For most of my life, Chinese food was a great mystery. How did they get those flavors? Those textures? Those colors?
It it seemed like I was glimpsing into the secret life of alchemists with every little box overflowing with spicy shrimp, crispy chicken, gooey, flavorful sauces, bok choy, baby carrots (how do they grow them so small?) and funky fungi. I was certain some kind of secret handshake was needed to enter the world of the Asian kitchen filled with voodoo and mystery.
Then I started just punking around in the Asian markets in the Strip District from time to time. (The last time I was in my favorite Asian market at 23rd & Penn Ave., they were unloading a big box of knee cartilage. I can only assume it was cow knee cartilage; I have no desire to eat a dish in which the featured ingredient is cartilage of any kind, you have to respect the Chinese for using every single bit of the animal. We could take a lesson from them.)
Anyway, after a while it occurred to me that these mysterious dishes were invented hundreds of years ago by little old Chinese ladies, cooking over open flame with whatever they had at hand. And like their Italian and Mexican counterparts, they cooked with heart and art, skill and passion, but there is nothing cryptic or supernatural about it.
There's no mystery to it the art of soulful asian cooking. But there is lots of mise-en-place. (Sorry, I don't know the Chinese term for 'prep work,' only the French.) In short, it's time consuming, but it's also pretty fun. With the Steelers playing (another) night game, I have more prep time than I would for an early afternoon kickoff, so this Sunday seems to be the perfect night to make a giant batch of fried rice.
You will need:
napa cabbage, one head, core removed and finely sliced
fresh ginger, grated
1 shallot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely diced
extra firm tofu, drained and cubed
one boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
2 carrots, finely diced
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
1 head broccoli, finely diced
2 or 3 scallions, sliced into rings
2 or 3 eggs, beaten
hot chili sesame oil
soy sauce (you want one that's a good quality)
The prep, choppy-choppy:
A word about the rice. I don't know what the big American companies like Uncle Ben's and River Rice have done to their rice or how one would even go about altering the organic building blocks of something as elemental as rice, but those rices all taste like ass. To be specific, they taste like dry, gritty ass and the last time I got Uncle Ben's (slow cook, not the instant stuff), I felt like H.I. McDonough's cellmate in 'Raising Arizona.' And when there were no fowl, we ate crawdad; and when there were no crawdad, we ate sand.
The point being that you have to get rice from the Asian market or in the Asian isle of your supermarket. I'm partial to jasmine rice, which has great bite and texture, and isn't quite so sticky as sushi rice. Cook the rice according to the instructions or as you normally would and set aside.
Once you heat up your wok (a large non-stick skillet will work just fine if you don't have a wok), you want to work fast, so its important that you get all the prep work done before you start cooking. Whip the eggs together in a bowl and set aside. Finely dice the garlic and shallots; cut the rest of the veg into small, bite sized pieces; cube the chicken and the tofu**.
Put some peanut oil in your wok and get it screaming hot. Add the grated ginger, garlic and shallots, after those start to caramelize, add the add the napa cabbage. Toss it until it starts to wilt and caramelize, which will happen in a flash. Remove the cabbage to a large casserole or deep skillet.
Wipe out the wok with a paper towel, add a fresh drop of peanut oil, a few drops of hot chili sesame oil and the chicken. Cook until the chicken is cooked through. This will take longer than any of the other elements, but you know, the last thing you want to bite into is undercooked chicken. (You could also use shrimp or some lean cut of pork, rather than, or in addition to chicken. I like chicken, though, so this suits me just fine.) When the chicken is nearly done, add a sprinkling of shallots, cook for another minute and then remove the cooked chicken to the pot of cabbage.
Wipe out the wok and add a drop of peanut oil and the tofu. Cook the tofu until crispy. Add the tofu to the growing pot of cabbage.
Wipe out the wok, add peanut oil and a few drops of the hot chili oil, and toss in the carrots, broccoli and mushrooms. (You can use any vegetables you like. One of my favorite restaurants uses zucchini, but this is a good basic start for fried rice.) It will only take a moment to cook the veg and then add them to the pot of cabbage, tofu, etc.
Wipe out the wok, add a fresh drop of peanut oil, then toss in the eggs, the peas, and the rice. You'll hear it start to crackle and you'll need some elbow grease to stir it all up and cook it all evenly. As you're doing that, add several shots of the soy sauce. Keep tossing, then add the other elements (cabbage, tofu, veg, etc.)
You now have fried rice. I like to eat mine with a dollop of sriracha.
**If you have time, I like to do the tofu this way. Drain and cube it. Put it in a paper towel lined colander and put a dish or bowl on top to press the rest of the moisture out of it. For about 30 minutes. Then, put the tofu in a ziploc bag and add a generous dose of hot chili sesame oil. Refrigerate that for several hours before tackling the rice. It really gives the tofu an amazing flavor. It's not essential if you're pressed for time, though.