Stir-fry is a very easy way to make a quick meal, particularly for one or two people. I always begin by starting a pot of water for the rice, then browsing in the fridge for whatever can be used in the stir-fry. Often I discover bits and pieces of stuff that "really should be used up", i.e. "leftovers". And often I do use them. That makes the preparation even quicker. By the time the rice is dry and fluffy and the table set, the stir-fry has finished its final cooking.
I am assuming that you know the essentials of a stir-fry dish, but here’s a quick refresher:
First heat the oil in the wok, add the salt and spices and blend well, then add the veggies one by one, starting with whatever takes the longest to cook and working up the list from there. Stir-fry after each addition. Once all the vegetables are all added and tossed, add liquid, cover, lower the heat and simmer until almost tender.
When the vegetables have reached this point, transfer the contents of the wok into a bowl; cover to keep warm. Turn the heat high again and wipe out the wok with a paper towel. Put it back on the heat, adding fresh oil. When it is hot add salt, then spices, then the meat, fowl or seafood you are using. Stir-fry this until sealed, add the vegetables and their liquid, cover and simmer on a low heat until almost done.
While this is happening, mix cornstarch and water to a smooth consistency. When the mixture is almost finished, add this prepared thickener and cook until it loses the “floury” taste of the cornstarch.
At this point it is ready to serve. If the rice is not quite finished, just put a cover on the wok but turn off the heat. If you are cooking with gas rather than electricity you may have to turn the heat on again for 30 seconds before serving the stir-fry.
That’s it. Dead simple.
It is difficult to specify amounts of ingredients and periods of cooking time as all this is dependent on what ingredients you are using and how many people you are cooking for. It also depends on the size of the wok. I have three: the baby bear of the trio is a little 7-inch diameter wok that I use when cooking for myself, the next in size is a 10-inch that can be used for as many as four people, and then there is the 14-inch daddy bear size that makes a generous meal for six.
Over and above a dish that serves six it is really not a stir-fry. The whole point of this type of cooking is to work quickly over a small, hot fire, searing the juices inside tiny bits of meal, tossing the vegetables in the hot flavored oil so they will pick up the blend of spices and then simmering them until they are barely cooked. This cannot be done in a large pot with a large quantity of food.
If you are planning for numerous guests or if someone unexpected stops in, simply add another dish to your menu. In a traditional Thai household a meal for six persons will have three main dishes, with any one of the three being no more than an ample quantity for two.
Last night I was alone, it was past my dinner hour, and I starving. A quick one-dish stir-fry meal was the obvious answer.
Before opening the fridge I put one cup of water in my smallest covered pot and set it on a back burner to come to a boil. Salt was added, and a half-cup of raw rice was set alongside the stove to add to the pot once the water was boiling.
Two chopping boards and my big knife were put on the kitchen counter, then I started foraging for ingredients. I knew there was a pork chop that had not been grilled in a cookout we had had a few nights before. This was cut off the bone, diced, and spread in a shallow saucer with a tablespoonful of soy sauce so it could marinate while I prepared the vegetables.
Everything else I found was diced or sliced thinly and put in individual piles on the second chopping board. That way it was easy to just sweep one pile off the board and into the wok with the broad side of the knife. Stir-fry cooking demands speed and dexterity.
Here’s the order in which the ingredients were cooked and the seasonings used :
Vegetables first - oil heated in the wok – then the salt, some ground cumin, and one juicy pepper from a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce opened a few weeks earlier. This is a tomato and vinegar sauce that would go well with the fat of the pork. The pepper was left entire and removed just before serving the meal. Crumbled dried bird peppers can be used, or sliced fresh jalapeño peppers, a dab of Szechuan hot sauce, or just a strong chili powder. I would have added a crushed glove of garlic but I was fresh out of garlic. No matter.
Once this was blended together it was time for the vegetables. First in was a thinly sliced stick of celery – that would give the dish some crunch!. Then a quarter of sweet red onion that had been reduced to thin slivers – onions are good with practically any stir-fry dish. I had found about a third of a can of black beans; they were rinsed, drained, and added next.
My early thinking had been, “What goes well with pork?”, and applesauce came to mind. Well, not in a stir-fry, but what about apple bits? I chose a small green Granny Smith from the fruit bowl, and diced it in fairly large unpeeled pieces so it would not cook to mush. Once these four ingredients were in the wok I added half a can of left-over chicken broth, popped on the cover, and turned the heat down to a simmer.
There was a slight pause while the vegetables simmered, the pork marinated, and the rice cooked; I laid a place setting for myself on the breakfast bar and found something on TV I wanted to watch while eating. Then I wiped out the wok and proceeded as outlined above under “essentials”. This time I flavored the oil simply with a smear of ginger paste.
The rest was fast: brown the meat, add the vegetables and their broth, cook it all longer, thicken the sauce, and by then the rice was finished. Time to serve dinner.
Twenty minutes elapsed between the time I started boiling water for the rice until I sat down to eat. True, that’s a bit more time than it takes to cook a TV dinner. But I had eliminated a few leftovers from the fridge and it was fresh-tasting and satisfying .