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Chinese stir-fry basics

Chinese stir-fry meals are based on advance preparation. Here are a few tips to make cooking go smoothly along with a list of essential items to have on hand.

Chinese wok recipes require several sauces and very little spice. The final product also typically requires a thickener that includes cornstarch to hold the foods together and to add flavor.

Advance planning and a trip to the market with a shopping list will help your Chinese stir-fry meal go smoothly. If you do not live near an ethnic market, many reputable stores have products available online.

Many items are available at most grocery stores and include:

Water chestnuts, canned
Bamboo shoots, canned
Baby corn, canned
Chinese noodles, bagged
Chow mein noodles, canned
Soy sauce, bottled (reduced sodium versions are available)
Fish or oyster sauce, bottled
Sesame oil, bottled
Rice wine or cooking wine (not vinegar rice wine; dry white wine can be substituted)
Bean sprouts, fresh
Snow peas, fresh
Gingerroot, fresh (freezes well and can be grated straight from the freezer)

Your recipes may also include the following ingredients:

Chili Sauce
Bean threads
Glass noodles
Rice sticks
Chili paste
Bean sauce
Hoisin sauce (Some people think this particular sauce does not smell good out of the jar but it adds a wonderful flavor when cooked into foods)

Of course, this is not a complete list, but it will get you started as you begin collecting items for your Chinese stir-fries.

You will also need rice and cooking oil. Your vegetable choices will vary, but for a basic meal you should include celery, broccoli, and green onions. You can add, as you wish, carrots, water chestnuts, baby corn, shredded cabbage or bok choy, and a small amount of bean sprouts.

Your meat choices will be beef, pork, chicken, or seafood. Except for the seafood, the meats should be cut into thin strips or small squares so they will cook quickly.

It is essential to prepare the vegetables and meat ahead of time. Season the meat with a marinade of soy - and Worcestershire if desired - at least two or three hours ahead of time. Not only does this add flavor, it also tenderizes the meat.

You will also need a basic thickening sauce. There are many recipes available in cookbooks and on Internet recipe sites.

Here is one version that works well:

3-4 tablespoons of dry white wine, cooking wine, or rice wine
3-4 tablespoons soy sauce
2-3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons cornstarch
A pinch of sugar is optional

Mix all ingredients together. You will add this sauce in the last minute or two of cooking. If too thick, add extra water; too thin, add extra cornstarch.

Now you are ready to begin cooking. First, add oil and heat the wok. When it begins to smoke, add your meat. Let the meat cook through and remove from the wok. At this point, add the onions and celery.

Add the rest of the vegetables beginning with those that require the longest cooking time. Do not overcook. Add the meat back in for reheating. When you have a minute or two left, make a well in the bottom of the wok. Add the thickening sauce and let it simmer for a few seconds in the bottom. Resume mixing and stirring until all the vegetables and meat are coated with the sauce.

You can have extra soy sauce available at the table. If you like, provide chow mein noodles for extra crunch on top. Your rice should be ready and everyone will be anxious to try out your new dish.

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