Monday, April 12, 2010

A Primer on Stir Fried Food- Easiest Dinners Yet....

With Spring here, most places at least, there are more fresh vegetables around and it's the time of year when lighter meals make their appearance again making Stir Fry's a perfect choice since it's (for the most part, although you can get complicated too) easy, fast, nutritious and most people like it. It's also very desirable for those that want to lower their consumption of animal proteins yet can't make the jump into full-on vegetarianism.

Since everything in a Stir Fry is cooked over high heat, nutrients are seared into food and not lost by long cooking times, so you not only get more vitamins but crisp, tasty veggies (which are more inviting than limp nasty over cooked ones) with a touch of sauce that can please any palate. Whether you like sweet, salty or spicy is easy to get too.

First, let me hit the basics to successful Stir Fry's:
  • Have everything prepared in advance. This is a very fast cooking style which means that all your ingredients must be ready in bite-sized portions. The trick is to balance them.
  • Pick a pan / wok or whatever you like to cook in so you have plenty of room to move the food around. If it's non-stick, have the appropriate utensils so you don't scratch the surface like spatula's or wire baskets.
  • Make sure all your sauces or ingredients are ready to go once you start cooking. If there's a sauce needed, have it ready just to pour in when it's time. Have all your seasonings at hand within easy reach. This will make it easier. (I have everything in separate bowls, cut up, mixed and ready in the order I will need it - yes, I'm kind of OCD, but it makes it easier)
  • Food is cooked by moving it constantly hence the name, stir fry. Don't walk away once you begin or let things just sit there and soak liquids, they won't be as crispy or fresh. This is very fast cooking so it won't take long at all (foods in small portions cook faster...)
  • Always be on the lookout for new stir-fry ingredients. Once you experiment with this cooking technique you will see how many ways you can add / change items on recipes to get "just the right one" for you.
  • Above all never forget "There are no rules - just do it".
Here are the basic items you will need, over and over, for stir fry's and you should keep in your pantry for spur-of-the-moment dinners:
  1. Oil for cooking. This is usually Peanut Oil (it takes high temperatures better and imparts another extra flavor which works well, but if you're allergic don't use) but Vegetable Oil can be used too
  2. Salt & Pepper
  3. Garlic (fresh is best)
  4. Ginger (fresh is best)
  5. Soy Sauce (you can use low-sodium one or your favorite one)
  6. Rice Wine Vinegar. Also called Mirin, is popular
  7. Red Pepper Flakes, if you like a little heat (or a lot)
  8. Corn Starch
Note: Anything additional is depending on the dish you choose. Also, if you're new at this and want to start out you can begin with store bought sauces, once you're more experienced you might want to try and make your own. Most supermarkets (or try an Oriental Market for even more choices) now carry many Oriental sauces like Oyster Sauce, Sweet and Sour Sauce, Green Curry Sauce, etc.

Beef Tangerine Stir-Fry.- Using a store bought Sweet and Sour Sauce (or make your own, see below) here is an easy and great dinner. Serve over rice or noodles.

1 lb beef bottom round steak, sliced in 1/4" thick, 2 in pieces
1 tbl white wine vinegar
1 tbl soy sauce
1 tbl cornstarch
2 tbl peanut oil
1 onion, chopped
1 cup snow peas (optional)
1 cup carrots, sliced thin (optional)
1/2 cup cashews / peanuts / almonds, chopped or whole (optional)
4 nectarines or peaches, sliced
1/2 cup purchased sweet and sour sauce (or more, your choice)

Place beef in the freezer for 15 min (this makes it easier to slice thin). Slice the partially-frozen beef across the grain. Place in medium bowl and add vinegar, soy sauce, and cornstarch. Toss with your fingers to coat; let stand for 10 min.

Heat a wok or large skillet until hot, then add peanut oil. Stir-fry beef until browned, about 4-6 min; remove beef to a plate. Stir-fry onion in wok until tender, about 4- to 5 min. Return beef to skillet along with nectarines, veggies and nuts. Add sweet and sour sauce. Cook over med-high heat until sauce bubbles, about 5 min. Taste to adjust seasonings. Serve over rice, couscous, or noodles.
NOTE: If you want it meatless, omit the beef and add more veggies if you like, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, green beans, bell peppers, etc.

Chicken, Tomato & Asparagus Stir-Fry.- Another fast and easy recipe that can fit anyone's diet or taste.

1-1/2 cups chicken broth
2 tbl cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
2 tbl olive oil
1-1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1" pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-1/2" lengths
1 pint cherry tomatoes

In small bowl, combine chicken broth, cornstarch, salt, pepper, and thyme; mix and set aside. Prepare all ingredients. Heat olive oil in large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add chicken; stir-fry until chicken is almost cooked, about 4 min. Remove to plate.

Add onion to skillet; stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 3-4 min. Add asparagus; stir-fry for 2-3 min until bright green. Stir chicken broth mixture and add to skillet; bring to a boil. Return chicken to skillet. Stir-fry for 2-3 min or until chicken is thoroughly cooked and asparagus is crisp-tender. Add cherry tomatoes; stir-fry 1 min until hot. Serve.

Kung Pao Pork.- This dish will give you lots of ideas for adding items to create our very own dish. Can be made with chicken, beef or whatever you'd like.

1 lb boneless pork, cut in 1/2" strips
1 tbl oil
1 (1 lb.) bag purchased broccoli slaw or thin sliced broccoli & cabbage
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup spicy Szechuan stir-fry sauce or make your own (see below)
1 tbl honey
1 cup roasted peanuts (or other nuts)

Heat oil in heavy skillet or wok. Add broccoli slaw and stir fry 2-3 min until crisp tender. Remove from wok and set aside. Add pork to skillet or wok. Stir fry over med-high heat for about 5 min until browned. Add bell pepper and water. Cover and cook for 4 min until pork is tender. Add stir fry sauce, honey, and broccoli slaw. Cook and stir for 2-3 min until hot.

Orange Chicken Stir-Fry.- Here's a very popular dish that your whole family will love.

2 tbl oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into thin strip
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
3/4 cup orange juice
2 tbl honey
1 tbl cornstarch
2 cups baby peas (can be frozen)
1/2 cup cashew pieces

Heat oil in heavy skillet or wok. Add chicken, salt and pepper. Stir fry until chicken is cooked, 3-4 min. Combine orange juice, honey, and cornstarch in small bowl. Add to chicken in skillet or wok along with frozen peas. Stir fry 2-4 min until sauce thickens. Stir in cashew pieces and serve over hot cooked rice or noodles.

Thai Basil Pork Stir-Fry.- If you love Thai food, here's a dish for you!

1 lb ground pork OR pork loin, cut into very thin strips (OR substitute chicken breast or thigh)
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1-2 fresh chilies, chopped fine (OR substitute 1/2 tsp dried crushed chili)
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 egg
2 oz fresh Thai basil, OR substitute sweet basil
4-5 green onions, sliced
2-3 tbl oil for stir-frying

2 tbl oyster sauce
1 tbl fish sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 generous tbl brown sugar
2 tbl fresh-squeezed lime juice

Combine all Stir-Fry Sauce ingredients together in a cup. Stir well to dissolve the sugar. Set near the stove. Heat a wok or large frying pan over med-high heat. Add 2-3 tbl oil and swirl around, then add the garlic and chili. Stir-fry 30 seconds to 1 min to release the fragrance, then add the meat. Stir-fry until the pork is nearly cooked (5-6 min). Add half the chicken stock as you stir-fry to keep ingredients sizzling. Reserve remaining stock for later.

Push ingredients aside and crack the egg into the middle of your wok/pan. Quickly stir-fry to scramble the egg, then mix it in with the other ingredients. Add the stir-fry sauce and stir to incorporate. Reduce heat to med-low. Allow your stir-fry to simmer 2-3 min (add a little more of the chicken stock if needed). While the dish is simmering, chop up the basil. Add remaining chicken stock plus the green onions and the basil. Stir well and taste-test.
NOTE: this dish should be on the salty side, and as spicy as you can tolerate. If too salty for your taste, add another squeeze or two of lime juice. If not salty enough, add more fish sauce. Add more chili (fresh or dried) if desired.

Sweet and Sour Sauce.- Here's an easy sauce you can make for yourself and keep.

1/3 cup of rice vinegar
4 tbsp of brown sugar
1 tbsp of tomato ketchup
2 tsp of cornstarch mixed with 4 tsp of water
1 tsp of soy sauce

Combine the cornstarch with the water, making sure that the cornstarch fully dissolves into the water and set aside. Place the rice vinegar, brown sugar, tomato ketchup and soy sauce into a small saucepan, mix together and bring to the boil. Add the cornstarch and water mixture and stir all of the ingredients together until the sauce has thickened to the desired consistency.

Pineapple sweet and sour sauce.- I like this one best but take the ketchup out since I don't like it red but natural. It's your choice. Make any changes you like. I also use the pineapple chunks and put them it into the dish.

Juice from a 4 oz can of pineapple chunks or rings
1/4 cup of tomato ketchup
1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1 1/2 tbs of cornstarch
1 tbs of Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp of garlic powder
1/2 tsp of mustard powder
1/2 tsp of ground ginger

Place all of the above ingredients together in a saucepan. Mix together and over med-high heat, stirring continuously, until the sauce comes together and thickens.

Kung Pao Sauce.- You can make your own great sauce!

1 cup roas
ted peanuts
1 tsp corn
1 tbl cornstarch
1 tsp sugar
1 cup chicken broth
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
1 tbl chili paste

Mix 1 tablespoon cornstarch, the sugar and broth. Heat wok until very hot. Add 1 tbl of cornstarch to the sliced meat and cook until no longer pink. Add garlic and chili paste (and other veggies); stir-fry 20 seconds. Stir in cornstarch mixture; cook and stir 15 seconds or until thickened.
Top with nuts.

I hope you will try and practice this popular and healthy cooking technique. Of course there are many more dishes to try and more complicated ones once you decide to forge ahead. We love all of them and have them often, they're not only practical to have everyday when you're not in the mood for a lot of cooking, but the tastes are so attractive! If you keep some basics in your pantry all the time, they are ideal for a quick meal or just to give a spin to those leftovers in the fridge, plus you can adjust the seasonings to meet your family's taste to be saltier, sweeter or even spicier! The variations are endless here..... Enjoy!

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