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Wok Talk - Simplifying Multi-Item Cooks.

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I have made a return to grilling after a long absence and I have been attempting a lot of multi-item cooks. For the last 3 cooks I have been doing 3 or 4 item stir fries. Even though the cooking times can be very short, these can be quite time consuming with all of the prep and setup time involved. This blog will cover some of the things I have learned along the way, including a recent discovery that really speeds up the prep. Most of the items I talk about apply to the prep which is the same for any grill. A few apply to the Big Green Egg or other Kamado style grill. Hopefully some or all of the items I discuss, will be of use to others trying multi-item stir fries.

BIG PICTURE - Your Goal:
As with any other kind of cook your goal is to try and serve the items together and at their peak of flavor. With a stir-fry cook this can be difficult because this peak of flavor (and texture) can be fleeting. The best stir fry I have ever made was SIMPLE STIR-FRIED SPINACH WITH GARLIC which was absolutely amazing. I served it as the last course of a multi-item stir-fry straight of the wok. I made sure that while I was out stir-frying the spinach, my guests had started serving themselves the other courses. When I brought the wok in with the spinach, I quickly plated it and everyone got it within 1 minute of it coming off the wok. Hot of the wok, this dish was amazing. Within five minutes this dish had lost all of the qualities that put it way over the top. It went from best ever to something I would not have bothered making again, all in about 5 minutes time. So you need to look for things that will help you serve the food closest to it’s peak.

BIG PICTURE - Analyzing Your Meal:
When you are picking items for your meal, look for several things:
  • Can it be made ahead and served at room temperature?
  • Can it be served as it’s own separate course such as soups or appetizers?
  • Can it be made and held without much loss of quality?

Make Ahead: If the recipe says the item can be served fresh off the wok or served at room temperature this gives you one item you don’t need to worry about as much. You make that item first and let it cool to room temp while you are doing the rest of the stir fry. Leftovers is a variation on make ahead. You may not have intended to serve a dish a second time, but if you have enough left overs you can uses them as one of the courses for your next meal. You just need to have it warmed up for the time you want to serve the rest of the meal. Fried rice works well in this role. For more on this be sure to read the Make and Hold item below.

Soups or Appetizers: You can make these items first, serve them and then continue on with the rest of the stir-fry. I try to have the rest of the items for the meal measured out and ready to go. After the soup is done I can jump right into the next course.

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Dishes that have a sauce with them tend to do well being held in food warmer.


Make and Hold: Over time you will learn the items that don’t loose too much being held in the oven, a crock pot or a food warmer. I have a 3 bay food warmer that I bought to use at the holidays. It also works well for holding many stir-fried dishes. You can also hold certain dishes in covered serving/warming dishes in a 170 degree (75 C) oven. At that temperature they do not really continue to cook. The first thing you lose in a stir-fried dish is the wonderful fresh crispy texture you get from cooking the items quickly at high temperature. Dishes with leafy vegetables like spinach really can’t be held and should be served last. Items with crispy veggies like bell peppers will lose some of their crispy texture, so make those at or near the end. The items that seem to suffer the least from holding are items where the dish has a sauce. Thanks to the sauce, the food doesn’t dry out and as long as you don’t hold it too long the ingredients won’t get too soggy. One of the things I always do when making a new dish that I plan to hold, is take a “quality control” sample fresh of the wok. This way I know what that items tastes like when it is at it’s peak. Later I can compare that to what I get after it has spent some time in the food warmer. You will probably have to do some experimentation on your own to see what items can be held and what items lose too much. But I think you will quickly develop a feeling for what works.

PREP:
Let Your Butcher Help You Save Time: A good butcher will be more than happy to trim up your piece of meat, remove the fat and possibly even slice it into the sized cubes or strips that you need. Not all meat should be cut small this far ahead to time, but your butcher can advise you. My butcher actually suggested using beef short rib meat instead of flank steak. This was an excellent choice. He also trimmed my beef and put it in layers between sheets of butchers paper and vacuum sealed it for me. It was essentially ready to go when I needed it. Even trimming the fat for you can save considerable time and is worth having them do.

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This tray is ready to go out to the grill. The ingredients are organized by the order I will use them in, starting with the peanut oil in the lower left. The sauce ingredients are in s/s pinch bowls clustered (top right) around the glass bowl they will be mixed in. This will happen just before heading out to the wok .


Getting and Staying Organized: When making a stir-fry you are going to end up with anywhere from 5 or 6 to 15 or 20 ingredients which you will need to add to the wok in quick batches. I typically cook on my wok at 650-700 degrees (340-370 C) and at that temperature you need to keep things moving or they will burn. You don’t want to be fumbling around looking for the next ingredient to add. So I like going out to the grill with a 1/4 or 1/2 sheet pan with my ingredients all measured out and arranged in the sequence I plan to use them in. I also start out using the sheet pans as a way to get organized right at the start and stay organized all the way throughout the prep. Depending on the amount of ingredients and the sizes of the bowls needed to hold them, I decide on the use of either a 1/4 (9”x12” / 23cm x 30cm) or 1/2 sheet pan (12”x18” / 30cm x 45cm), which you can get at any good cooking store. Since I don’t need to use my glass cooktop for a stir-fry, I use it as the initial space where I stock the trays. Since different stir-fries can use lots of the same ingredients, they may be tough to tell apart until the last step where you add the meats onto the tray. So I put a sticky note on each tray identifying the dish. The other thing I do is have all of the bowls or cups on the trays early on. When I do the initial round of adding the dry spices and sauces, I also add appropriately sized measuring cups, glass bowls or large bowls as empty place holders. This way I start out with the right number of containers for the ingredients of that recipe. If at the end I have 9 filled containers and one empty one, this tells me I am missing an ingredient. I also arrange the ingredients to suit the recipes. Things that will be combined together either out at the wok or just before heading out to the wok are grouped together on the tray. I often surround the larger bowl I will mix the ingredients in with the appropriate sub-ingredients. I also arrange the ingredients in the order I will use them out at the wok. Things get more and more hectic the closer you get to heading out to the grill. I find the more organizing you can do earlier in the process, the less mistakes or confusion there will be later.

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From left to night: 6 oz. glass bowl, s/s measuring cups and 10 oz glass bowl.

Containers: As mentioned, I fill the trays with containers holding the measured out portions of all of the ingredients. I never fill these cups or bowls to the rim, particularly for a stir-fry where you need to work fast. Here is what I use:

  • Stainless Steel Measuring Cups: I have also heard these referred to as Pinch Bowls. The are round flat-bottomed cups with tapered sides. They hold about 3 TBSp (45 ml) but I usually only use them for 2 TBSp (30 ml) or less.
  • 6 oz (175 ml) Glass Bowls: I use these for up to 2/3 cup portions.
  • 10 oz (300 ml) Glass Bowls: I use this size for up to 1 cup (240ml) portions.
  • Larger Bowls: I have various sized glass, plastic or metal food safe bowls I use for larger amounts. If item are just being whisked or mixed together I use a bowl size large enough do that task safely. If the items get mixed together and then a meat is added and tossed to coat in the mixture I use a larger bowl to give me plenty of room to work quickly without the risk of spilling something. These bowls usually go on the sheet pan tray for the dish. If the bowl is over a certain size, I may keep them next to the tray in the Kitchen and bring them out to the grill as a separate item.

Economies of Scale: If more than one of the recipes calls for ground sea salt or black pepper, rather than use a pepper or salt mill I will grind up enough to cover all of the recipes in my spice grinder. Then I pour this in a bowl and measure out portions as I go. Much quicker and easier. Instead of trying to grind 3 or 4 precise portions with the pepper mill, you make a single batch slightly bigger than what you need and use a measuring spoon to grab as you go.

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Standing in the corner if I face left all of my ingredients are laid out in front of me. Turning 45 degrees towards the corner are the bowls & measuring spoons for measuring and placing the ingredients in bowls. Turning 45 degrees towards the cook top is where the sheet pan trays are that hold each recipes ingredients.


Staging Area - Big Picture: This was my big time saving discovery two weeks ago and it worked so well I further refined it last week. The idea originally stemmed from my wishing to cut down some of the work I had to do on the prep on the morning of the cook. It occurred to me a lot of time is wasted grabbing spices or sauces, using them and returning them to the cupboard and then pulling them out later. It occurred to me that I could pull out all of the (non-refrigerated) ingredients and arrange them together in a staging area. The intent was I would keep them out throughout the prep and use them to measure out portions for all the dishes. I could return them to their cupboards at my leisure, even after the cook. I arranged the containers by size and type to make things quick and easy to find. Tall bottles in the back, medium sized containers in the middle and spice bottles down front. The cookbook I was using was an e-book so I simply brought my iPad out to the Kitchen and used it to stock the staging area.

Staging Area - Unexpected Benefits: As expected, there was great time savings in not having to keep pulling the same ingredients in and out of the cupboard. The organization made finding the items I was looking for quick and easy. There were two unexpected benefits to this approach. The first was I could do this the night before saving me that much time in the morning. I was able to do it under more relaxed conditions where time wasn’t a factor. I could also go in and grab a bunch of items across multiple recipes meaning less trips to the cupboard. I then went recipe by recipe and gathered the remaining ingredients I needed. This is where the second benefit occurred to me. Doing this the night before allowed me to go out either then or first thing in the morning to buy anything I was missing. No last minute surprises. I made sure to check any sauces that were refrigerated and needed to stay refrigerated until the morning. This way I was sure I had them and had enough to suit my recipes.

Staging Area - First Use: I was arranging the 4 sheet pans on my glass cooktop as mentioned earlier. The cooktop is in the corner and the counter makes a 3’ return on the left side of the range. This made the perfect staging area. The dead area in the corner where the two sides meet, was the perfect place to do the measuring. The procedure involved standing in one spot and working left to right. I would face left and grab an ingredient, turn 45 degrees to the right and face the measuring area and turn 45 degrees to the right and place the measured ingredient on the tray. I could measure out the spices and sauces and also add placeholder cups or bowls for the items to come. I went down each recipe in order shown on the list. This was generally the order the ingredients would be used out on the wok. The “order of assembly” I used was as follows:

  • Oil: A few tbsp of peanut oil was first. I would use a s/s cup for this.
  • Sauce Ingredients: I would measure out the dry and liquid ingredients for the sauces or marinades. I would arrange the s/s cups and glass bowls on the sheet pan around the empty bowl I would mix them in, These were typically next on the ingredients list because the sauces get mixed together just before heading out to the wok. The marinades are mixed and the meat is added 10 or 15 minutes ahead of time.
  • Ginger, Garlic & Scallions: The ginger and garlic are often the first items actually stir-fried, the scallions are the last. Initially I lay out place holder cups or bowls for them on the sheet pan and mince or chop them later.
  • Veggies: I would dice or chop any veggies such as pepper and onion and put them in bowls next. This was actually done away from the Staging Area at the area next to my fridge I usually use for prep. For these items I would prep them one veggie at a time vs one recipe at at time. I would prepare all the portions for carrots for all recipes using carrots. Depending on how much time would elapse before I used them, I might at least cover the bowl in foil and possibly put it in the refrigerator
  • Frozen Veggies: I would measure out frozen veggies such as broccoli, peas, corn etc. and put them in bowls. These I would leave out to allow them to defrost while I was finishing the other prep.
  • Misc. Dry Spices: These are usually the last thing added at the very end of the stir-fry. I measure these into the s/s cups and play them with the final ingredients.
  • Main Meat: The meat needs to stay refrigerated until the end. At the start of the prep I would lay out a placeholder bowl on the tray suited to the size the meat would be after trimming. When it got close to cooking time, I would trim the meat and place it in it’s dish. Depending on the amount if time left before cooking it would go for a brief final stay in the fridge or onto it’s tray.

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Adding the measuring spoons and portion containers to the Staging Area meant far less walking back and forth to various cupboards.


Staging Area - Second Use - New & Improved: I ended up doing stir-fries on three consecutive weekends. The first I didn’t use a Staging Area. I pulled things in and out of the cupboards, sometimes several times, as required by the various dishes I was making. I still assembled things on trays, but the assembly process was less ordered and structured and took far more time. Also put on a lot of mileage walking back and forth in the Kitchen. The second cook, which marked the first use of a Staging Area, went noticeable faster and pulling out the non-perishable ingredients the night before saved much time in the morning. For the third cook, and second use of the Staging Area, I made some improvements. In addition to just gathering all of the ingredients the night before, I gathered a collection of the stainless steel portion cups, glass bowls and larger bowls as would be needed to hold the ingredients the next day. This saved quite a bit of back and forth to the cupboards since I made only one trip to get all of each of the containers. I did the same thing with the measuring spoons. I gathered all of the sizes I would need and used separate spoons for wet and dry ingredients. I set the trays out on the cooktop for each dish and did their sticky note labels the night before. Lastly I collected the larger sized glass, china, plastic or metal bowls I would need to hold the meats, or marinades & meat, or sauces and put them on their respective trays to help me keep track of them the next morning. I placed a small plastic cutting board in the dead corner area to use to measure and pour over. I also placed a small stash of paper towels in the area. Lastly, I made sure there was room for my iPad on it’s stand to go int the corner. All my recipes were in e-book form and they would later go out to the grill with me for reference.

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The ingredients from the refrigerator have been added to the two trays in the foreground. The next steps are to check the ingredients against the recipe list and mix any sauces or marinades.


Staging Area - We Have Lift Off: About 1 hour before I want to be cooking my first stir fry, I light one of the two Eggs I can use for stir frying. These Eggs are located on either end of my grill cabinets which gives me 5’ (150 cm) of countertop work space. I typically use the one that is slightly closer to my Kitchen door. When doing a multi-item cook, I usually set up the Egg the night before. For high temperature cook like this, I usually completely clean it out and save and reuse only the medium of larger sized used lump. I add the Stump Chunks fire starters and install the wok spider (used to hold the round bottomed wok) on the fire ring. On the day of the cook I just need to go out to the Egg and light it.. By using a generous amount of Stump Chunks I am able to get the Egg lit and up to 650 degrees (343 C) in 15 minutes or so. I then let the Egg stabilize at that temperature and I run outside several times to make sure I am dialed in to my desired temps. You need to be careful not to let the Egg take off and start running away on you.

When it was getting to be time to cook the first dish, I would remove any items for the first and
second dishes from the fridge. I moved the two trays over to my prep area next to the fridge. This frees up an area on the cook top for my second wok ring to receive the hot wok coming in from the first cook. All the cups and bowls on these first two trays should now be full. Using the iPad, I went down the list of ingredients again to make sure they were all present on the tray and in the order of their intended use. I then read the directions to see if any items get combined to make sauces and marinades. Often you end up marinading the meat for 10 to 15 minutes or so prior to using it. This is about the time for one stir fry. Once I get the first tray completed and any of it’s marinades underway, I go through the same process for the second tray as I did for the first tray. The last step is to get any marinade process underway for the second tray just prior to heading out to the wok. This way the second tray will be ready to go when I come back in from the grill with the first dish.

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In this picture, the Egg I am using to stir-fry is on my right. In front of me are the ingredients on their 1/2 sheet pan. They are arranged in the sequence I will use them. Behind the sheet pan is a large bowl of rice and the iPad with the recipe steps. To the left is the wok chuan and to the left beyond that (and out of the picture) is my wok ring sitting on a Corian heat pad . This is where the wok goes when it is not on the grill.


At this point I make several trips out to my grill area to get set up on the counter top next to the Egg I will be using. The countertop space immediately next to the Egg is reserved for the tray with the ingredients for that stir-fry. Behind the tray is where I put the iPad with the recipe. To the side of the tray is a space for the wok chuan (spatula) and the welders gloves I use for removing the hot wok from the Egg and taking it into the Kitchen. Beyond that, I set up a wok ring. This holds my round-bottom wok before stir-frying, and keeps the hot wok up off the counter when I initially remove the wok from the Egg.

When I am wrapping up a stir-fry I put on the welder’s gloves, remove the wok to the wok ring on the grill cabinet counter and then close the Egg’s dome. I usually pull the wok a minute or so early, because the food continues to cook until it is removed from the wok. After the Egg’s lid is closed I bring the hot wok inside and land it on a second wok ring that I have set up on the cooktop. I transfer the food to one of the empty bowls from the food warmer. This bowl is hot, but by using the cooktop as a landing area the hot bowl isn’t a problem. Once the wok is empty, I rinse it quickly with hot water and fill it with hot water to soak for a few minutes. I do the same for the wok chuan, which I brought inside in the hot wok. I move the 3rd tray to the food prep area next to the fridge, pull any items for that dish from the fridge and check to make sure the ingredients are all gathered. I go back and finish cleaning the wok and wok chuan and dry it off. The last step before taking the second tray and wok out to the grill, is to mix any sauces or marinades for the third tray. Once this is done, the wok, the wok chuan, the second dishes tray and the iPad go back out to the grill. I preheat the wok for 1 minute on the Egg with the lid closed. I then open the lid, add the peanut oil and the next stir-fry begins.

CONCLUSION:
Hopefully I have illustrated how a this extra level of organization doesn’t actually take a lot more time as you might initially think. Using a Staging Area, I can set up once ahead of time and save a lot time wandering back and forth to my cabinets while prepping. Setting the Staging Area up the night before also allows me to discover any ingredients I may be out of or too low on. This gives me a chance to run out the night before or first thing in the morning to grab any missing items. When I am done with the prep, I can leave the dedicated Staging Area set up until it is convenient to put everything away. All the ingredients are good to go in one location and you work more quickly. It also helps you stay organized throughout the prep when doing multiple stir-fried dishes. There is a lot to be said for that. Once you get out to the wok you won’t find out you have forgotten to prep an ingredient or left it sitting in the fridge. With the quick pace of a stir-fry if it isn’t out at the grill, it may be just as well to leave it out. You will probably burn the food on the wok while you go searching for the missing item. The items I have described here are a case where a little extra organization saves a LOT of time, makes the process easier and avoids mistakes. Hopefully the use of a Staging Area and some of the other things I have discovered doing multi-item stir-fries will save you some time, effort and aggravation.

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