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It's the 'method that matters' when cooking Chinese dishes

Ingredients may be substituted when creating a Chinese dish. (Amy Thielen / For the Enterprise)

Chance and circumstance worked together back in 2004, and I found myself cooking in a Chinese restaurant for a year. The things I learned from that group of Hong Kong-trained Chinese cooks continues to teach me how to cook better, in every ethnic cuisine, even my own. They taught me to look at texture much more critically and to pay attention to the details, and I learned that a good stir-fry is nothing but a jumble of shrewd, quickly-made decisions--and if you're me and non-native to stir-frying, a bit of luck, too.

First of all, all of the pieces of a stir-fry must be equal in size. If Wei-Chan - the Chinese chef of the wok line - was stir-frying vegetables, they were all cut into more or less equal pieces, usually no larger than the size of a quarter.

Secondly, the wok must be hot and the work conducted in it fast. If you're going for an authentic stir-fry, the wok must be so hot that a drop of water dances on its surface. If you can't reach this temperature in your wok, switch to your widest bottomed pan and crank the heat as high as it goes.

I am always puzzled by the recipes I see for stir-fries with meat; they're nothing like the method I learned from the Chinese chefs. First of all, Chinese cooks cut the meat into very small or very thin pieces (usually when it is half-frozen, which makes this operation easier). They marinate the meat with a combination of soy sauce, sugar, shaoxing wine, sesame oil, bean paste, ginger or garlic, whatever is appropriate to the dish.

Then, they always cook the meat first, by dipping it briefly in a wok full of either hot oil or boiling water for about a minute. Either way, this initial cooking sets the meat - which is essential. If not for the initial cooking, the meat would ooze juice when cooked again, and oozing juice will dilute and muddy the sauce.

Hard and tough vegetables, such as broccoli or green beans, get a quick pre-boil, too.

You get the point; the final stir-frying isn't really cooking everything from a raw state, but rather mixing the cooked parts together into a whole, and binding them together with a slightly thickened sauce.

The cornstarch slurry is key. I remember that Wei-Chan kept a small dish of cornstarch/water slurry next to his wok, and after he had tossed together his stir-fry and the hot pieces were flying into the air and falling back onto each other in a cluttered heap, he would grab a pinch of cornstarch from the white mass settled just below the milky water in the bowl, and fling it into the wok. Within seconds, the heat would bind the cornstarch to the vegetables and the meat, and suddenly the whole thing glimmered and took on a paper-thin layer of shine. Done right, every single piece of a stir-fry should be enrobed in a thin layer of sauce.

Obviously, what I'm describing isn't easy. Each separate piece should taste of itself; and when eaten together, each piece begins to taste like the combination of all the pieces. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Aristotle said it and Chinese cooks drive it home every day, as they flip the wok and hundreds of shiny parts of the whole fly into the air.

Cantonese Chicken Stir-Fry

You can freely substitute ingredients. The method is what matters.

Serves 3

1 pound boneless chicken breasts

1 teaspoon sugar, divided

1 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon cornstarch, divided

2 tablespoons Chinese Shaoxing wine, or sherry

One-fourth cup water or chicken stock

3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

One-half teaspoon salt, + to taste

One-fourth teaspoon black pepper, divided

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 pound asparagus

2 cobs fresh corn or 1 package of shiitake mushrooms, sliced (optional)

1 bundle scallions (green onions)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1 tablespoon sesame oil

Cut the chicken breasts into nickel-sized pieces and drop into a bowl. Add half of the sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, half of the shaoxing wine, 1 tablespoon soy sauce and half of the salt and pepper. Mix to combine and marinate for at least 30 minutes, or as long as 4 hours.

Wash the asparagus and slice into 2-inch long pieces. If using the corn, cut off the cob. If using the mushrooms, trim the stems, wipe the caps clean, and slice thinly.

Wash the scallions and slice thickly on the bias.

Mix together the water or chicken stock, remaining ½ teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 Tablespoon shaoxing wine, and 2 Tablespoons soy sauce and stir to combine.

Fill the wok (or a large skillet) with water and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus and simmer one minute, or until crisp-tender. Scoop out with a skimmer and set in a colander to drain. Add the chicken to the boiling water, simmer one to two minutes, or until just cooked through in the center, and drain.. Wipe out wok/skillet.

Heat over high heat and when it starts to smoke, add the canola oil. Add the ginger, garlic and pine nuts and cook 30 seconds. Add the asparagus and corn or mushrooms and cook until hot. Add the chicken and cook another minute.

Add the bowl of mixed liquids and cook until the liquid bubbles and thickens. (If this doesn't happen within 30 seconds, your wok is not hot enough.) Add the sesame oil and turn out onto a platter to serve.