- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Summer has just begun and, as the temperature starts to rise, standing over a hot stove is the last thing you’ll want to do. That’s why I really enjoy stir-frying summertime meals in a wok. No cooking method I know delivers delicious results faster.

A few simple secrets ensure great stir-frying. First, it helps to have a wok, a traditional Chinese frying pan with a hemispherical shape that conducts heat evenly over its entire cooking surface. Traditional woks are made of carbon steel and have perfectly rounded bottoms designed to sit atop special heat sources that allow live flames to wrap around the pan, heating it evenly. For today’s Western-style stoves, you can get woks with adapter rings that let them sit atop a gas burner, or even flat-bottomed woks that will rest securely on an electric element. Stainless-steel and nonstick woks are nice, too, because they won’t rust and will clean up easily. I have to admit that I’ve even stir-fried successfully in a large, heavy skillet, which doesn’t allow foods to be stirred and tossed as easily as in a wok, but does provide good heat and a spacious cooking surface.

The next important step in stir-frying is to cut up all your solid ingredients into small, uniformly sized pieces. This ensures that they will cook quickly and easily when you stir them in the wok. Plan to add them to the wok in a logical order, with those that require the longest cooking time put in first and those that cook quicker added last, so that everything turns out perfectly at the same time.

In addition to uniform cutting, take care to measure, pour and assemble all of your ingredients next to the stove before you start cooking. Stir-frying goes quickly, so you’ll need to be able to grab and add things one after the other without pause while you’re stirring. For the stirring itself, have a stir-frying spatula or other long-handled, broad spatula or spoon to enable you to move and flip the maximum ingredients with the minimum of effort.

Finally, there’s the cooking itself. Heat the wok first over medium-high to high heat, until a few beads of water dripped from your fingertips dance and evaporate on contact. Then, add the oil. When it is so hot that it swirls freely in the wok and has barely begun to give off just the faintest wisps of smoke, add the first ingredients in the recipe and let the stirring begin.

As you’ll see when you make the following main course or appetizer recipe adapted from my Chinois restaurants, you’ll feel like you’re done cooking almost before you’ve started. Which is exactly how you want.

STIR-FRIED ORANGE-FLAVORED GROUND PORK IN LETTUCE CUPS

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon black pepper

Grated zest of 1 orange

1 pound lean ground pork

1 head iceberg lettuce

Juice of 2 oranges

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/4 cup peanut oil

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons bottled Hoisin sauce (from the Asian food section of the market)

1/2 cup finely julienned fresh scallions

In a large nonreactive bowl, stir together the soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, pepper and orange zest. Add the ground pork and stir thoroughly with a fork to combine the meat and seasonings. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

About 15 minutes before cooking begins, remove the pork from the refrigerator.

Prepare the lettuce cups. Through its stem end, cut the head of iceberg lettuce in half. Cut out the stem and core and discard any blemished outer leaves. Gently separate 8 to 12 good-sized, cup-shaped leaves. Fill a mixing bowl with ice and water and immerse the leaves in the ice water to make them extra-crisp. Cut the remaining lettuce into thin julienne strips and set aside in a bowl to use as a garnish.

In a small nonreactive bowl, stir together the orange juice and cornstarch until the cornstarch has dissolved completely. Set aside. Measure the peanut oil, rice vinegar and Hoisin sauce into small individual containers and have them ready on the counter close to the stove.

Heat a large wok or saute pan over medium-high heat. When the wok or pan is hot, add the peanut oil. When the oil is hot enough to swirl easily and just beginning to give off the slightest wisps of smoke, carefully add the pork. Stir-fry the pork, moving it around the wok or pan in a constant motion with a wok spatula or large metal spoon, breaking up the meat into small pieces as you stir. Continue stir-frying until the pork is cooked through and lightly browned, about 4 minutes.

Pour in the rice vinegar and quick stir and scrape to deglaze the pan deposits and mix the vinegar with the meat. Quickly stir the orange juice-cornstarch mixture, add it along with the Hoisin sauce, and continue stir-frying until a glossy, thickly sauced mixture forms, 3 to 5 minutes more.

Drain the lettuce cups and quickly pat them dry with paper towels. Distribute the lettuce julienne evenly among the cups and spoon the ground pork mixture on top of the julienne. Garnish with shredded scallion. Transfer the cups to a serving platter or individual plates and serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

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