Stir Fry Secrets

You’ve probably been in Asian restaurants where the menu is 30 pages long and there are literally hundreds of items listed. When I was a culinary student I used to wonder, “Isn’t it
expensive to prep for so many different dishes every day?”

Here’s the secret they don’t want you to know: Although there may be hundreds of dishes, they are all combinations of only a handful of basic ingredients. Each dish is a pairing of couple different vegetables (such as onions, peppers, pea pods, etc.), combined with a few kinds of proteins (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, etc), then served with your choice of starch (white rice, soft noodles, fried noodles).

All are quick cooked in very hot oil, usually in the same wok.

Obviously, there are variations. Sweet and sour chicken is breaded in a tempura batter, deep fried and served with a sweetened vinegar sauce. In egg foo young , vegetables are fried with an egg and flour mixture and served with a brown sauce. Moo shu sauce is made with sweetened plum puree.

But you get the idea.

Which brings us to why stir fry is the ultimate in budget cooking. Open your refrigerator and look around. Maybe you’ve got some leftover chicken, a half an onion and some garden fresh jalapenos. Guess what? You are now in the stir fry business!

Stir fry is one of the best ways to use up whatever leftovers you have laying around. Or you can buy a couple simple items and create an all-new quick and easy meal for your family.

Since I’m already spilling the beans, here are a couple of other stir fry secrets:

  • A little goes a long way: If you only have a small amount of leftover protein, you can stretch it out by mixing it with lots of inexpensive vegetables and rice or noodles. Kind of like ancient Chinese hamburger helper.
  • Rice and noodles don’t cost anything:  Okay, maybe they cost something, but it’s pennies per plate compared to other starches like potatoes or pasta. Filling up a plate with lots of white rice is a tasty and nutritious way to improve your family’s grocery budget.
  • Use the same basic marinade: Marinade chicken, pork, beef or shrimp in a little freshly crushed garlic, minced ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil and you will get an Asian influenced meal that won’t bust your wallet. Always keep these items on hand (ginger freezes excellently), and you will always have a quick and easy go-to meal guaranteed to please your family.
  • It’s thickened with the cheapest things on earth: Mix 1 TBS corn starch to 1 cup of water (this is called a “slurry”) and add it to your stir fry. Bring it to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for five minutes and you’ll get a thick, flavorful
    stir fry that rivals anything from your local chop suey palace. In fact, that’s
    exactly same thing they do!

Want to make your stir fry more exotic? Spend a little more for baby corn cobs, water chestnuts or bamboo shoots. Or stop by the produce section to pick up some enoki mushrooms or bean sprouts. Easier still, during the last minute of cooking, throw in any leftover nuts you have lying around, such as cashews, peanuts or pecans.

Here’s a simple recipe I recently made that incorporates all of these ancient Chinese secrets.

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

For the rice:

1 cup dry white rice

2-3/4 cup chicken stock

1 TBS butter or EVOO

Salt and pepper to taste

For the protein:

6 oz leftover cooked flank steak (you can use any beef, chicken or pork you have)

2 cloves crushed garlic

1 TBS minced ginger

1 TBS sesame oil

3 TBS low-sodium soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine vinegar

½ tsp red pepper flake

For the stir fry:

½ red (or white or yellow) onion, sliced

½ yellow, red or green pepper, julienned

1 garden fresh jalapeno, sliced (seeds and ribs included)

½ cup sliced mushrooms (totally optional)

1 small to medium head of broccoli crown, separated

A couple of green onions, sliced at an angle

1 TBS chopped parsley (only because I already had it)

For the thickening agent:

1 cup water or chicken stock

1 TBS corn starch

1. Marinade the beef in the other ingredients between 10 minutes and 24 hours, depending on how much time you have. The longer you marinade, the more flavor will be aborbed by the beef. But don’t worry: all the flavor is going in the pan anyway.

2. Make rice however you prefer. I have a rice steamer, which is SO easy: Just dump in all ingredients, turn it on and forget about it. Perfect every time. Here’s a link to another easy way to cook rice.

3. Heat a large pan over a high flame. When hot, add oil and allow to get smoking hot. Add all the vegetables except the broccoli, scallions and parsley and cook until onions transluscent, about 2 minutes.

4. Add the beef and all the marinade and toss around. Cook until heated through, about a minute. Stir in the broccoli and thickening agent (liquid and corn starch), stir, reduce to low heat and cover. Cook about five minutes, stirring once or twice.

5. For plating, pile white rice in center of pasta bowl. Use a slotted spoon to arrange stir fry beef and broccoli. Garnish with green onions, chopped parsley and maybe a few more red pepper flakes.

Now you know the secret.

Budget Cooking – Homage to Hummus

Traditionally, hummus is a Middle Eastern dip made from mashed chick peas, tahini (a paste made from sesame seeds), olive oil, garlic, honey and lemon. But really hummus is an easy and inexpensive way to show your friends or family that you are a culinary genius.

Almost everyone who has tried it loves hummus. It’s yummy, it’s fun because you eat it with your hands, and although it’s slightly exotic, it is also eminently approachable. It doesn’t taste at all weird. What I love about it is that it’s super easy to make, and you can add any flavors you want. You can even change out some of the key ingredients and it’s still amazing.

Hummus usually is served with flatbread, such as pita, or with fresh vegetables like celery or carrot sticks, or green or red pepper slices. It’s 100 percent natural and is high in iron and Vitamin C. It will stay fresh in your refrigerator for at least a couple of days. If the liquid starts to separate, just  give it a stir.

Bring it to a party and your friends will be amazed. Serve it at your family’s table, perhaps with grilled shish-kabobs and couscous, and they will be impressed how multi-cultural you are.

It’s easiest if you have a food processer, but you can make it in a blender, or people have been mashing it by hand for thousands of years. I prefer the food processer, though.

The main ingredients of hummus are available almost anywhere. Chick peas, also known as garbanzo beans, can be bought fresh, dried, canned or frozen. For me, canned is easiest and cheap. With a little searching, I can usually find them for $.75/can or less.

Tahini, or a beige-colored paste made out of ground sesame seeds, is available in a surprising number of mainstream chain grocery stores. A 12 oz jar – enough for several batches of hummus – is usually about $4.00, and will keep in your refrigerator for months. It tends to settle, however, so be prepared to stir it up if you haven’t used it in awhile.

Garlic, EVOO, honey and lemon, of course, are cheap and available year round anywhere. I’m going to give you the standard recipe, then some amazing variations. For bonus points, serve three or four different kinds of hummus at the same time.

Getting ready to make hummus

Getting ready to make hummus

Basic Hummus

1 can chickpeas, drained (save the can)

¼ cup tahini

1-2 cloves garlic

Juice of 1 lemon

3 TBS EVOO

1 tsp honey

Salt and Pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne or a couple drops of hot sauce

Complicated? Not. Combine all ingredients in food processor or blender and mix until smooth. Use the can from the chickpeas to pour a little tap water into the mixture as it blends (preserving any residual flavor) to thin the hummus out to a smooth consistency, about that of like cream of wheat.

That’s it. Transfer to an airtight container and let rest in your refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving so the flavors can meld. The hummus will also thicken a little during this time. Serve the pita whole and let your guests tear it up with their hands, or cut it  into wedges for a nice presentation.

For an extra visual pop, you can serve with a lemon wedge dipped in paprika (Hey, color!). I’ve also seen the hummus piped onto the plate to form a ring, forming a little pool in the middle, which is then filled with EVOO for dipping.

Okay, here are some cool variations:

Charring a red pepper

Charring a red pepper

Roasted Garlic Hummus – For a sweet, succulent hummus, use the same recipe as above, except substitute one head of roasted garlic for the raw garlic. For roasted head of garlic, cut off the top of a whole head of garlic, drizzle with EVOO, place inside foil and roast for about 35 minutes at 350F. Or alternately, peel all the cloves from a head of garlic and cook in a saucepan in a shallow pool of EVOO over a low flame for about 15 minutes or until light brown, stirring once or twice. This will fill your kitchen with sweet, nutty aroma. Also you can save the cooled leftover EVOO and use it as a garlic-infused oil in future recipes. Bonus points for also using it in the hummus.

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus – For a brilliant-hued, nuanced variation, add a few slices of roasted red pepper to the recipe above. Jars of roasted red pepper are available in most chain supermarkets, and certainly in ethnic markets or produce stores. They are handy to have around and will keep in your refrigerator for several weeks. Or, if you are really ambitious, roast your own red peppers by placing fresh red bell peppers directly onto the flames of burners of your stove, turning them frequently until all sides are charred black. Then put into a small mixing bowl and cover immediately with plastic wrap. Allow them to cool, about 25 minutes, then use a paring knife to gently scrape off the charred skin, ribs and the seeds under cold running water.

Kalamata Olive Hummus – Add a handful of pitted, marinated kalamata olives to the recipe above for a great tasting variation. You will need to reduce the amount of salt in the recipe since kalamatas already are pretty salty. Don’t forget to take out the pits, very important. I buy marinated kalamatas at a local ethnic deli, and they are pretty inexpensive and delicious in salads or even to eat on their own.

This is one of those dishes where you can really make it pop with the plating. Try making the basic recipe, then divide it into thirds, then make 1/3 of the Roasted Red Pepper, and 1/3 of the Kalamata variations. Serve all three side-by-side in little bowls with any kind of garnish (a couple whole kalamatas work well), surrounded by the pita wedges
pointy-side up. Sprinkle a little paprika and green chopped parsley or cilantro over it and you got yourself a standing ovation at your next get-together.

I’ve also made this with white beans instead of chickpeas, a little French twist, served with toast points. Also very good. Bon appétit (That’s French)!

Traditional, Roasted Red Pepper, and Kalamata Olive Hummus

Traditional, Roasted Red Pepper, and Kalamata Olive Hummus