For quick weeknight dinners like today’s fried rice, my wok proves every bit of its $10 worth (I got it at a yard sale). It takes a hodgepodge of vegetables, protein, and starch, and turns them into a unified stir fry: shrimp and bok choy, pork and string bean, tofu and peppers, or rice and veggies (aka fried rice). You’ll need some oil to be sure your stir fries don’t stick, but overall they’re low in fat and as healthful as you want them to be. Since stir fries lend themselves to variation and improvisation, they’re a great outlet for cooking creativity, too. Here’s how to get going.
**How to Improvise a Great Stir Fry**
1. Choose your flavors. Though the list is endless, pick your ingredients judiciously lest you end up with an overwhelming slurry of meats and veggies. Onions or scallions and ginger or garlic are musts. After that, choose a vegetable or two and usually just one protein. We’ll talk about sauce a few steps down. For garnish, some nuts or herbs. That’s it!
2. Do your prep work. Most of the cooking time for a stir fry is in the prep. Before you start, slice onions and scallions and mince ginger or garlic. If you’re using other vegetables, chop those into slices or dices too. Cut your protein into small pieces and season it with some salt. I group the ingredients by the order in which they have to go into the pan, placing each in little prep bowls or larger cereal bowls.
3. Use a heavy pan that’s well-seasoned. Stir fries just don’t work as well in light, flimsy pans–they’ll stick to the bottom and get mushy. If you don’t have a wok, your best bet is to use a cast iron skillet that’s large enough for your ingredients. Otherwise, pick your heaviest frying pan.
4. Preheat the pan. Just before you start, place the wok on a high flame for about 4 minutes. Then add your oil. Only then can you start stir frying.
5. Brown protein first. Your first move is to get a good sear on your shrimp, tofu, chicken, or pork. Add the protein, which should be in two-bite-sized pieces, to a well-oiled pan, then toss and cook for just a minute or two. Have a plate ready and scoop the protein onto it.
6. Then head for the seasonings and vegetables. You”ll want to pour in more oil and slosh it around the pan. Next up are onions and other vegetables that need some time to cook, like carrots, celery, and broccoli. After those begin to soften, about a minute or two, add quicker-cooking vegetables like zucchini or asparagus. Last, add the ginger and garlic and give them a minute or two to get fragrant. Your protein goes back in, everything gets tossed with a sauce, the sauce boils and bubbles to reduce for a minute or two, and you’re done. I like to top with cashews or scallion greens for something extra.
7. Be generous with the onions, scallions, garlic, and ginger. The quick-cooking nature of stir fries means you don’t build up much flavor in the pan, the way you do with a braise. That’s why you’ll want to put in more ginger or garlic than you think is sane. Go for at least 2 cloves of garlic/2 teaspoons of ginger for every 1/2 pound of protein you use.
8. Make a sauce. Here’s my go-to formula for stir fry sauce for a stir fry for about a pound and a half of meat and some veggies:
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin, sake, or white wine
1 tablespoon water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
(The cornstarch thickens the sauce as it reduces; you can leave it out if you want, though.) To vary, add a teaspoon or two of sriracha or chili sauce, sesame oil, ketchup (it adds a great sweet and sourness), fish sauce, honey, rice vinegar, or Worcestershire sauce.
9. Open your windows. Stir fries contend with bacon for winner of the make-your-house-the-smokiest awards. I have a system of opening just the right windows so that our bedroom doesn’t wind up smelling of whatever’s in our stir fry. If your smoke detector is sensitive, cooking the meat will probably set it off.
10. Have rice (or rice noodles) ready. This fits in with number 2, prepping before you start, but I figured I’d let you in on a secret, which is that if you’re adding starch to your stir fry, it can–in fact, should–be cooked and cooled and ready to go by the time you need to throw it in. A day in advance works best for most, since it allows rice and noodles to dry out and integrate better into the rest of your stir fry. If you’re having rice or noodles on the side, have them cooked and warm so you can serve your stir fry on top, immediately.
11. Eat, with chopsticks. Do you own chopsticks? I have a set of five I bought at Pearl River Mart, and I love eating Asian-style home-cooked food with them. It’s just not the same with a fork.