You know, everyone who I consider my tribe here in Vancouver–and I’m talkin’ my extended circle of friends and acquaintances–make stir fries. It’s my regional cuisine, and it’s a way of life.
Why is this? The deep-rooted Chinese influence on the city? The chronically lingering hippy culture? Maybe it’s the fact that stir fries are infinitely adaptable, easy to prepare, and a simple yet elegant way to enjoy fresh produce. Stir fries are a great dish to make if you just got back from a shopping orgy at the produce stand. If you find yourself with tons of delicious looking vegetables and the sudden panic-stricken though of, “Okay… now what the %$#& do I make with all these??” a stir fry may be the answer to your problems.
Practically any vegetables and some fruits can be used for this dish. This post is meant to be a golden key of sorts. It should help you to understand the basics of stir frying so that you can prepare one out of anything, like we do in Vancouver.
A variety of vegetables coupled with a few pantry items is all you need. These could be fancy vegetables or they could be dollar bag style. Many grocery stores make a mix bag of veggies made from salvage ends of produce that is starting to go off. It’s a great, very cheap way to eat vegetables. The only catch is that you really have to eat it the same day. Vegetables don’t keep for as long after they are chopped, and these ones came from produce that has been hanging around for a while. So eat it! Now!
Also, when you are surveying your ingredients, consider what kind of chopping style you’ll want to use. Smaller bite-size bits is often good, especially if you have lots of potatoes or sweet potatoes (they will cook faster). Or you could go the Chinese take-out route and have large florets of broccoli and cauliflower and big oval-shaped slices of carrot with chopped onion and bell pepper. Long strips is often a nice shape, especially if you have things like mung bean sprouts and bell peppers. You could cut the rest of your vegetables to match these. I also like to keep circular shapes like those from sliced carrots or Japanese eggplant.
Staple ingredients that go into nearly every stir fry are: oil for the pan, onions and sauce. It’s nice to have a sharp knife, and a large deep pan (maybe a wok) with a big lid. In lieu of a lid, I have improvised with a pizza pan, a large dinner plate, or tin foil. The lid really helps with cooking root vegetables like potatoes. You can do without it, but it takes forever.
So, you have your gear, you have your pan. Clean it all, splash oil in the pan, chop your onions, and turn on the heat. At this point, you can also add minced fresh ginger (an excellent starter for a Chinese-influenced fry). I also add mushrooms at this early point. This will infuse the dish with the mushroom flavour. Sprinkle them with salt to make them sweat. If you want whole, less cooked mushrooms, add them later. Let the onions cook at least half way to translucent. At this point if you want to add any garlic, leeks, green onions, or dry spices, go for it. If you add spices, you will be starting to guide the flavour of the stir fry. Spice is nice: chili powder, cayenne, curry spices… Or if you want a sweeter more western flavour go tarragon, dill, basil, parsley, etc. At this point, only add dry spices. Save any fresh herbs for later. Let those flavours mingle for a few minutes while sauteing.
Next comes heavy root vegetables and eggplant. These take the longest to cook. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams…. [A note about tomatoes: If you have questionable, pasty-looking field tomatoes from Mexico and it’s February, you might want to throw these in with the root vegetables. They will just mingle and add a nice saucy note. If, however, you have stunningly gorgeous farmers market tomatoes, don’t cook those at all. Use them for garnish on the side.] All of that goes in the pan, with a splash of water (~1/3 c.) and the lid goes on top. Let those guys think about what they have done for maybe 5-8 min. while you ready the next round of veggies. Bring the root vegetables to a point where they are mostly cooked but not completely.
Then remove the lid and add any broccoli and cauliflower. If you like carrots that are soft and cooked completely, add them now as well. Check on how moist your fry is. Don’t let it dry out completely. If it needs more moisture, you can add soy sauce, more cooking oil, or water. If you’re using tamari, just know that it’s powerful stuff and you probably want to mix it with a little water if adding at this point. Also if you added salt to mushrooms at the beginning, just remember that when you’re adding soy or tamari sauce. The whole idea is to maintain the flavour of the vegetables, not to drown it out with salt. Conversely salt can bump up the flavour at the end if your fry is tasting bland. How long you cook this stage of the fry is up to you. I like my broccoli still a bit crunchy, so I usually cook it for as long as it takes to chop the next round of veggies.
A pick-up to the next round is green beans & carrots if you like them to be a little crunchy at the end. Add these half way through the broccoli cook time. The next round proper includes bell peppers, snow peas, snap peas, mung bean sprouts and fresh herbs. These only need cook a few minutes. The peas will turn bright green after about 3 minutes and that means they are done. Also add sauce at this stage to warm it up. Saucing can go sweet and spicy Chinese-style with soy sauce or tamari, hoi sin sauce, sweet chili sauce, and a drizzle of sesame oil. Or it can go hippy with some interesting vinegar and interesting oil (i.e. hemp seed oil, berry-infused vinegar, along with anything on the Chinese list including miso). It’s nice sometimes to mix sauce with some fatty compound like coconut milk or cream or peanut butter. I recommend doing this in a cup on the side and bringing it to a saucy consistency before pouring it over the fry. This same method applies to miso, though that will add a very different flavour. Finally, you could use any other store-bought sauce that you think would be nice. This could be creamy and mild if you’re going for the less-spicy more western fry. Also, please see my recipe for miso gravy. This makes a great sauce especially mixed with spices!
Then we add garnish. Hippy stir fries are often adorned with
trail mix roasted pumpkin seeds, some dried raisins or cranberries, sesame seeds…. My friend Damien used to deep fry the skins from yams for little crunchy delicious bits. I highly recommend this. Garnish could also be fresh tomatoes, avocado, cilantro….. Stir fry is often served with a bottle of hot sauce on the table for those who like it HOT. It can be served alone, or on rice or noodles. If you’re doing noodles, it’s often good to fry the noodles with the stir fry for a minute or two. [Note: If you are short on vegetables, the stir fry method can be easily adapted into fried rice. Just add cooked rice to the pan before saucing everything, and get the rice nice and hot. I also like extra oil with fried rice.] Stir fries can also be served with large lettuce leaves and eaten by hand… Really there are infinite ways to serve stir fry and I leave it to your imagination. Go chop sticks for the classic style!