AMERICANS are becoming less timid about buying new and strange-looking ingredients for Asian food recipes. But often preparation methods are quite different from those used in traditional American cooking. Here are some tips for novices at Asian cooking. TECHNIQUES
Blanching: Use 2 quarts of boiling water for each 1/2 pound of vegetables. Immerse the vegetables in the boiling water, turn off heat, and wait 10 seconds. Pour into colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop further cooking. Drain.
Dicing, Mincing: Dicing means cutting ingredients into pea-size or peanut-size pieces. Mincing means chopped ingredients into rice-size pieces or cutting them so fine they become a paste. Cut ingredients first into slices, then into strips. Dice or mince crosswise.
Shredding: The size of a shred is about the size of a match stick; 1/8 inch wide, 1/8 inch thick, and 1-to-2 inches long. To shred, slice the meat or vegetable, cut into shreds. Stack a few slices before shredding if slices are very thin.
Slicing: Cutting meat into paper-thin slices is made easier by partial freezing of the meat beforehand.
Stir-frying: Have all ingredients prepared in advance - peeled, seeded, measured, and cut into the right size and shape. Always heat the wok first, then add oil.
Add ginger, garlic, scallions, and salt as recipe requires. The hot oil draws the fragrance and flavor from these seasonings.
Add meat or vegetables, usually one at a time. Do not overcook. Prolonged cooking will toughen meat, turn bright green vegetables gray, and wilt crunchiness. Very few stir-fry dishes take more than 5 minutes.
Skewers: Use bamboo rather than metal skewers for barbecuing satay dishes and shish kebabs. Bamboo does not conduct heat, and if the skewers are soaked in water for several hours, they will not burn.
Steamers: The Chinese steamer is made of bamboo and shaped like a basket with woven bottoms and lids. Stacking several together is fine for reheating foods, but is not advised for steam cooking.
Woks: Woks are designed to save cooking time as well as fuel. They are perfect for deep-frying, steaming, and stewing, as well as for stir-frying. Stir-fry dishes work just as well when prepared in a 12-inch skillet, saut'e pan, or cast-iron frying pan.
Lemon Grass: Instead of fresh, dried, or powdered lemon grass, use 2 strips of lemon peel or 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind per stalk needed.
Tamarind: Packaged ripe tamarind can be found in most Oriental markets, but many recipes call for the sour taste of unripe tamarind pods. In some cases, unripe tamarind can be replaced with lemon juice or rhubarb, if indicated in the recipe.
Ginger Root: Look for smooth outer skins. Ginger wrinkles and roughens with age. Use sparingly, and peeling beforehand is usually not necessary. It will keep 4-to-6 weeks in the refrigerator in a brown paper bag. There are really no substitutes: Bottled and powdered ginger are unsatisfactory, and crystallized ginger is sweet and used for desserts.
Five-Spice Powder: The exotic fragrance this blend of star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, cloves, and cinnamon gives to a dish - especially chicken - makes it worthwhile to search for a good mixture.
Palm Sugar: Brown sugar can act as a substitute, but cannot compare with this caramel-flavored sugar sold in Indonesian markets as cane or in square or round cakes. Available in Oriental markets.