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Go stir-fry crazy for a quick, delicious meal

| Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009

Stir-frying is one of the easiest cooking methods for getting a delicious meal on the table in a hurry. Stir-frying is simply stirring and frying food at the same time.

Professional cooks have differing opinions on whether a wok or a skillet gives the best results. The testers at America's Test Kitchen prefer a skillet, while Lexington, Ky., cooking instructor Phil Dunn and restaurateur Suda Veerasethakul like to use a wok.

"I think the best pan to use is a wok because, basically, stir-frying and wok cooking are the same," Dunn says.

"Any pan with sloping sides would work. I always suggest that people work with small amounts of food in the pan at the beginning; sometimes they put way too much in a pan and make a big mess trying to stir it without having the food splattering out. And then there are those who graduate from stir-frying to sauteing, which requires more skill in keeping the ingredients contained in the pan."

Cooking authority Shirley Corriher classifies sauteing and stir-frying together because "both require rapid movement and turning of the food in a hot pan containing a small amount of fat."

Because stir-frying is done over very high heat, smoking can occur if you're not careful. If that happens, you have to clean out the pan and start all over.

The best oils to use are ones that can be heated to a high temperature without smoking: canola, peanut or grapeseed. These oils also have neutral flavors that work well with stir-fry sauces and ingredients, according to Bon Appetit.

Veerasethakul, one of the owners of Thai Orchid Cafe in Lexington, Ky., says it is a good idea to make sure your veggies are dry before they hit the hot oil.

"If there is a lot of excess moisture, it's going to spatter," she says. "Ouch!"

Good ingredients make the dish better

A stir-fry is only as good as its ingredients. Use fresh vegetables, preferably ones with contrasting colors, flavors and textures. If pressed for time, you may use packages of pre-sliced vegetables and meat.

Pick a protein

Choose a lean, tender cut, such as:

• Boneless, skinless chicken breasts or tenders

• Pork tenderloin or center-cut loin

• Steak, such as flank or boneless sirloin

• Thick, firm white-fleshed fish, such as catfish, halibut or sea bass, and shellfish, such as shrimp or sea scallops

• Firm or extra-firm tofu

Chopping and slicing

All the ingredients — meat, seafood, vegetables — should be sliced thinly and uniformly to ensure that everything cooks quickly and evenly.

Bell peppers: Cut into thin strips

Bok choy, asparagus, green beans, scallion greens: Cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

Broccoli, cauliflower: Cut into small florets

Carrots, sweet potatoes: Cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

Meat, fish: Cut across the grain into strips 1/4 inch thick and 2 inches long

Seafood (shrimp, scallops): Leave whole

Snow peas, sugar snap peas: Leave whole, with ends trimmed

Make a sauce

Prepare the sauce in the same pan you'll be using to stir-fry the protein and vegetables. Heat the seasonings, such as garlic and ginger, to bring out their fragrance and flavor. Then add the remaining ingredients and cook until the sauce thickens to the consistency of heavy cream.

You can prepare sauces in advance, or make a double batch and refrigerate half for another time. (But don't double the cornstarch -- that will make the sauce too thick. Instead, use 1 1/2 times the specified amount.)

Cook the vegetables

Because some vegetables take longer than others, add them to the pan in stages, beginning with those that require the most time.

Green beans: 9 minutes

Cauliflower: 8 minutes

Sweet potatoes: 8 minutes

Asparagus: 4 minutes

Carrots: 4 minutes

Bok choy: 2-3 minutes

Broccoli: 2-3 minutes

Snow and sugar snap peas: 1 minute

Source: Real Simple

Get everything ready, then you're set to go

It's important to have all of the ingredients ready to go before you begin stir-frying. You'll find that once you start, cooking goes too quickly to prepare ingredients between cooking steps.

Start by slicing all of the ingredients, combining the sauce ingredients, and cooking the rice or pasta. Arrange all ingredients in dishes near the skillet or wok so you can reach them easily.

When everything is ready, add the cooking oil to the large skillet. Lift and tilt the skillet to evenly distribute the oil over the bottom. Heat the skillet over medium-high heat for about 1 minute. To test the hotness of the oil, add a single piece of vegetable to the hot skillet. If it sizzles, proceed with cooking the seasonings, vegetables and meats as directed in the recipe.

You might need to add oil during stir-frying to prevent the food from sticking. The amount of oil needed for stir-frying depends on the skillet's surface. A skillet with a non-stick surface probably will need less oil than a wok with a steel surface. If you need to add more cooking oil, add a small amount at a time, and bring the oil to frying temperature before proceeding.

Seasonings, such as minced garlic and grated gingerroot, generally are stir-fried first for 15 seconds so their distinctive flavors season the oil. Just stir the seasoning into the hot oil, keeping it in constant motion. Because the amount you will be stir-frying at one time is so small, it's important to keep the seasonings moving the entire time so they don't burn.

Now you're ready to stir-fry the vegetables. Begin with the vegetables that take the longest to cook, then follow with those that cook more quickly. Use a long-handled spatula or wooden spoon to gently lift and turn the pieces of food with a folding motion. This ensures that the food will cook evenly. To prevent scorching, remember to keep the food moving at all times. Remove the vegetables from the skillet after stir-frying.

Stir-fry the meat, poultry or fish. Because overloading the skillet or wok with food will slow cooking, stir-fry no more than 12 ounces of protein at one time. This means that for most recipes, you'll begin by stir-frying only half of the protein until it is done, then remove it from the skillet. Then you'll stir-fry the remaining half. When finished, return all of the cooked protein to the skillet.

To thicken the sauce, push the cooked meat from the center of the skillet. If the sauce ingredients you've already mixed contain cornstarch, you'll need to restir first. Then pour the sauce into the center of the skillet and cook, stirring constantly, until it thickens and bubbles over the entire surface.

The final step of stir-frying is to return all of the stir-fried ingredients to the center of the skillet. Stir everything together to coat with the sauce. Then, cook and stir the mixture as directed in the recipe until heated through. To assure that your stir-fry is piping hot, serve immediately.

It pays to be quick

Cooking food fast is the key to good stir-frying.

Cutting the food into small, thin pieces and cooking small amounts at one time make the quick cooking possible.

When cooked quickly, vegetables keep their crispness and color, and meats stay tender and juicy.

Source: Better Homes and Gardens

The right skillet

You don't have to own a wok to make a terrific stir-fry. But you do need a good 12-inch skillet.

At America's Test Kitchen, the professional testers prefer a skillet with a traditional rather than non-stick surface, precisely because they want the food to adhere slightly, to create the caramelized, browned bits, called fond, that are the foundation for great flavor.

What's more, while even the best non-stick surface will wear off eventually, a well-made traditional skillet should last a lifetime.

Skillets are simply frying pans with low, flared sides. Their shape encourages evaporation, which is why skillets excel at searing, browning and sauce reduction. Traditional versions come in three main materials: stainless steel, anodized aluminum and cast iron. The test kitchen is not a big fan of the dark surface of anodized aluminum, because it makes it hard to judge the color of fond. And while cast-iron skillets have their uses, they are cumbersome and can react with acidic sauces.

A great skillet will transmit heat evenly across its cooking surface; has a steady, moderate saute speed; and will not require endless fiddling with the temperature dial to balance any shortcomings. It also will have a generous cooking surface.

Source: Cook's Illustrated

Lemon Chicken Stir-fry

This recipe is from "Betty Crocker Cooking Basics."

Total time: 30 minutes.

• 1 pound uncooked chicken breast tenders (not breaded)

• 1 medium onion

• 1/2 cup sugar snap pea pods

• 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes

• Water

• 1/2 teaspoon salt (for cooking pasta)

• 8 ounces uncooked angel-hair pasta

• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

• 2 cups small broccoli florets

• 1 cup chicken broth

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh or 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

• 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

• 4 teaspoons cornstarch

• 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon-pepper seasoning

Cut the chicken into 1-inch pieces. Peel the onion and cut into 8 wedges. Snap off the stem end of each pea pod, then pull the string across the pea pod to remove it. Cut the tomatoes in half.

Fill a 4-quart Dutch oven about half full of water. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover with the lid, and heat over high heat until the water is boiling rapidly. Add the pasta, and heat to boiling again. Boil, uncovered, for 3 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until the pasta is tender but still firm to the bite.

While the pasta is cooking, in a 12-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and onion; stir-fry for 5 to 6 minutes or until the chicken is brown.

Add the broccoli and pea pods to the chicken mixture. Cook over medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are crisp-tender.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the broth, thyme, lemon peel, cornstarch and lemon-pepper seasoning; stir into the chicken mixture. Cook over medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the sauce is thickened and the vegetables are coated.

Stir in the tomatoes, and cook until thoroughly heated. Place a strainer or colander in the sink. Pour the pasta in the strainer to drain. Serve the chicken mixture over the pasta.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 440 calories, 6 grams fat, 50 milligrams cholesterol, 37 grams protein, 61 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams dietary fiber, 530 milligrams sodium.

Szechuan Beef Stir-fry

Almost any tender beef cut — sirloin, top sirloin, tri-tip, rib-eye, top loin, tenderloin — can be trimmed, cut into uniform strips and used for stir-fry. Even some less tender cuts, such as flank, top round and round tip steaks, are suitable for stir-frying when cut into thin strips.

This recipe is from Cattlemen's Beef Board.

Total time: 15 minutes.

• 10-ounce package fresh vegetable stir-fry blend

• 3 tablespoons water

• 2 beef shoulder center steaks (ranch steaks), cut 3/4 inch thick (about 8 ounces each)

• 1 clove garlic, minced

• 1/2 cup prepared sesame-ginger stir-fry sauce

• 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

• 2 cups hot cooked rice or brown rice, prepared without butter or salt

• 1/4 cup dry-roasted peanuts

Combine the vegetables and water in large non-stick skillet; cover and cook over medium-high heat for 4 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove and drain the vegetables, and set aside. Meanwhile, cut the beef steaks into 1/4-inch-thick strips.

Heat the same skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add half of the beef and half of the garlic, and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes or until the outside surface of the beef is no longer pink. Remove from the skillet, and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining beef and garlic.

Return all of the beef and vegetables to skillet. Add the stir-fry sauce and crushed red pepper. Cook and stir for 1 to 2 minutes or until heated through. Spoon the mixture over the rice, and sprinkle with peanuts.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 351 calories, 11 grams fat, 64 milligrams cholesterol, 32 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams dietary fiber, 1,147 milligrams sodium.

Hot or cold water?

When boiling water, is it faster to start with hot water?

And what is a true boil?

A full boil makes the water as hot as possible — 212 degrees at sea level, with many large bubbles constantly breaking the surface. To speed up the process, many cooks start with water that is hot from the tap, but a few still insist on cold tap water, claiming that it makes a difference to the flavor of food like pasta. To see whether this is really the case, America's Test Kitchen set up a taste test.

The testers brought 4 quarts each of hot and cold tap water to a boil and then added 1 tablespoon salt and 1 pound pasta to each. When the pasta was done, it was drained and tasted plain (no oil, no sauce). Tasters could not discern any difference in flavor. In fact, the only difference was in the time it took the pots to reach a boil — 13 1/2 minutes for the hot tap water, 15 minutes for the cold.

Before you turn on the hot tap, though, you might want to consider what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has to say about cooking with hot tap water. According to the EPA, water hot from the tap can contain much higher levels of lead than cold tap water. In addition, even cold tap water should be run for a while (until the water is as cold as it can get) to ensure that any lead deposits are flushed out of the system.

Tips for cooking rice

In stir-fry dishes, long-grain white and brown rice work well. Short- and medium-grain rice are good choices for dishes that have a creamier characteristic.

American-grown rice does not need washing or rinsing before or after cooking. Rinsing rice, or cooking rice in excess water and draining, results in a loss of water-soluble vitamins and minerals.

It's best to follow the directions on the package, and here are some tips that will help you make perfect rice to go with any dish.

• Accurately measure the rice and the liquid.

• Set a timer to prevent undercooking or overcooking.

• Keep the lid on the pot during cooking to prevent the steam from escaping.

• Rice triples in volume. Use cookware appropriate for the amount of rice you are preparing.

• Do not stir. Stirring releases the starch, resulting in rice that is sticky.

• At the end of cooking time, remove the lid and test for doneness. If the rice is not tender or the liquid is not absorbed, cook for 2 to 4 minutes longer.

• When the rice is cooked, fluff with a fork or slotted spoon to allow the steam to escape and to keep the grains separate.

• If the rice is crunchy, add more liquid, cover tightly and cook until the grains are tender.

• If more separate grains are desirable, saute the rice in small amount of butter or margarine before adding the liquid.

Tips for cooking pasta

Boil 4 to 6 quarts of water for one pound of dry pasta. (You can divide this recipe depending on how much pasta you are cooking.)

Add the pasta while stirring and return the water to a boil.

Stir the pasta occasionally during cooking.

Follow the package directions for cooking times. If the pasta is to be used as part of a dish that requires further cooking, undercook the pasta by 1/3 of the cooking time specified on the package.

Taste the pasta to determine whether it is done. Perfectly cooked pasta should be al dente, or firm to the bite, yet cooked through.

Drain the pasta immediately and follow the rest of the recipe.

Sources: Cook's Illustrated, USA Rice and National Pasta Association

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