Flirting with Fire

Dry-cooked string beans are kind of a bitch unless you’re willing to fry and believe me, I’ve tried. They require pre-cooking. Here’s the problem with blanching in boiling water or steaming: the string beans become water-logged and the water leaches out some of their green-beany flavor. Only when deep-fried or pan-fried does the flavor properly concentrate.

And here’s my problem. I’m scared to death of deep-frying. Why? Well, I’m in the human services and going as far back as my fledgling days working in group homes, I’ve had to be CPR and First Aid certified through the American Red Cross.

Which means I’ve had to watch a video of some lady in a restaurant dipping her hand in a deep fryer. A lot. Sure, it’s not real.  Still it can mess with you. Add to it the fact my mother never deep-fried much at home and is it wrong that a half-gallon of hot oil freaks the hell out of me? Feedback welcome.

I’ve always loved Chinese cooking and married into a Chinese (Taiwanese to be exact) family. As such, we have a lot of Chinese ingredients about the house. My mother is from the old Southern school of cookery with two defining principles:

  1. It needs cured, fatty pork.
  2. It’s not done yet. It will probably never be done, but you have to do the best you can.

Fortunately for my mother: if I thought vegetables were a throwaway afterthought, I loves me some bacon. I could spend hours extolling the virtues of pork fat, but it’s been done, so I will spare you, reader. This time.

My mother-in-law hails from Taiwan. She’s the one who taught me how great simple, fuss-free vegetables could be. Nearly every big family meal on that side of the family is incomplete without a green vegetable and without fail, they’re always really, really good. Our families get along well and gather together for the major American holidays. My mother loves my mother-in-law’s vegetables and always requests she cook something like green beans. She has a simple method for stir-fried vegetables: precook and then stir-fry with crushed garlic and salt. That’s it. My mother still looks visibly bemused when we talk about this.

Not long ago, we had to scrap our dying teflon wok. It was scratched up pretty bad. It was also killing us slowly. That’s beside the point. I decided to pick up a new carbon steel wok and a copy of Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok. Amazing book about Southern Chinese culinary culture. Young writes about the Cantonese concept of wok hay: the elusive flavor inherent in good sir-fry. It’s the sort of smoky, concentrated, mouth-filling flavor when I stir-fry is done just right. Central to this is cooking over high heat. Not medium. Not medium-high, but high, high heat. The kind of heat that scorches eyebrows. She points out that finer restaurants in Hong Kong stir fry with compressed gas burners at hundreds of thousands of BTU’s: more like F-14 afterburners than the little metal coils of home kitchens.

The best green beans I’ve ever made weren’t deep-fried. No, I hardly do that. They did catch on fire though. I was cooking on a high-output Vulcan range at work–set it to high, and sort of forgot about it for five minutes or so. the oil ignited when I dropped in the blanched green beans. I tossed them around for about thirty seconds, doing my best not to singe said eyebrows, and then dropped them on a plate. When I served them, our administrative assistant was curious–what had a I added to give them such a rich, complex flavor?

Salt. A little bit of fire.

I don’t deep fry a lot, but I’m faced with incontrovertible evidence that some of the best food can be made when one flirts with fire without being burned.

I am not actually a professional cook, though I did use a professional range in my last job. And no, Phenix Nash is not, in fact, my real name. I love my day job dearly, but I need some space to explore my creative life. That’s why I decided to start this blog. I’m an avid reader and writer, an extraordinarily over-ambitious home-cook, an owner of a pair of strung-out cats, a dedicated coffee-drinker, sci-fi and fantasy geek, and all-around hot mess.

This past Thanksgiving, we hosted my parents and my in-laws. I bought a delicious bronze turkey from Whole Foods, but most of my attention went into planning the green beans. I made them as an homage–a compromise of sorts–to both of my families. Without further ado:

Dry-Fried Green Beans with Tasso Ham

Ingredients:

1 lb. green beans, trimmed

4 oz. tasso ham, chopped into ¼-inch dice

8 cloves garlic, thinly slivered

4 scallions, thinly sliced

¼ teaspoon salt

Cooking oil

Directions:

Pan-fry or deep fry green beans until cooked through and their skins are puckery. Drain oil and whipe dry.

Increase heat to high. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of oi. Add the tasso and stir-fry until browned and crisp. Add garlic and scallions. Stir-fry until aromatic, less than a minute. Add pre-cooked green beans and salt. Stir-fry about a minute and serve.

Green beans with homemade tasso ham.

Green beans with homemade tasso ham.

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