Monday, June 18, 2012

How to: Build a Better Stir-Fry

Whenever I am in a pantry-clearing, refrigerator-purging mood, I always think Stir-Fry. Regardless of the veggies I have on hand, the proteins stored away in my freezer, the seasonings in my spice rack, and the starches taking up space in the cabinets, I am always confident that some kind of stir-fry dish can come together for a quick and delicious dinner.

Stir fries, however, cannot be executed by a heavy hand. One cannot simply chop all their ingredients, heat up some oil, and throw all of said ingredients in for a frying pan ride! But why—WHY?! You might ask. Well, here are some answers.

First of all, a stir-fry dish is elevated to the next level if and only if flavors are built up and married. This may require a bit more patience on part of the home cook, but the results are sure to please. Take your sauces, for example. If you toss everything in the oil, douse it with some kind of sauce or marinade, and let it rip, much of the flavor will do one of two things: cook off or become too soaked into the ingredients (nobody likes a soggy stir-fry). Think of your high school shop class days: measure twice, cut once was the old adage here. In the world of stir-fry, let’s just say taste twice, or thrice, or four times, and serve once.

Now let’s think of our vegetable drawer. More likely than not, you are going to have a wide range of veggies just waiting to come to the stir-fry party. But what if this is what you’re working with: frozen broccoli, summer squash, zucchini, carrots, and celery. Odds are, it will be best if the frozen broccoli gets cooking long before the delicate summer squash, which needs only a few minutes over heat to get tender. And if carrots and celery are too late to the party, their crunchy texture will not marry happily with the soft zucchini. What I’m saying here is that veggies should be added in layers. Bring in the frozen veggies first and gradually add the fresh vegetables in order of most crispy to most tender.

Lastly, it is important to be aware of the protein you are working with. Are you using chicken breast that has already been cooked? Or are you browning up raw ground meat? Similar to my theory on the vegetables in a stir-fry, it is important to add in your protein at the right point in the cooking process. If your protein is still raw, brown up onions and finely chopped mushrooms to get some flavors moving, and then cook your meat thoroughly before adding any more vegetables. If your protein has already been cooked and just needs some flash-frying to reheat it, add it a little later when more of the sauces are in the pan to get the chicken, or turkey, or beef tender again.

Last night, I put all of these simple rules of thumb in action for a great Asian-inspired Ground Pork Stir-Fry. Below is the recipe. Jazz it up as you want and make use of the ingredients taking up space in your pantry—the options are endless!

Here’s what I had lying around the kitchen:

¾ pound ground pork
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped mushrooms
2 celery stalks, chopped to yield about ¼ cup
8 baby carrots, chopped to yield about 1/3 cup
1 egg
½ cup frozen broccoli
1 yellow squash, chopped to yield about 1 cup
½ cup fresh spinach, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce, plus more for drizzling
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon chili powder
Here’s how I built a delicious stir-fry:

Heat up olive oil in a heavy bottomed frying pan over medium heat.
Add in onions and mushrooms. Sprinkle with about ½ teaspoon salt to begin the caramelizing process. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes until the onions are slightly browned and the mushrooms begin to release some of their moisture.
Add the ground pork and break up the meat into the onions and mushrooms. Cook until fully browned, 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you need to drain any grease, do so at this point before any flavoring is added.
Add the Worcestershire sauce and stir to coat.
Add the frozen broccoli and cover the frying pan to lightly steam the florets.  After 5 minutes, remove the lid and stir.
Add the carrots and celery. Cook for about 5 minutes then stir in the lime juice. Allow the carrots and celery some time to cook down before adding the egg (scrambled). I created a space in the center of the pan to let the egg stiffen before mixing in to the rest of the stir fry.
Add the summer squash, chili powder, and half of the soy sauce. Mix well and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Finally, add in the spinach and the remaining soy sauce. Cook until the spinach is wilted. 

Serve over sticky rice and drizzle each dish with a touch more soy sauce!

What is your favorite stir-fry dish? How do you bring your flavors to the next level?

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