How to make stir-fry tasty?
I have nice ingredients for a stirfry-zucchini, mushrooms, tofu, peppers--but mine always comes out a bit limp and bland (I know my burners don't get hot enough). Anyone have techniques or seasoning they's recommnd? I have a full complement of Asian condiments. Thanks!
This may sound like heresy, but I use my non-stick instead of a wok now (and I did use a wok for years). It heats and cooks more evenly--a friend recommended it and I was shocked at how much better and easier it was. I can even make excellent potstickers with all the texture, crunch, and flavor of the real thing--without the sticking!
For a light but flavorful vegetable stirfry, I copy Barbara Tropp: add vegetables to hot oil, stir fry on high heat briefly, add a tablespoon or so of sherry/rice wine, toss, then add a half teaspoon or so of sugar and toss. Her cookbooks are my favorites.
And I add lots of aromatics (scallion, garlic, ginger, black beans, orange zest, etc) near the end of cooking; make a well in the center of the pan and cook them briefly by themselves before incorporating them into the rest of the dish.
Get yourself some *black* rice vinegar, available at Asian markets, and sprinkle on a bit (2 tbsp or so) while cooking, then again a bit more at the table to taste. Wonderful, slightly sour taste, without being acrid or overpowering. A nice counterpoint to garlic, soy and oil.
Oil + salt + garlic = tasty
Many Chinese dishes just use garlic and salt as seasoning, especially vegetable only dishes. This really lets the veggie flavors come out. Do not put the garlic in first, but rather towards the end of the cooking process, which will give a nice, strong flavor (be sure the garlic is cooked through, though). Lard/pork fat also does AMAZING things to vegetable stir frys, but I am guessing that is somewhere you don't want to go. Don't be afraid to be liberal with the salt. A little MSG also works really well (although I may risk being put up against the wall and shot for saying that in America).
Since the only "stir frys" I do are Chinese, that means I do not usually mix different vegetables, with the exception of some added mushrooms or (hot) peppers. This tends to be easier to cook, since you are not dealing with differing cooking times. Of course, that takes away from variety -- you could try cooking each veggie seperately and then cooking them togther for a minute. I find that stir frying multiple vegetables usually ends up in a wet, soaking mess, no matter how hot the pan.
One ingredient that I use a lot of are fermented black beans (not the back bean sauce). You can find these in many asian specialty stores packed in oil. They are used a lot in Hunan-style Chinese cooking and give a nice rich, savory taste that goes very well with garlic and spicy. Throw them in the hot oil before you add the vegetables.
Finally, even veggie dishes in China usually have a couple pieces of pork thrown in for flavor. It is amazing to see the difference that meat adds. IMHO, it is just plain hard to get a nice, flavorfull veggie stir fry without any meat/animal fat.
Don't overcrowd your pan. I use a 14" wok or a 12" skillet, add a maximum of 1/2 lb of meat to a smoking hot pan, and even with my wussy rental apartment electric stove manage to get a pretty good stir-fry. As for veggie quantities, I'm not quite as sure, but it looks like a little puddle in the middle of a big pan, similar to the amount of meat I mentioned.
Regarding pans, I know that CI recommends not using a wok, but I find that a good carbon steel wok (really cheap if you buy from a chinese grocer) gets plenty hot and gives me better results than my american frying pans (mostly All-Clad). I would avoid cast iron too; the pan cannot adjust to different temperatures quickly enough for a stir-fry.
Be sure your pan is nice and hot BEFORE adding your oil. If you add oil while the pan is heating, the oil will burn before the pan itself it hot enough. This is essential for getting a good initial sear.
Also, this sounds kind of funny, but don't stir too much, especially for the first minute or so. You want a bit of a wok sear for good flavor. Otherwise you get flaccid meat and veggies in a goopy sauce, what I call "American stir fry."
If the vegetables are limp, do you stir fry all different types at once? Or leave in while you add more vegetables? Trick is to do small quantity of one vegetable, remove when it is still slightly undercooked with slotted spoon or spider, then do the next vegetable, etc. Don't crowd pan. Let pan come up to heat between batches. You can dump all par-cooked ingredients into a holding bowl. I do the meat last. Then mix up sauce, put meat/vegetables back in, and add cornstarch slurry to thicken. Serve immediately. I start with a basic mix of soy sauce, chicken stock, chinese rice wine, oyster sauce, and chopped ginger, scallions and garlic (which I stir fry briefly). Can't give you exact quantities -- do this by feel.
Because my daughters spend a fair amount of time with me and are vegan I cook a lot of stir fry dishes. My first step is to select the spices (such as coriander, mustard, five spices you get that idea) that I want to use and I roast them for a few minutes in the dry, very hot wok. If there are whole seeds I kind of break them up with a whack with a knife blade before adding to the wok. The spices are very aromatic I take them out of the wok and proceed. When everything is cook I put it all back together with the spices for a few extra minutes to meld the flavors. If the result is too bland a splash of rice wine vinegar or plum vinegar or a table spoon of miso can punch it up. Also - when I am using tofu I dry it as well as I can and coat the pieces with powdered (unroasted) spices.
I hope this helps. Wok On! (Oh god - it has been a long day a work!)