Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Flank Steak Stir-Fry and The Laws of Thermodynamics

Get it hot. Cook it fast.

The one constant that I see across nearly all timid cooks is a fear of heat. They're afraid of burning things, of setting the oven too high, of overcooking dinner,
of torching the house.

Cooking is all about heat transfer. Cooks take ingredients, expose them to heat, and transform those ingredients into something tasty. There are three main ways to transfer heat, you can boil, fry or bake. Now there are nuances but these are the primary methods, (I know that ice cream making doesn't fit because it's cold transfer, but let's face it, ice cream has more to do with magic than actual cooking).

Baking is a dry method. Put roast in hot oven, wait, eat.

Boiling and its tamer cousins poaching, simmering and steaming are a wet methods. Put pasta in hot water, stir, wait, pour sauce on, eat.

As far as I'm concerned those are the two methods most likely to result in overcooked food. They require temperature testing along the way, and if you get distracted, you end up with shoe leather.

By far my favorite form of cooking is frying/sauteing. The point of sauteing is to sear the outside of your ingredient locking in its juices, then add flavor in the form of some sort of sauce that cooks while the main finishes.

The only way to accomplish searing is to have a very hot pan. By hot I mean red-hot, I mean smoking, I mean toss in the food and get a little flash of flame. Now I know that's intimidating. I rarely let the pan get hot enough, mostly because I'm impatient. But you have to fight the urge to start too soon. A hot pan does all the work for you; it makes cooking so much easier.

Get it hot. Cook it fast.

A new motto.

Probably the zenith of sauteing is Chinese wok cooking. Here's a recipe that is very easy to make, if you remember the motto.

Crabby Stir-Fried Flank Steak

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup white wine (Japanese cooking wine adds a nice touch)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 TBSP minced garlic (use the store bought jarred stuff if you're in a hurry)
1 tsp potato starch, (arrowroot or flour is acceptable)
2 TBSP cooking oil (preferably peanut oil or safflower oil - NOT olive oil)
1 Beef Flank Steak

I serve this over steamed rice that takes 25 minutes to cook, so... Mix soy, white wine, sesame oil, minced garlic and potato starch in a both. Stir well to combine. Slice the flank steak across the grain.

Flank steak has clearly defined striations typically running the "long way". You want to slice the steak in 1/8" to 1/4" thick slices across the grain. This helps to insure more marinade absorption and a more tender final product. Place the sliced steak into the bowl with soy mixture. Pour yourself a glass of wine.

Start cooking the rice according to the box instructions. Mine takes 25 minutes to be cooked, during the first 18 minutes I sit back and watch TV and drink my wine, very civilized.

With 5 minutes to go on your rice, turn the heat to high under your wok or saute pan. Let it sit on the heat for at least 1 minute. After a minute hang your hand about 5 inches above the wok/pan. It should be getting pretty warm. If you can only stand the heat for a few seconds you're ready to go.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Have everything ready to go. The table needs to be set, the meat mixture should be in next to you, a spatula or tongs or wooden spoon need to be handy. "Mise" your "place" and everything will be OK.

Pour in the cooking oil. Gently swirl the pan to distribute the oil, the oil should shimmer on the bottom of the pan.

Take the meat mixture, and at arms length, pour it into the pan, trying to cover as much of the bottom of the wok as possible.

Now it's going to be noisy, it's going to be messy, but hang in there, you're almost done.

Do absolutely nothing for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds quickly stir the meat, trying to turn the uncooked side down onto the pan side. Cook 45 seconds longer.

Serve over rice. I usually add some blanched vegetable that I quickly saute to bring back up to heat, in the attached pictures it was sugar snap peas.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Active Cooking Time: 2 minutes 45 seconds (estimated)
Passive Cooking Time: 22 minutes 15 seconds
Clean-Up: This is a toughie. If the wok is really hot it's actually easier to clean afterwards. The problems is the stove top will get a little messy form the splatter. Lets call it 15 minutes total.

That's it, 30 minutes beginning to end, with ample wine sipping time. This approach works with chicken, pork, fish and (God forbid) tofu. You can also add other things to the marinade like hot pepper flakes to give a little kick, or a little honey to sweeten it up (watch out with the honey though, too much and the sugars will burn).

OK. Next time we get an installment from Wine Wizard Bob about his trip to South Africa. Until then, remember, you can do it, you can cook.

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