Organizational Skills Learned from a Chinese Wok

Last night I cooked for Rebecca one of my very favorite recipes: Pork & Asparagus stir-fry. It’s a colorful dish I’ve cooked for almost 20 years, but haven’t tried in quite a while. (Shrimp works well too.)

The ingredients are simple but very tasty: Lean pork, fresh asparagus, onions, red bell pepper, mushrooms, ginger, garlic, hoisin sauce, chicken stock, sesame seed oil and soy sauce. The real trick is to adjust the proportions correctly, so there is a nice balance between the meat, vegetables and sauces. Not too much of one or too little of another.

If you don’t know, stir-fry cooking is heavy on preparation, light on cooking time. Everything must be ready before you fire up the wok. You can’t decide in the middle of cooking that, oh, I forgot to cut up a bell pepper. You’ll be in deep trouble, because it’s the intense heat of stir-frys that makes the process so fast. The dish is finished in just 5-8 minutes.

This isn’t about crock pots, an oven casserole or slow cooking stews.

To me, there are some straightforward (but critical) organizational skills – project management if you will – that can be learned from stir-frying.

First, you have to shop for your ingredients before cooking. This means thinking ahead. You look at your recipe, survey your cupboard and refrigerator to see what is already available, assess what you need, then get organized. I write a list, go to the grocery store and head straight to the Chinese cooking aisle. Hit the vegetable section, then meats. I buy minced garlic & ginger in jars to save prep time (and for storage).

Second, I always set the table before I start cooking. I learned this trick from an old Hungarian cookbook. By setting the table first you don’t have to worry about doing so after the food is done. Smart. You prepare for the” finish” before you start. Must be a lesson in there somewhere.

Third, it’s crucial to have all your ingredients cut, chopped & prepped before turning on the flame. All my utensils are out and ready. That’s much like any production process where organization, time management and preparation pay dividends. I even go to the trouble of having all the bottle tops off my sauce jars to save time. And I take the pork out of the fridge 1 hour ahead to let the meat come to room temperature. Never cook cold meat.

Fourth, once the cooking starts, there’s absolutely no going back. You are committed to the outcome, good or bad. Sounds like project management to me, right there. You’re either IN or you’re not. You decide.

Fifth, be creative. The original recipe doesn’t include red bell peppers. But I added this ingredient to give color to the dish. I also add in sliced mushrooms and have been known to throw in almonds or peanuts for some “crunch”. Be creative. Make the recipe yours, something you can call your own. But don’t stray too far away from what works or is successful.

Finally, I have learned from tasting and cooking my pork & asparagus stir-fry many times before to adjust the portions. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup chicken stock, but my wife, Rebecca, commented that too much stock leaves the dish kind of soggy. So now I just throw in a dash of chicken stock, far less than what’s called for. I also double the amount of ginger (2 tbsp), because ginger is the star of the recipe. It’s unique flavor, blended with the asparagus, infuses the entire dish and is enjoyed with every little bite.

Why is this important? I listened to (customer) feedback and adjusted the recipe.

Don’t be chained to what’s on paper. No plan is perfect. Adjust. Yes, have a plan. Follow the recipe. But be willing to tweak that plan as you go. Be flexible.

Welcome to project management.

By the way, the stir-fry rocked last night!

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