Rediscover Creative Connections in the ‘Totality of Cooking’
By MARTIN DAVIS
Author of 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches
Two summers ago, my friend Elisa Di Bendetto and I published a piece about our mutual love of minestrone headlined: Across Thousands of Miles, Friends Still Connect to Feed Our Families and Our World. And since that time, my friend and editor David Crumm has been asking for more about cooking and recipes people can try.
I’ve shied away from doing that because recipes and long discussions about dishes I love to make are interesting, but they ultimately fail to do something that I think our fast-food nation needs to learn to embrace.
In short, we need to fall in love with the totality of cooking again.
By totality of cooking, I mean not just the act of putting food together, but every step of the cooking process. This includes shopping for food, learning to appreciate the range of foods available, the art of preparing foods we may be unaccustomed to, the communal aspects of cooking, the act of cooking itself, and the pleasure that comes with sitting and eating together.
And yes, even clean-up.
The key to getting there rests in our embracing two things:
- Shifting our view of cooking from a chore we have to do—to a creative enterprise that allows us to express ourselves and our love for those we serve.
- Moving away from cooking by the rules (recipes), to embracing cooking techniques. Learning basic techniques gives us the freedom to use what we have, and feel less pressure about “messing up.”
These two ideas came together for me in a powerful way, recently.
First, I wrote an opinion piece for The Free Lance-Star, where I serve as opinion page editor, about a program in our community called Dr. Yum. (See the editorial here, and visit the Dr. Yum website here.) Its mission is simple: Turn people on to the value of fresh cooking. The person I interviewed described how viewing cooking as a creative venture changed everything for her in the kitchen.
And then this weekend, I returned to the farmers market in my community, which is coming into full bloom. Every week we go, I speak with local farmers who teach me new cooking techniques, or new tricks for using foods I never knew. They encourage me to take chances.
In our household, these two factors have combined. And the result is a cooking technique we often rely on: stir-frying. Best known as a Chinese style of cooking, stir-frying can go far beyond traditional Asian dishes and is limited only by your imagination.
In high-end Chinese restaurants, a sophisticated combination of sauces and spices create tantalizing dishes we’ve all come to love. But you don’t have to have a recipe to get started with stir-frying.
Pointers for Flavorful Stir Frying
So, if you are inspired by my introduction, let’s cut to the chase: Some tips for flavorful stir frying.
Here’s a common question: Do I need a wok? If you have one, great. It makes stirring the ingredients easier. Also, its large size helps diffuse the heat, reducing the chance of burning. But a large sauté pan will work just as well.
What do I need in my cupboard?
If you don’t have them on hand already, I would invest in:
- Soy Sauce, which is a good all-around sauce. It does pay to spend a few pennies more for a high-quality sauce.
- Teriyaki Sauce. This sauce usually is inexpensive at the stores, but you also could make your own version at home. (See here.)
- Sesame oil. Can be better for the high heats that stir fries require.
- Rice Wine Vinegar. Adds a nice zing.
- Corn Starch. For thickening or creating a light breading for chicken and pork.
- Rice. I recommend buying a higher quality rice such as Basmati, Jasmine or a good wild rice. (See here for more on rice varieties.) It makes a world of difference in flavor and texture.
- Ginger. It’s a staple in stir-frying. Consider pre-packaged ginger that you keep in the freezer. I find grating ginger root is a pain.
A Simple Equation
Remember this equation: Roots + Vegetables + Greens + Protein + Sauce = Tasty.
While you can put most anything in a stir fry, this general balance will make your dish shine.
And, here’s another tip: Try selecting ingredients with different colors to make dinner even more inviting.
A Trip to the Farmers’ Market
If you had a chance to accompany me to our Fredericksburg farmers’ market recently, you would find me choosing fresh broccoli (or broccolini), snap beans (I found a mixed basket of green, purple and white beans that looked wonderful), squash (I like to mix and match acorn, yellow and green squash), carrots (again I like a mix of carrot colors to brighten my dish), onions (purple unions are among nature’s under-appreciated delicacies), and bok choy (you can use the whole thing from green to white!).
And right there, I had my Root + Vegetables + Greens.
Now we’re down to the easy part: protein and sauce. Stir frying can make a little meat go a long, long way. We like to use kielbasa or other sausages. Chicken, of course, is great. And don’t forget pork. Want red meat? Have at it. You really can’t lose.
Now, just cook it up.
Begin by heating a tablespoon of oil in your pan. Use high heat. Stir-frying won’t work if you cook on low heat. So, mind what you’re doing! And don’t start until all your ingredients are cut up and ready to use.
- Meat First—Cook your protein, then remove it from the wok.
- Roots—Next, sauté your roots in the same pan you cooked the meat until the roots are tender.
- Then, add some of the quicker-cooking vegetables, but save your greens for a moment.
- Add your meat back to the stir fry.
- Finish with those quick-cooking greens. Give the whole dish a stir or two.
- Sauce—whatever you would like to add.
- The actual cooking shouldn’t take more than 8 or 9 minutes if you’re using high heat.
- Don’t leave the food unattended. It will burn. You must stir your dish constantly—hence the term, “stir” fry.
And there you have it, a quick meal that is nutritious and delicious. Serve over rice. To make a more complete dinner, I like to prepare egg rolls or spring rolls or dumplings that I buy frozen and heat.
A Final Word on Sauces
Once you get comfortable with these techniques, check out your local grocery store for jarred sauces. There are lots of options. Don’t be afraid to try them all. Also, check out cooking shows and cookbooks to expand your knowledge.
Start small. But start.
So there’s an easy way to start stir frying.
From there, let your creativity shine.
ARE YOU INTRIGUED by this column from Martin Davis? You will also enjoy his book: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.
You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his career as an author, editor and journalist. On his front page, you’ll also find a link to his recent columns for the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Freelance Star.
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