July 07, 2005

Double Ginger Chicken Stir Fry

There is an art to the stir fry, and it's one that has taken me a long time to learn. Most of the principles seemed pretty simple - cut things small, cook quickly over high heat, use contrasting textures of vegetables for maximum effect.

Somehow, though, my stir fries were never quite what I wanted them to be, until one night that Palle made dinner for me. It was the onions. They were cooked, but still crisp - a textural issue which had eluded me for some time. His secret? Add the onions at the end.What? Onions go in at the beginning. Almost every dish I make seems to involve chopping up an onion first. It felt wrong to add it last. I cringed, looking at the neat pile of chopped onions on my cutting board when I first put the theory into practice. I probably made a face. But, at the end of it, I added the onions last, and they had the texture I had been looking for. A whole world of stir fry opportunities opened up for me.

There are a few secrets to stir fries, and most of them involve the word "not." Not to add too much thickener to the sauce, not to cook too long so that the tender vegetables go limp, not to add too many different seasonings that will make the finished dish taste like all of the leftovers at a Chinese restaurant were smooshed into the same takeout container. There are a few positive rules, too: always make sure your pan is very hot before you begin, or you won't properly sear the meat or infuse the aromatics into the hot oil.

Double ginger chicken stir fry came about because I love fresh ginger. I also like the background heat of dried ginger, and combining the two as the dominant characteristics on a background of chicken just sounded like a really good idea. I added mushrooms, because I like them, and because they also play well with ginger. I added bell peppers, because they are a sought-after stir fry item in this household, and I added celery because I had some on hand.

The stir fry is a college mainstay for good reason. You don't need a lot of meat (but you can use it if you've got it), it has loads of flavour, and uses vegetables that are usually pretty affordable, particularly in the summer. It's a cheap topping for inexpensive rice or noodles. You can substitute ingredients according to whim, availability, and budget. You can pick a flavour and go deep - spicy, or gingery, or garlicy, or black-bean, or hoisin, or oyster sauce, or... or... it's really up to the cook.


Ana said...

Mmmm! Here is something I did not know either! Can't wait to try. By the way, one of the things I have not yet mastered in the world of stir fry's is the thickener - not that I add too much, I don't, but I usually use cornstarch and the resulting sauce has a somewhat clowdy appearance. The ones in the Chinese restaurantes are so clear. What the heck do they use as thickener?

Dawna said...

Hi, Ana - in Vancouver, most Chinese restaurants use either cornstarch or tapioca flour as the thickener. What I find works best (I use cornstarch) is if the chicken is tossed with a little salt, soy sauce, sherry and cornstarch (about 2 teaspoons of cornstarch per lb. of boneless chicken slices). The meat is allowed to marinate in this mixture for a while while I chop up the rest of the veggies. Because the chicken goes into the pan very early in the stir fry, it gives the cornstarch a chance to cook before it gels, and therefore has a clearer appearance. If you are thickening your sauce by adding a mixture of cornstarch and liquid at the end of cooking, it takes longer for the sauce to clear up - and you risk overcooking some of the more delicate veggies, like onions or bell peppers.

Ana said...

Thanks for the info Dawna. You are right, I usually add the cornstarch at the end. Not anymore!!!

Dawna said...

Let me know how it works out for you!