All the fun and games of Christmas and New Year are well behind us now. Twelfth Night has come and gone, the decorations are packed away, pine-needles and mistletoe berries have been swept up, and the long bleak days of January lie ahead.
At this time of year one often feels the need to re-group financially and live a more frugal life for a month or two. Make do and mend, up-cycle stuff, tackle the boring chores that have been put off, do some computer-housekeeping….you know the sort of things.
And when it comes to cooking and eating, simplicity rules; warm winter soups and other comfort food are what one craves. However such dishes do not have to be bland or boring, you can spice things up. In fact this is the time of year to sort through your spice/herb supplies and chuck out anything that is old – dried herbs won’t taste of much if they have been hanging around in a cupboard for yonks, and ground spices need to be fairly fresh too. Only buy in small quantities, use them up and replace them regularly is the rule.
I am a great fan of the stir-fry – or as my kids used to call it when they were younger, ‘a bit of a wok-up’. Practically anything can be stir-fried and this method of cooking can make a little meat go a long way when fried with vegetables: together with some rice or noodles and you have a quick and economical mid-week meal. Easy-peasy.
Now that I live in China, the home of the stir-fry, I have had to up my game a bit and my Chinese friends have shared tips and techniques with me which have really made a difference to how things taste.
The 1st tip is: Whatever you going to stir-fry – prep everything in advance, and have your basic ingredients (which is a classy way of refering to the carrot, two sticks of celery, four spring onions and quarter of a cabbage you found lurking in the vegetable drawer of the fridge) pre-chopped and laid-out ready to cook. Just imagine you are a fabulously famous TV Chef about to give a demonstration and you’ll know what I mean. You should also have all spoons, tongs, scoops etc to hand as well as any sauces/condiments sauce, you might want – e.g. Soy sauce,toasted sesame oil, oyster sauce etc. You shouldn’t have to go searching for stuff once the stir-frying has begun.
The 2nd tip is: get the wok really, really hot before you add oil and start cooking, this way you will only need to use a splash of oil and swirl it round. Do NOT put oil into a cold wok and then heat it up.
The 3rd tip (and the best) is: Choke your wok, that is what qiang guo 炝锅 means literally. This is an absolutely basic Chinese cooking technique.
The holy trio of Chinese cooking – which housewives call ‘the three treasures of the kitchen’ – namely garlic, ginger and spring-onions (scallions) are finely chopped and thrown into the hot oil in the wok to give it fragrance and flavour before cooking the other ingredients.
You will find that choking your wok makes such a difference to the final taste of the stir-fry, particularly when using meat and root vegetables, and yet it is so simple to do. Try it out – you too can be a wok star!