Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Stirred by Stir-Fry

I GOT ALL CRAFTY with the kitchen equipment last night and brewed up a nice stir-fry. I wanted a dish that would provide me at least 2 days of leftovers, and I wanted the protein to be part of an ensemble cast of ingredients, not a domineering star. Last, I wanted the starch to be noodles included right in the mix, rather than rice, which reconstitutes dubiously in the microwave. I rate my effort an A-. Here's what I did.

While shopping Sunday afternoon following the record fair, I spotted boneless center-cut pork chops on sale at A&P. This was perfect. I had been leaning away from beef as a stir-fry candidate. I know there's a way to stir-fry beef to develop a crust (or as much as you're going to have on the small pieces a stir-fry requires), but in the past, I've always ended up with limp, tough slices of beef and a huge amount of extra gravy that I have had to boil off. I wasn't in the mood to deal with the mess that chicken creates. So this pork sale was perfect. Three thick chops for $3ish.

Aside from a can of Geisha water chestnuts, the rest of my ingredients would come from the produce aisle. I selected broccoli, sugar snap peas, and a hearty red bell pepper. From the vegetarian/Asian section of that aisle, I grabbed a bundle of Nasoya thin wheat noodles. What I needed for the marinade/sauce, I already had at home.

By the end of Sunday shopping, the long day at the record fair fell on me like a ton of 45s. I deferred the stir-fry to Monday night. I started with the marinade. I modified a recipe from the book that came with my George Foreman Grill:
  • ½ cup Kikkoman soy sauce
  • ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp. Argo corn starch
  • 1 tsp. Chinese five spice blend
  • several good twists of fresh black pepper
  • 1 tsp. sesame seeds
I trimmed and cubed the three pork chops and got them marinating while I set an order of battle for the veggie prep.

I realized that my flaw in past stir-fries is that I don't time the introduction of ingredients well. I would start the meat early, then drop uncooked vegetables in one by one and let them cook. I didn't have a solid idea of how long it took them to cook well, though, so I would end up with overcooked peas or inedibly raw broccoli amid fart-dry meat. I was inspired by a list of blanching times I saw for crudité prep. This time, I decided to steam them partly to doneness before adding them to the wok.

I rigged up my steaming basket and got to cutting. The pepper, I decided, didn't need to be pre-steamed if I diced it rather than just chopped it roughly. The water chestnuts likewise required no advance cooking, so I just drained and washed them and set them aside. The broccoli, however, i wanted to remain crisp without leaving it in the wok long enough to scorch the florets. So I steamed that for 3 minutes and set it aside. The snap peas I steamed for 2½ minutes. I now had two bowls of lovely emerald veggies waiting for the wok.

Into the Fire
Onto my stove went my well-seasoned wok. I put a medium-high flame under it as I steamed my last remaining item, half of the package of noodles. I have a love-hate relationship with the Nasoya semi-done noodles. I like them when I cook them properly, but there seems to be a very narrow range for success. Too little cooking, and they clump together in a starchy mass. Too much, and they become slimy. I didn't boil them because I wanted to avoid having them shed water into the stir-fry, so I thought steaming them might be a better option. Sadly, steaming them as I did seemed to guide them toward the former. I pried out the gloppy, brainlike mass with tongs and set it on the cutting board while I thought about how to cook the other half without repeating this feat. I decided to drop them on top of the fully integrated mass of ingredients and give them a quick couple of minutes in the heat that way.

By this point, the wok was hot enough, so I dropped in the pork after pouring off and retaining the marinade (for a sauce). An invigorating wave of five-spice scent plumed from the vessel as I stirred the pink cubes over its heat. Within 3 minutes, they were looking white all over, so I scooped them out and set them aside.

I poured the marinade in and let it cook down and boil a bit to kill the pork ick. Then I dropped in the water chestnuts and red pepper. Water chestnuts are absorbent of flavor and moisture, so I wanted to lock up some of the liquid before stirring in the other stuff. Note that all through this process, I didn't oil the wok. I relied only on the tablespoon of peanut oil I added to the marinade. Heavily oiling a wok to the point of having a centimeter of the shit at the bottom not only creates an unholy mess when you drop in steamed veggies or marinade-coated meat, it is the nutritional equivalent of serving beautiful organic veggies in a pork rind burrito. You're just screwing yourself.

The peapods and broccoli got about 2 minutes alone before I returned the pork, which I followed with the uncooked noodles. There was still enough sauce in the wok to coat them, so as long as I kept them moving, I figured they wouldn't stick to the sides. This proved to be a two-handed task, as I stirred the mix with the spatula in my right hand, while teasing the noodles apart with tongs in my left, occasionally using one or both to ease the wok back square over the flame. The noodles never did fully separate or get distributed through the whole stir-fry, but they seemed to be cooking without getting incinerated. This is probably the only place where a little oil might have been helpful, but I refrained.

Once it became clear the noodles weren't going to mingle as enthusiastically as I had envisioned, I declared the dish done and killed the heat. I scooped out about a third of it and headed to the table, accompanied by a late-vintage Poland Spring.

Tale of the Taste
I haven't used Chinese five-spice before in my stir-fries, and this was a regrettable omission. My bottle was very fresh, so I could pick out individual spices in the blend. The vinegar also added a lovely sour tang to the mix. The pork was perfect: tender, juicy, and flavored rather than overwhelmed by the marinade. (It only got about 20 min. tops in the drink.) My veggies were crisp and heated all the way through. The noodles were the reason I decremented myself to an A-; individual strands were cooked well, but many stayed clumped. I could separate them, but the center strands had stayed somewhat gummy and unflavored. I may have to find a different brand of noodle, possibly high-end ramen, cook it halfway in water, and then finish it in the wok, perhaps as the first ingredient. I did have to restrain myself from taking a full second helping, however, as I wanted to heat it up at work for lunch. This I did about an hour ago.

The Leftover Test
Hums there a work fridge in this nation without at least one carton of Chinese leftovers squatting near the back? In my case, it was a Ziploc tub rather than the traditional white box. Moreover, mine lacked the nasty MSG and heart-punching fat of the usual takeout meal. Restricting the oil paid a second dividend when I nuked my lunch today, in that I didn't end up with a bowl of glistening, grease-sodden food. I anticipated that the peppers would be on the soft side, which proved correct, though not to their detriment (I diced them fairly small). The meat was still tender, the veggies only slightly less crisp. Noodles were more or less the same. As I wrote this, the dish and plastic tub have been wafting a gentle scent of cinnamon and cloves my way, making me wish I had brought more with me. All things in moderation.

Options for the Future
  • I should research a better noodle choice. Even with the clumping I had to deal with, though, they reheated more appetizingly than rice would have. I find nuked rice to be rough and dry, regardless of how much water I use to cook it.
  • If I can get a decent-looking baby bok choy, I could add that for more flavor and roughage.
  • I am not entirely trusting of the bean sprouts I see in the stores, due to bacteria, but were I to find a reliable source, they go great with pork.
  • I could cook the noodles halfway, then finish them al dente in the boiling wok sauce, set them aside, and serve everything else over them.
  • I could dry-roast the sesame seeds to get a nutty flavor, or use the black seeds when I run out of the usual ones.
  • For the marinade, I could add a few slivers of ginger, a sprinkle of crushed red pepper, a dab of hot mustard, chopped green onions, and/or some fresh-squeezed citrus juice (or, at the very end of the marinating process, pineapple juice).
All in all, this turned out to be a healthful, quick-to-prepare, multi-serving meal with simple prep and minimal cleanup. After a weekend in which I had pizza on 3 straight days, I needed a heaping helping of vitamins and phytonutrients, and this meal fit the bill. It will be damn tough not to attack the third and final tub of this stuff when I get home.

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