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STIR-FRY : Not only is this cooking method quick and efficient, it also is one of the most fun and creative ways to cook. You can stir-fry meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and fruit, creating dishes with a Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Latin or Oriental twist.

August 06, 1987|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

Long, long ago, and far, faraway, I seem to remember standing before a restaurant window watching a Chinese chef tossing vegetables in the air. Huge billows of steam and smoke oozing out of the wok separated our worlds like a mysterious veil.

Deja vu.

Recently, Martin Yan, the celebrated Chinese chef who has people roaring over antics on his "Yan Can Cook Show" on PBS Channel 28, was tossing vegetables from a wok, demonstrating the fine art of stir-frying. Steam billowed in the air. Memories flashed.

But things are much clearer now. Stir-frying is no longer a mystery.

These days you can walk in almost any trendy restaurant or visit any trendy friend and find a trendy stir-fry dish on the menu or on the table. The difference is that today the stir-fry dishes may be anything but straightforward Oriental. You can expect and will get stir-fry with a California, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Latin or Oriental twist.

Which means that you will find the seasonings unusual, the ingredient combinations exotic and the liquids provocative.

But there is more.

Stir-frying has bunches of benefits as a way to go for summer cooking, says stir-fry expert Yan, who is also founder of the Yan Can International Cooking School in San Francisco.

"Stir-frying is one of the most common cooking methods throughout China. It's quick (two or three minutes at most), efficient (you can create a full meal in a wok within minutes), fuel-efficient, exciting and sensual. Stir-frying happens also to be one of the most creative and fun of all cooking methods," Yan said. You can, after all, use just about any meat, fish or poultry, vegetables or fruit imaginable for stir-frying.

Then you have the residual health benefits of quick cooking of foods. Nutrients are better preserved when cooking is brief and tampering is light. "Cutting foods into morsel-size pieces helps seal in juice and nutrients," Yan said.

Stir-frying can be as inexpensive or costly as your pocketbook dictates. A full meal of stir-fry vegetables, such as napa cabbage, bok choy, spinach, Chinese pea pods and sprouts, in fact, may cost only pennies.

Stir-frying also benefits those on fixed incomes who have high nutrition requirements but little money and minimal cooking facilities.

But although stir-frying may look easy enough, there are few cooking methods that require as much concentration, albeit for a only a few minutes.

"You just can't wander off and let things cook by themselves," Yan said. "You have to have some knowledge of the individual characteristics of the ingredients. In stir-frying, the trick is to retain as much of the texture and color of ingredients as possible," he said.

All right. Let's make it easy for you.

Yan, the good teacher that he is, gave a list of ground rules to make stir-frying a success instead of the disaster it can be if you don't pay attention. Here are the natural steps to follow when stir-frying. You can cheat slightly, but not much.

1--Always preheat the wok over high heat before adding oil.

2--Add oil of your choice. A teaspoon or two is often enough, depending on the natural moistness of the ingredients used. Peanut or cottonseed, soy bean and safflower oils are preferred because they can reach high temperatures without smoking excessively.

Peanut oil, from the abundant peanut crop of the Orient, was originally and still is the most traditional of the oils. Butter and more delicate fats are not generally recommended because they cannot withstand the necessary high temperatures without burning.

Sesame oil, primarily used for flavoring, can also be used in small amounts for stir-frying. Olive oil and extra virgin olive oil contribute distinctly rich flavors to vegetables such as spinach and other greens, broccoli, asparagus, squash and eggplant, which are ideally suited to stir-frying.

Yan suggests not adding any oil too soon or it will cause it to decompose rapidly and smoke.

3--Add flavoring ingredients such as ginger, garlic and green onion after heating oil.

4--Then add pre-cut ingredients. Cook the meat first, then add vegetables in order of tenderness. Least-tender foods go in the wok last. "This is the point where total control is necessary. Avoid over- or under-cooking of individual foods. Pre-cutting food in uniform pieces allow for even cooking, as well," Yan said.

5--Add liquid gradually as needed only. Adding liquids to the pan depends on the ingredients used and the effect you want. Liquid is necessary to either keep the ingredients moist and prevent scorching, or to produce a sauce for thickening. Some foods, such as fruit and some vegetables such as tomatoes provide ample amounts of natural moisture to the dish so you don't need to add much, if any, more liquid.

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