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WokthiswayTips to a successful stir-fry

I was in the presence of a wok doctor.

Award-winning cookbook author Grace Young was in Chapel Hill, N.C., promoting Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Recipes and Stories, in which she details common mistakes by home cooks who turn out gloppy braises in their woks, instead of crisp, intensely flavored stir-fries. Demoralized by their lack of success, they let their woks languish, unused and rusting.

That described the state of wok affairs in my house, so I asked Young for a lesson.

Young, who lives in New York, used to be the test kitchen director for Time Life books. In the 1990s, she traveled back home to San Francisco to cook with her mother and father. Those trips home led to her first cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. Now on her third award-winning cookbook, Young is considered an expert on Chinese cooking.

The demo recipe she shows me is Chinese Trinidadian Stir-Fried Shrimp With Rum.

The first thing to understand is that high heat is crucial to successful stir-fries. Home cooks have to maximize the heat that they have. On average, U.S. stoves put out 7,000 British thermal units, while wok burners in Chinese restaurants range from 80,000 to 150,000 BTU.

Young prepares all her ingredients before she starts, then lines everything up next to the stove.

She grabs a saucer of water to test the heat of the wok.

"Here we go," Young says.

She lights the gas burner to preheat the wok. She sprinkles water droplets onto the wok's surface. When the water evaporates in 1 to 2 seconds, the wok is hot enough. She pours the oil down the sides of the wok and swirls to coat. She adds the aromatics and they sizzle for about 10 seconds. Then she adds the shrimp, spreading them so all are touching the surface.

Once the shrimp start to sear, she adds the vegetables, tossing everything together with a slotted flexible metal spatula. She stirs everything constantly until the shrimp are cooked through then adds the sauce.

"Swirl in the sauce along the edge of the wok," she instructs. "If you do it in the center, it takes down the temperature."

The actual cooking takes at most 5 minutes.

"It should be eaten as hot as possible," Young says. We dig in, enjoying the crisp vegetables, the tang of the sauce, the tender shrimp.

>>MODERATE

Chinese Trinidadian Stir-fried Shrimp

With Rum

1 pound large shrimp

Juice of ½ lime

3 tablespoons ketchup

3 tablespoons dark Jamaican rum

2 teaspoons soy sauce

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger

½ teaspoon salt

1 medium ripe tomato, cut into thin wedges

1 large green bell pepper, cut into thin strips

1 small onion, cut into thin wedges

1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro

Using kitchen shears, cut through the shrimp shells two-thirds of the length down the back of the shrimp. Remove the legs and devein the shrimp, leaving the shells and tails on. In a medium bowl, toss the shrimp with lime juice for a few seconds. Rinse the shrimp, drain and set on a plate lined with paper towels. With more paper towels, pat the shrimp dry. In a small bowl, combine the ketchup, rum, soy sauce and white pepper.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds. Swirl in the oil, add the garlic and the ginger, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant.

Push the aromatics to the sides of the wok, carefully add the shrimp and spread them evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the shrimp begin to sear. Sprinkle on the salt and stir-fry 30 seconds or until the shrimp begin to turn orange. Add tomatoes, bell peppers and onions and stir-fry 1 minute or until the shrimp have turned almost totally orange.

Swirl the ketchup mixture into the wok and stir-fry 1 minute or until the shrimp are just cooked through and the sauce coats the shrimp. Stir in the cilantro.

Serves 2 or 3 as a main dish, or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.

>>MODERATE

Cashew Chicken

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into

½-inch cubes

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons soy sauce, divided use

1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch, divided use

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry, divided use

¾ teaspoon salt, divided use

⅛ teaspoon sugar

¼ cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, divided use

2 tablespoons minced ginger

½ cup sugar snap peas, strings removed

½ cup thinly sliced carrots

½ cup thinly sliced celery

½ cup unsalted roasted cashews

Combine chicken, garlic, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 teaspoon rice wine, ½ teaspoon salt and sugar in a medium bowl. Stir to combine. Set aside.

Combine broth, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine and ½ teaspoon cornstarch in a small bowl. Set aside.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon oil, add ginger, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the ginger is fragrant.

Push the ginger to the sides of the wok; carefully add the chicken and spread it evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the chicken begin to sear. Stir-fry 1 minute, or until the chicken is lightly browned but not cooked through.

Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the wok, add the peas, carrots, celery and cashews, and sprinkle on the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Stir-fry 1 minute or until the peas are bright green.

Stir the broth mixture, swirl it into the wok, and stir-fry 1 minute or until the chicken is just cooked through.

Serves 2 or 3 as a main dish, or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.

Stir-fry tips

• Use a 14-inch, carbon-steel, flat-bottomed wok for both gas and electric stoves. These are available online at Amazon and run about $25. A round-bottomed wok with a wok ring won't get hot enough.

• Get everything ready before you heat the wok. You won't have time to stop and chop anything.

Mince ginger with a knife; don't grate it. Grated ginger creates too much liquid, which can be hazardous when you add it to hot oil.

Don't stir-fry with a wooden spoon. Wooden utensils can't get under stuck food as well as a slotted flexible metal spatula, which Young recommends.

Pat dry unmarinated meat or seafood before stir-frying. Water lowers the temperature of the wok.

To season a wok: Heat the wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes in 1 to 2 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, ½ cup sliced unpeeled ginger and 1 bunch scallions cut into 2-inch pieces. Reduce heat to medium and stir-fry for 5 minutes, pressing the seasonings into the wok from the well to the edges. Once the ginger and scallions are brown and a little crusty, remove from heat. Discard vegetables. Let cool and then wash as instructed below.

To clean the wok: Rinse with hot water and wipe out with a soft sponge. Dry by placing on the burner over low heat; never dry a wok with a paper towel or cloth.

WokthiswayTips to a successful stir-fry 05/29/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 29, 2012 5:30am]

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