Sichuan Stir-Fried Spring Vegetables = Delicious Uncharted Territory

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Chinese technique meets my favorite Western spring vegetables. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

A few weeks back, I was cooking a Sichuan feast for a half dozen people in San Francisco. On the planned menu was mapo tofu, a hot and numbing chicken salad, and dry-fried green beans. The only problem? There were no green beans at the supermarket. We could have changed the menu, but instead we decided to participate in my favorite springtime activity: raiding the vegetable section.

Asparagus, fresh fava beans, English peas, snap peas, and morel mushrooms might not be typical ingredients at your average Chengdu greasy spoon—but hey, we've managed to transform Western broccoli, something almost entirely unheard of in China, into the most common vegetable on the takeout menu, so why not branch out even further? The fact that I'd also forgotten to bring along my Sichuan preserved mustard root—an essential ingredient for the original green bean dish—didn't really bug me; we were already flying off the map into uncharted territory.

I started by blanching my green vegetables in order to set their color and help them stay bright when I got around to charring them. (Blanching deactivates an enzyme that can cause green vegetables to turn brownish.) Next, I sautéed the morels in vegetable oil just until they started to brown and tenderize.

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Once the morels were cooked, I transferred them to a bowl and heated up some more vegetable oil until smoking-hot, then added my blanched green vegetables, tossing and stirring them until dark, charred spots appeared. I removed the vegetables from the wok and added them to the same bowl with the morels. With a high-output wok range, you could potentially cook all of your vegetables and sauce in succession without removing anything from the wok. However, with a Western range, cooking in batches like this ensures that the vegetables sear and char instead of steaming and turning dull.

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I love the rich, earthy flavor of morel mushrooms, especially when paired with sweet green spring vegetables, so I wanted to stay judicious with my seasonings, avoiding the gloppy sauces that can mire down some stir-fries. I added a final tablespoon of vegetable oil to the wok, along with a few whole dried red chilies and a pinch of ground Sichuan peppercorn, letting them sizzle until the oil was infused with flavor. Next, I added my aromatics: garlic, ginger, and scallions. (Okay, if you want to know the truth, I actually used ramps, because I simply can't say no to a ramp during their short harvest season.)

Dry-fried green beans are typically seasoned with preserved mustard root, which adds little bursts of salty and savory flavor. It's one of the hallmarks of the dish. Without any preserved mustard available, I instead turned to another Western ingredient: black olives. Chopped up and incorporated into the stir-fry, they played a very similar supporting role.

I finished it off by returning the vegetables to the wok, seasoning them with small splashes of Shaoxing wine and soy sauce, and adding a handful of chopped cilantro and mint.

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Since that initial accidental dinner, I've made the dish a few more times, substituting different vegetables (fiddleheads, snow peas, and, yes, green beans all work well) and different mushrooms (maitake FTW), while keeping the base flavor and technique the same. I haven't run into a single failure yet, which leads me to believe that in the future, maybe I'll just stir-fry ALL THE VEGETABLES.