Cooking Basics: Steps for Stir-Frying

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Last week we focused on getting started with healthy cooking. I spent a good part of Saturday in the kitchen cooking a few meals and appreciated how much I enjoyed it (except for the cleaning up part). But I also know that cooking can be frustrating for many people. Here are my thoughts about that:

  • People don’t really know how to cook. I hate to say it, but in this day and age, there’s really no excuse to throw up your hands and say “I don’t know how!” As I mentioned last week, there are plenty of ways to learn about cooking, from signing up for a course to asking a relative/friend/friend’s grandmother to watching television shows to looking at online videos.
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  • People really don’t like to cook. I suppose this is understandable in some ways. Cooking can be messy, it can take a long time (depending on the recipe) and it’s maddening when you realize you don’t have the right ingredient on hand. But again, there are ways around these issues. People seem to enjoy cooking more when they have some guidance (hence, having someone show you how) and when the recipe isn’t too long or involved. Cooking gives you a sense of accomplishment and pride.
  • People don’t have time to cook. Again, also understandable. I feel the same way during the week after working a long day. At that point, cooking seems more like a chore than fun. But we all have to eat, and unless we’re lucky enough to have someone prepare meals for us, it means that if we don’t cook, we have to resort to take-out (not the most healthful), eating out (fun at first, but it can wear thin), frozen meals (also not always healthful and they can become tiresome) or make-shift meals (bag of microwave popcorn, anyone?).

    Solutions to the lack of time are to plan a few meals for the week, have the right ingredients on hand, and try out some quick recipes on the weekends so that you have some practice. This way, if you have a spouse, children, or a friend waiting patiently for you to put a meal on the table, you won’t panic when you realize the recipe takes longer than you thought, for example. Another helpful hint: Unless you live alone, enlist your family or your roommate in the process. Obviously, things will go more quickly if you have help, and you can catch up on the day while you’re cooking together.

Basic Cooking Skills
My disclaimer is two-fold: 1) My aim isn’t really to teach you how to cook. I’m not a culinary professional by any means and you really have to learn by doing; 2) I can’t be held responsible for any dishes that turn out, well, not the way they were intended! The skills that I’m about to mention are mostly to inspire you to be creative and try some things out. Even if you know how to cook, maybe this will convince you to dig out that cast iron skillet or finally turn on the broiler. The first skill we’ll look at this week is stir-frying.

Stir-frying. Stir-frying seemed to be big back in the 1970’s and 80’s. I remember my parents bought a wok and we tried several stir-fry dishes that really did taste quite good.

  • Be prepared. This is crucial. You really do need to have all of your ingredients not only assembled, but ready to go. If you have to stop and chop up bok choy while your chicken is in the pan, it will likely result in overcooked chicken. So get everything sliced, diced, and chopped before you even think about heating up the wok.
  • Use the right pan. A wok is best suited for stir-frying, but you can also use a cast iron skillet or your regular skillet. Your pan should have sloping sides and should be heavy enough to take the heat. Also, you may want to avoid using a nonstick skillet if you’ve had it for a long time. Teflon-coated pans aren’t meant to take very high temperatures.
  • Don’t overcook or undercook. In other words, if you’re using chicken or beef, don’t cook it too long or else it will become tough and may even burn. For vegetables, the goal is to keep them crispy, not raw. You may need to slightly steam certain vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli, in your pan with a little water or broth. Otherwise, they may not cook enough.
  • Don’t be too quick to stir. Yes, it IS called stir-frying, but you need to give your food a chance to actually cook. If you keep stirring and stirring, the dish may not have a chance to fully develop its flavor.
  • Go low(er) on the sodium. Stir-frying typically involves fresh ingredients that are naturally low in sodium. But chances are, you’ll be adding broth or soy sauce and these can jack up the sodium content. Use lower-sodium broth and reduced-sodium sauces whenever you can. You probably don’t have to add any salt. Instead, experiment with herbs and spices; try ginger, scallions, and garlic.

More next week!

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