The brilliant logic of Chinese cooking methods is shown to perfection in ch’ao, or chow, which literally means “high-heat-shallow-fat-continually-stirring-quick-frying of cut-up materials with wet and dry seasonings.” Its merit lies in two desirable results: that each bite is cooked the same as every other bite, and that none is cooked too much. No nutrients are lost in the cooking, and the flavor is completely preserved.
If you think that this is not so different from the way you cook now, make a trial run with a stir-fry recipe, with particular attention to the vegetables. Their character is elusive yet unmistakably different. As you eat them, notice that the texture is crunchy and crisp-never soft or limp, and yet not raw. The flavor proclaims itself more interestingly than you’ve ever experienced before. This is a precise value-as precise as a la point to the French in roasting or al dente to Italians in deciding when pasta is ready to eat.
The closest thing to ch’ao in Western cuisine is sauteing, which only now we are learning to do with fresh vegetables. Once you get the hang of it (and it’s amazingly easy), it may well become the No. 1 way in your vegetable repertoire. The nub of stir-fry cooking is the chopping, which insures that all ingredients will be in uniformly small pieces and will cook fast and be done at the same time.
When different ingredients take different cooking times, the ones needing the longest time go in the pan first, and those needing the least time go in last. Since tenderness and quick cooking are the paramount goal, it pays to buy the youngest, tenderest vegetables. And if you are adding meat, use those cuts without tendons like fillets or poultry breasts. Cut the meat across the grain.
If you run into really tough green vegetables, such as overgrown string beans or too-mature broccoli, put them in boiling water or chicken stock for just one minute-no longer-to tenderize, after they are chopped. But the best way is simply not to buy tough, mature vegetables. A Chinese cook, like a French housewife, is an expert shopper. Train your eye and hand to select the wheat from the chaff among market offerings.
Even though tender, different vegetables still require different cooking times. Quick cookers (3 or 4 to 8 minutes) are bamboo shoots, snow peas, asparagus tips, celery, cabbage, onions, young string beans, green peppers, and all the leafy vegetables such as spinach and lettuce. Those requiring
long est cooking are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, American celery, cauliflower, and turnips perhaps as much as 12 or 13 minutes. Frozen vegetables, which are blanched before freezing, take substantially less time. Thaw them before using and drain off the moisture.
You should train your eye to tell when the vegetable is done, rather than depend on clock timing. The main goal is not to overcook, meaning rather less cooking than Americans usually think necessary for vegetables. The color will show when to take the vegetable (or for that matter, the meat) off the heat; or whether to cover the pan for the last stage of cooking. Your awareness will grow and you’ll become expert at adjusting the time to suit the day-to-day variation in the quality of foodstuffs.
The method uses very little oil, only a tablespoonful or two at a time. Its purpose really is to keep the food from sticking to the pan, and since you are quick-stirring constantly, much less is needed than in American-style frying. The natural juices brought out by the heat do their own lubricating. If they fail to appear promptly enough, especially if you are working with tired old travelers, add a spoonful of water or chicken
The Chinese use peanut oil; however, any vegetable oil-not a solidified fat-is acceptable. Remember, though, that the oil and the pan must be very hot when you begin. Put the oil into the cold pan and heat them together until the oil is literally jumping. If the pan is not hot enough, the vegetables will become soft and pulpy. Very tender vegetables should cook through without a cover.Tougher ones may need the extra heat-boost of a cover at the last minute to attain oneness without overcooking.