No Garlic. Not as in, "Never ever cook with garlic, ever," but as in "When stir-frying greens skip the stinking rose."
(If you're wondering who Mr. Zhang is and what else he's taught me, go to our first post in this very sporadic series, here. And while we're at it, here's an article on Mr. Zhang's place, and other Chengdu eateries like his, that we did a while back for the South China Morning Post: Page 1 and Page 2)
Common knowledge says when you're stir-frying green leafy veggies in the Chinese manner you want to throw in some chopped garlic. But beginning wok jockeys -- heck, even myself on occasion -- often find that the garlic browns too quickly, or burns as it's being tossed with the greens once they're in the pan. One way to deal with this occasional issue is to fry the garlic, remove it from the wok, fry the greens, and then add the garlic back in.
But like many Sichuanese cooks Mr. Zhang has a better, easier way of adding in flavor to those stir-fried veggies: skip the garlic in favor of suan miao.
Suan miao, or leeks, show up in many Sichuanese dishes. A properly made mapo dofu gets its jade-green accents from the green part of suan miao. They're stir-fried with la rou (Sichuanese bacon), pork slivers and black beans, eggplant, pressed and dried tofu, and all sort of other ingredients. They're heaped in mounds in Chengdu markets, tucked into shopping bags, and bundled home under arms.
And, in Mr. Zhang's kitchen at least, the greenest part of suan miao substitute for chopped garlic when he stir-fries rape, mustard and other green leafy vegetables.
We can't find suan miao here in Kuala Lumpur, so I substitute scallion greens. And since returning from our last trip to Chengdu I have been turning out some pretty fantastic chao qing cai (fried green veggies). These stir-fried greens (choy sum/flowering mustard, usually) find their way to our table two or three times a week. For our Sichuan-leaning palates, they're best with a few Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies thrown into the mix, a la Chez Zhang.
Thanks Mr. Zhang!
Mr. Zhang's Stir-fried Leafy Greens (A Recipe of Sorts)
I understand there is a raging debate among Asian cookbook authors whether or not one should dry one's greens before stir-frying. If I had a flame like Mr. Zhang's (see above) I never would dry my greens. But all I've got is a regular gas burner with a pretty unimpressive BTU. I find that spinning my greens dry a few times after washing makes for a much more successful stir-fry. Experiment or, to err on the safe side, dry those greens.
Cooking oil (rapeseed oil gives that Sichuan flavor; if that's unavailable, peanut oil is preferred)
OPTIONAL but authentically Sichuanese: a heaping tsp or two of Sichuan peppercorns, whole and unroasted AND a heaping tbsp. or two of dried red chilies, snipped in half crosswise
About 1 lb. / one half kilo sturdy greens (Sichuanese rape, mustard greens/choy sum, gai lan leaves, bok choy, etc) -- sliced into 1-inch/3-cm shredds, washed and if you prefer, spun dry
a good handful of scallion greens, washed and snipped into 2-inch/4-cm lengths
a Tbsp or two of stock or water
- Set a wok or big frypan over high heat, and add a good glug or two of oil. Swirl the oil over the surface of the wok/pan and heat till not quite smoking.
- Toss in chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, give a good stir but don't let the chilies blacken.
- Start adding greens by the handful, stirring and tossing as you go. When the last of the greens are in add a few pinches of salt (less if you're using salted stock). Stir-fry for a minute or two, tossing to expose all green to the heat.
- Add just a bit of stock or water (you don't want a pool in the bottom of your wok/pan, you just want to moisten the greens a bit to create a little steam) -- this may not be necessary if you haven't dried your veggies, toss, and cover the pan.
- Check after a minute or two. The veg stems should still be fairly crunchy. Now, throw in your scallion / leek greens, toss for a minute or so, and turn the lot onto a plate.