Improvised Chinese
by Peter Zelchenko May 15, 2009

Have we talked Chinese cooking yet?

Is there a philosophy of technique for Chinese? Chinese wok preparations finished with a starch-thickened sauce follow a consistent set of process rules. If you learn them, you can easily put together an authentic-tasting Chinese dinner in about 30 minutes from available ingredients, without recipes. The basic formula goes something like this:

Slice, for chopstick eating, one or two main vegetables, and meat thinly to marinate in soy, cooking wine, an acid, and maybe ginger. Infuse oil with aromatics in hot wok; add vegetables and saute; remove and reserve. More oil; sear meat. Add highly seasoned liquid with thickening agent and bring to boil. Amalgamate all. Serve with rice and vegetables.

Now, the details:

Pick two or three of...well, practically any foods: if carnivorous, pick one of ground or sliced beef, chicken, pork, duck, moose, bear, whatever. And a vegetable or two like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, green pepper, celery. Lettuce. Spinach. Root vegetables. Dried mushrooms. Really, basically anything.

Tomatoes. Fish. Tomatoes and fish. Hey, that could actually work! Call it "Sharks Navigating the Red Sea"!

Foods are cut to chopstick-bite-size in fashionable shapes. Cut meats very thin so they'll cook fast. (Meats go from slimeable to sliceable by chilling 30 minutes in freezer.) "Aromatics" (strong vegetables you will saute in oil to flavor the oil) are standard onion and garlic, as with any other cuisine. They can be cut for chopsticks or smaller. Celery -- cut finer than if using as a main ingredient -- also can fall into this category. Scallions, cut to about 2 inch lengths, are a classic. Remember, the larger and denser the food, the longer it will take to cook through.

Marinate meats in soy sauce (light better), sherry (or xiaoxing wine), rice wine vinegar or other mild acid, and perhaps some fresh (or ground) ginger (this is all from Jeff Smith).

(Let's see. Goose and oranges. Needs something green. Broccoli. Hey! Goose, oranges, and broccoli! Call it "Jade Swans Fly Over Orange Grove"!)

(It's all formula, even the naming. Ever had chicken feet on a Saturday morning in a dim sum restaurant? The Cantonese call them fong jiao -- phoenix claws. They're great, by the way.)

Now, don't just dump everything in! Heat wok or pan until smoking hot, add some oil, add dried peppers now if you want spicy (hey, sure chipotles, why not?), then chow* onion and garlic briefly, add the longest-cooking vegetable and chow that constantly, then the shorter-cooking one and stop when they're still crispy. (Fast alternative: pre-cook vegetables to doneness by steaming or boiling in a pot, or even use leftover steamed vegetables.)

(*"Chow" is a fancy Chinese word for "sauté", which is a fancy French word for "move food around fast so it doesn't scorch on you.")

To hasten cooking time of vegetables, or if you need to walk away for a few moments, throw a shot or two of water in and clap on a cover to steam. Come back before the water's gone! Keep it ridiculously hot!

Then, guess what? Move all that to the serving plate for now. (Huh?!) You cook things in batches, both to keep the wok hot and to get each thing to its own doneness. Get the pan frightfully hot again, add more oil, then squeeze out your meat well and chow that (wet meat = cold wok). If your wok is hot enough and you haven't used too much meat (no more than a good handful will do), it will take only a couple of minutes to be caramelized and delicious.

Take the marinade juice, add some water or stock, some soy sauce, five-spice powder or other spices (taste-test them), MSG if you want, to make up to about a cup of liquid. That should get maybe a half teaspoon of corn starch or other starch stirred in. Taste it. Need salt? Pepper? Molasses, honey, sugar, orange juice for sweetness? Some flavor combinations don't work well, but there are more that do than don't. Keep it simple.

Move the meat out or up the sides of the pan, get it deafeningly hot again, stir the sauce, and dump it in. Push it around until bubbling and thickened (a thinnish sauce is classy; don't make it gloppy with too much starch). It will make the dish glisten. Add back the other ingredients to combine with sauce and to warm back up, then scrape it all onto the plate.

(Tofu and other fragile ingredients are special: You add those gently at the end, and just heat through, around the time you are working in the sauce.)

Hint: Don't try to make a ton of anything in a single session. It's not a stew pot. It needs to stay enormously hot so foods cook fast. At the last step, when all is combined in the wok, it shouldn't be more than about 1/3 full. It should fill the serving plate and serve two or three. More people? More kinds of dishes! Figure one dish for every one to two people, plus the sides.

Hint: Avoid combining too many ideas. Keep it simple. Three or fewer main ingredients. One flavor set (e.g., five-spice powder, or molasses and sesame seeds and sesame oil, or black-bean spice).

Hint: We can't get our stovetops as hot as they do in Chinese restaurants, so preheat as hot as you can and try to keep it burning hot. Slower burner or lower gas pressure = longer preheating.

This all may seem rather disjoint and random. But if you pore over it carefully a few times until you feel it, follow it slavishly a few times over a couple of weeks, compare your work with "real" Chinese restaurant dishes and adjust, and keep working at it, you'll rarely need to refer to a recipe again or measure, and you'll be able to improvise Chinese. Forever.

Side dish: White rice, obviously. Lots of ways to cook rice right and hard to screw it up. Ignore the snobs: long-grain is cheaper and works fine for Chinese. Simple East-Asian steam-pot method: Add rice, then water to nearly twice its height. Boil down until you see no more water bubbling around the surface of the rice. Cover tightly and reduce heat to very low. Steam for 25 minutes or until done, which will take more or less time depending on how long the water took to boil down.

Side dish: Greens. Pick virtually any green vegetable. Boil or steam -- who cares? -- just a few minutes violently, until it tastes cooked but still crunchy (less than al dente). Cook some minced garlic in a few tbsp. oil over medium heat until flavor extracted and barely browned. Pour over vegetables with some soy sauce, too, and baste with a spoon.

Hey. Plain broccoli, cauliflower, or even cabbage work great as "Chinese" vegetables. But try the exotic Chinese greens, like crunchy jie lan (Chinese broccoli), tender xiao bai cai (baby bok choi), nai you cai ("milk vegetable"), and the delectable but pricey dou miao (pea shoots, omigod). All will work beautifully with the above garlic sauce and soy. (These are the Mandarin names.)

Get Chinese ingredients. South Siders: Try Chinatown Market, 2121 S. Archer, right off the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line station. North Siders: Try the even larger Broadway Supermarket, 4879 N. Broadway, on the mall just down the alley from the Lawrence Red Line station.

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(This just in: Progressive 5th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle stopped me on the street near City Hall. She's running for County Board President! More later.)

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