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Cookbook Review

With stir-frying, her sky’s the limit

Grace Young puts the wok to work

By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2010

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Anyone who has cooked out of Grace Young’s earlier book “The Breath of a Wok’’ is already familiar with her style: in-depth, thorough, meticulous, impassioned. Young doesn’t browbeat you with her respect for authenticity, but it’s contagious. “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge’’ is similar. She unveils techniques, regional variations, different ways of using your knife. In short, you now have worlds of stir-fries, where perhaps none appeared to exist. You might never again throw a bunch of random stuff in a wok and stir it around with some soy sauce.

A few of these stir-fries are good enough to trigger that sudden pause in conversation that you have when wonderful food comes along and talking suddenly seems much less important than eating.

Fried sweet rice with sausages and mushrooms has the same irresistible combination that you find in the bamboo-wrapped packets known as zhong zi — sweet, porky dried Chinese sausage and earthy black mushrooms suspended in glutinous rice (which is to regular rice what caramel is to sugar).

Spicy dry-fried shreds of beef, with nothing but carrots and celery and the usual seasonings, shows off the searing prowess of a wok, and its single-minded way of driving home the point of garlic, ginger, and soy. Warning: Your smoke alarm will activate.

If you’ve never worked with fresh sheets of rice noodles, they’re worth hunting down at your local Asian grocery; if you can’t get them fresh, you can probably get them frozen. Then you can make Young’s outstanding beef chow fun, a riot of pungent black beans and chewy, flavorful starch.

The rest of the recipes I tried, for the most part, are merely very good, like an easy vinegar-glazed chicken that ought to convert you if you don’t “get’’ the taste of black vinegar, or Mongolian lamb with scallions, which strikes a happy balance between rich and gamy. Young’s careful instructions coax maximum succulence out of greens such as baby bok choy and Napa cabbage, and can even safely guide you through the popular but somewhat more complicated dry-fried Sichuan beans. (Do not be tempted to skip the scary-sounding “preserved vegetable,’’ which you can find in any Asian grocery, in weird little foil packs that look like they belong in space; it is essential.)

Among the only mild disappointments is a Cantonese-style stir-fried pork with Chinese broccoli, which isn’t even Young’s own recipe. It is one of those unhappy screeds that seems to direct you to measure a dreary 1/4 teaspoon of everything, and the payoff is only so-so. A delectably photographed fried rice with crabmeat and tomato turns out uncharacteristically mushy and blurred in flavor.

Stir-frying is a loud business, and a hot one. Over the week that I tested, I got used to living with a propane-fueled clamor at stoveside and an oil film on the inside of my glasses. (If you ever have the chance to read it, Harold McGee has a wonderfully diverting essay on frying and why glasses get dirty inside rather than out; here’s the remedy: Wear a baseball cap.)

This book, which is filled with essays, would be at home on a quiet bedside table, too. You can read about Chinese life in the Mississippi Delta, Brooklyn, Malaysia, and Singapore. There’s information on the best oil for stir-frying, ways to shred scallions, and how to julienne carrots. In fact, this book is bursting with so much interesting information, I wanted to turn down the corners on every other page, not something I normally like to do to books. But this one also cooks so hard. The pages are oil-stained and battered already. What’s a couple of dog-eared pages?

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@ tsusanchang.com.

STIR-FRYING TO THE SKY’S EDGE: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, With Authentic Recipes and Stories

By Grace Young

Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $35