To help you understand stir-fry and free you from recipes, I've developed a simple formula that will get dinner for four on the table in as little as 30 minutes. And because our home stovetops don't get as hot as restaurant woks, I'll explain my work-around method for getting food nicely seared.
1. Heat your pan
As soon as you walk into the kitchen, set a 12-inch non-stick or cast-iron skillet over low heat.
2. Prepare protein
Prep one pound of the following proteins: peeled raw medium shrimp, bay or sea scallops (halve large sea scallops crosswise); boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs cut into bite-size strips; firm tofu cut in 3/4-inch chunks; or red meat thinly sliced across the grain (try pork tenderloin, sirloin, rib-eye, tenderloin, or flank or skirt steak).
3. Marinate protein
Use 1 Tbsp each soy sauce and dry or sweet sherry. The protein doesn't need to marinate long--just make sure you do it soon after putting the skillet over low heat.
4. Prepare produce
First cut a peeled medium-large onion in half (pole-to-pole), then cut each half into about 8 wedges. Set aside. Then select two of the vegetables listed below, totaling 1 pound.
There are no "wrong" combinations. I've picked these particular vegetables because they can be bought ready to use, or they can be prepared and stir-fried quickly. They'll be added to the pan at different times, so keep the two vegetables separated on a plate.
Super-fast fresh produce might include
- Shredded carrots
- Coleslaw mix
- Bite-sized pineapple chunks (for sweet and sour only)
- Sliced mushrooms and bell peppers or stringed snow peas--all of which can be purchased packaged or prepared yourself.
Other good choices: celery, scallions, fresh bean sprouts (avoid canned), haricots verts (thin French green beans), pencil-thin asparagus, zucchini or yellow squash in 1/2-inch-thick rounds or eggplant in 3/4-inch cubes. And don't forget drained water chestnuts or baby corn, drained (calculate drained weight to determine amounts needed).
5. Prepare aromatics
Mince 1 Tbsp each of fresh garlic and ginger root. Bottled ginger and garlic taste strong and distinct, so they muddy the stir-fry's otherwise fresh, clear flavors. Stick with fresh.
6. Make a quick stir-fry sauce and glaze
I give four stir-fry sauce recipes here. You'll also need to make a glaze to ensure a nice body and glossy sheen. Just mix 2 tsp cornstarch with 2 Tbsp chicken broth or water. A few minutes before you're ready to stir-fry, turn on the exhaust fan and turn up the heat under the skillet to high. Make sure all your ingredients are close at hand.
7. Add 1 Tbsp of oil, then half the protein, to the pan
Stir-fry until well-browned and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a clean bowl and repeat stir-frying with remaining protein. Most home stoves don't have the power to stir-fry a large quantity of protein at the same time, so cook it in batches--otherwise the skillet will cool down, and the food will stew instead.
8. Drizzle another 2 Tbsp oil into the hot skillet
Add the onion and stir-fry until browned but still crisp, about 1 minute. Add the minced garlic and ginger next so they'll have a chance to flavor the entire dish. (If you add them to the pan any sooner, they'll burn.) Next, immediately add the vegetable you think will take longer to cook. If it's not obvious, just pick a vegetable and start--you're not going to ruin the stir-fry. Staggering vegetables is more about keeping the skillet hot. After stir-frying the first vegetable for a few minutes, add the second and continue to stir-fry until all vegetables are tender-crisp, 1 to 2 minute longer.
9. Return protein to pan and stir in your flavoring sauce
Make sure all the ingredients are well coated with the sauce. Finally, stir in the cornstarch mixture until juices become saucy and glossy. If the wok juices look too thick at this point, thin with a few more tablespoons of chicken broth or water, then serve the stir-fry immediately with noodles or steamed rice.
Copyright 2004 USA Weekend and columnist Pam Anderson. All rights reserved.