wok cooking tips

Pantry Cooking- Stir Fry

At a time when a lot of us are relying on our pantries for dinner, I thought I would share another favorite go-to for me. That is the stir fry. Whenever I have to make dinner last minute, stir fry is my meal of choice. I consider stir fry one of the three S’s of pantry cooking- soups and salads being the other two.

You can stir fry in a skillet, but I prefer to use a wok. Whatever vessel you use, the cooking method uses high heat and relatively short cooking times. The results are tender meats and crisp, colorful vegetables.

When trying to get that restaurant quality dish, keep in mind that in commercial Asian kitchens the fire is much hotter than you will get at home on the range. Do the best you can.

Stir fry might seem like an odd choice, if fresh veggies are getting low. Truth is, you can use all sorts of veggies in a stir fry, when you need to.

It is also a chance to use up some of those sauces you picked up at the Asian grocery store, always meaning to try.

Start with the veggies. I am trying to stick with fresh veggies you might still have around. Onions are a great choice, along with carrots, celery, cabbage, sweet peppers, broccoli and sweet potatoes. You can also use frozen veggies. Thaw them first, to drain off excess water. Save that liquid, you might want to use it in the sauce later. Don’t overlook canned veggies. Water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, baby corn and straw mushrooms are all fun to add to a stir fry. Almost any veggie can be added. Think outside the wok!!

Don’t limit yourself to traditional stir fry veggies. Spinach, Brussels sprouts, chard, kale, asparagus, cauliflower, tomatoes can all join the party.

To prep the veggies, get them sliced or chopped into bite sized pieces. The general rule in wok cooking is that the veggies that take the longest to cook, go in first. You keep adding more veggies, based on length of cooking time. By adding them gradually, the wok or skillet also keeps it’s high temp better. Throwing too many veggies in at once may result in a build up of water. Then you get more of a stir “simmer” than a stir fry. No one wants that. Heat oil in the wok first. Then start to add your veggies. Once the veggies are all cooked, remove them to a dish while you cook the protein.

I always get asked about which oil to use in a stir fry. Easier to tell you which oil not to use. The one you probably have, that isn’t best for stir fry is olive oil. I love olive oil, but it has a low smoke point. That means it smokes at a lower temperature than other oils. It can also catch fire at a lower temp. Sesame oil is a finishing oil. You drizzle it in at the end of cooking. Don’t fry in it, either. I love avocado oil for stir fry. High smoke point and neutral flavor. Don’t freak out if you don’t have it. Use the oil have, it will be fine.

You’ll need a protein. Get creative here, too. Chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, are all great. You can also use ham, fish, ground meat, (maybe in little meatballs), sausage, eggs, tofu, beans ( like kidney or chickpeas), canned clams or crab meat, canned salmon, venison, duck, lamb.

If your protein is already cooked, just toss it in at the last minute. to heat it through. No need to remove the veggies from the wok first. This a great way to use up leftovers. You can do combinations of proteins if you don’t have enough of one. Maybe a couple of chicken drumsticks, cut up, and a can of crab.

Odds are though, that your protein will need to be cooked. As with the veggies, make sure it is cut up into bite sized pieces. Once the veggies are out of the wok, add a little more oil and add you protein, tossing to cook quickly and evenly. If you have a lot to cook, you can cook the protein in batches, to prevent your pan from losing too much heat.

If it is a last minute dish, just go ahead and cook it up. If you have the time, marinading your protein can give you a very pleasant surprise. When I plan ahead, I like to marinade my chicken, pork beef or lamb in a combination of sherry, soy sauce and cornstarch. The meat is cut into slices or thin strips, placed in a bowl and the marinade ingredients are added. Cover and place in the fridge overnight. It really makes the meat tender. a quick note about sherry. Don’t use cooking sherry. Cooking sherry is laced with salt and is icky. Just use a plain old bottle of sherry- not cream sherry, either. You don’t need an awful lot of the marinade. Just enough to toss the meat in.

Once the protein is cooked, the creative part really starts. First, return the veggies to the wok. Then you need to season your dish. Traditional Asian sauces and condiments are the natural choice. Use them if you have them. Soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, gochujang, sriracha, sesame oil, hoisen are all popular choices. Some are very salty, so use with care. You can always add more.

As you season your stir fry, you might also want a sauce, rather than just seasonings. In a small bowl, mix about a tablespoon of cornstarch- or rice flour- with 1/2 cup of cool liquid. Could be water from drained veggies or a little chicken stock. Stir until cornstarch is dissolved. Once your stir fry is seasoned, add the cornstarch mixture. It will thicken up and make a nice sauce. You can add more liquid/ cornstarch depending on how much sauce you want and how much stir fry you are making.

What to do if you don’t have a lot of traditional Asian sauces? Well, you probably at least have soy sauce. Start there. Any hot sauce is a great addition along with garlic in some form. Ginger is also a good choice. Think of the sweet/sour profile in a lot of Asian foods. Vinegar, citrus juice or even pickle juice can add a nice dimension to your sauce. If you are going sweet and sour, balance the sour with sweet. You can use sugar, any type, or honey, fruit juices, jam or just fruit. Besides, you don’t have to stay Asian with your stir fry. Season it with what you like. Call it fusion cuisine and you’ll sound like a pro!!!

We aren’t done yet. There are other ingredients you might want to add. Peanut or almond butter, pickles, olives, capers, pickled peppers are likely hanging around your fridge or pantry. All of them can add some flavor to your dish. Green onions are nice finish. I chop green onions and freeze them. That way I always have them to top off a dish. Use them if you have them. My chives are up now, so I could use chives instead. Look outside. If you have an herb garden, your perennials are probably up by now. Mint is a nice addition. Nuts are a fun way to finish off your stir fry. Toss a handful of peanuts or cashews in as the last minute, right before serving.

Once it is all done, the protein cooked, the sauce made and the veggies returned to the wok, you are ready to eat. You can serve it as is, or you can serve the stir fry over cooked rice, which is traditional. Get the rice cooked ahead of time, then just reheat before serving. I use my microwave to cook the rice and to reheat it.

You can also serve your stir fry over cooked pasta. Angel hair or rice noodles are great. Use what you have. You could put some of your stir fry in a tortilla and roll up. An Asian inspired wrap. Why not?

Here are some not-so traditional wok recipes. Enjoy!!

Sesame Cauliflower Stir-fry

1/4 c. sesame seed

2 T. each oil and butter

1 small onion, chopped

1 medium cauliflower, broken into florets and sliced

1/4 c. water or broth

1/2 c. sliced green onions

1/4 c. chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

lemon wedges

Warm wok over medium heat and add sesame seeds, stirring until they are lightly toasted. Set seeds aside. Heat pan and add oil and butter.  Add onion and cook over medium high heat until onion wilts. Stir in cauliflower and stir-fry 1 minute. Add water or broth and cover and cook about 2 minutes.  Cauliflower should be tender-crisp. Add green onions, parsley and reserved seeds and season to taste. Cook 1 minute then serve with lemon wedges on the side. Serves 6-8.

Mexican Corn

2-3 c. fresh corn cut off the cob, or frozen

1 sweet red pepper, seeded and diced

1 t. each cumin, chili powder and dried oregano

1/2 t. ground coriander

salt to taste

1/4 t. red pepper flakes

1 T. fresh chopped cilantro

In small amount of water in wok, heat corn through. Add all ingredients but the cilantro and heat through and simmer until water is gone. Stir in the cilantro and cook until it is wilted, about 2 minutes. Serves 4.

Curried Mixed Vegetables

2 T. olive oil

1 large onion, cut in chunks

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

2 ribs celery, trimmed and cut into chunks

2 c. chopped cabbage

2 small zucchini, trimmed and cut in chunks

1 sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

1 sweet yellow pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

salt to taste

2 t. curry powder

1/4 t. cloves

Heat oil in wok. Add onion and stir-fry until tender. Add the garlic, carrots, celery and cabbage and stir fry until vegetables are tender. Add remaining ingredients and cook, covered, over low heat until all vegetables are tender, about 10-15 minutes. Add more curry powder if you like. Serves 6-8.

Chicken Cordon Bleu Stir Fry

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast

1 T. each cornstarch and sherry

3 T. oil

6 oz. cooked ham, julienned

¼ t. white pepper

2 T. dry bread crumbs

1 c. shredded Swiss cheese

Cut chicken into julienne strips and mix with cornstarch and sherry. Heat oil in wok: toss in chicken and stir-fry for 3-5 minutes. Add ham and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Stir in white pepper and bread crumbs. Sprinkle with shredded cheese, cover, and let stand until cheese has melted. Serves 4.

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