly as possible. It will be easier if you put it in the freezer for half an hour first or use steak that is not quite completely thawed from frozen. Dry on paper towels. Toss with cornstarch to completely coat; shake off any excess.

Heat up 2 tbsp. of the oil until nearly smoking in a large heavy-bottomed pan or wok. Add beef strips in a single layer—don’t overcrowd the pan. Better to do two batches than steam the meat. Sear on each side until crisp—the centres should be perfectly cooked if you sliced the steak thinly. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add remaining oil and let it get hot. Add onion, celery and mushrooms. Fry, stirring constantly, until vegetables start to take on a little colour around the edges but are not wilting—about 3 minutes.

Add red pepper, broccoli, garlic, ginger and jalapenos and fry another minute. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover and cook 1 minute.

Remove cover and stir in prepared sauce. Heat through then return the cooked beef. Don’t let it sit too long in the sauce or it will get soggy. Serve with green onions and sesame seeds on top over rice or noodles.

Cynthia Stone is an information manager and writer in St. John’s. E-mail questions to her at cynthia.stone@nf.sympatico.ca.

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