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Weeknight Stir-Fry
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jducoeur
So I was realizing last night that I've never really written down the single "recipe" that I use most often. That's because it's not a recipe per se -- rather, it's an approach to making dinner, aimed specifically at something good for a Tuesday evening. I find myself feeling like a period cook talking about bread: it's not a precise recipe, it's just something I *do*. But I've been realizing that not everyone simply intuits the ways you can mess with this stuff, and folks might find it useful. I've described a specific dish or two made this way, but I don't think I've given the underlying pattern.

Note that I'm using "stir-fry" in the absolute loosest sense. It fails to be a proper stir-fry in several respects, and only a few of the below variations are Chinese-flavored. I'm mostly using the term to mean "tossing stuff in a skillet with modest oil, and then saucing it at the end" -- the heart of a fairly ordinary stir-fry.

So below is the "master recipe" -- really, the template -- for how I make these dishes, and some ideas of variations I apply to it. I encourage you to mess around with it and see what works for you.

Weeknight Stir-Fry
Serves 1-2

Ingredients
1/4 - 1/2 lb Protein Unit
1/2 - 1 lb Veggies
A bit of pasta
A Sauce
And a Tbl or two of oil for frying

Yes, that's all vague -- really, that's the point. You have enormous leeway to mix-and-match the above and still wind up with something good. This is how the same basic template can be used a couple of times a week without getting sick of it. Let's examine some of the common options for each of those.

For the Protein Unit, almost anything you can cut to bite-size will do fine. I often use scallops, various forms of pseudo-meat (more often than anything else), ground pork or beef, or chicken breast cut into chunks. The main thing is to match the flavors of the Protein Unit and Sauce: not all combinations work well.

The Veggies can be damned near anything you like -- I often go to Whole Foods specifically so I can raid the salad bar or get one of their 2/3 lb pre-packs of assorted veggies. But fresh works better than frozen (for me, anyway: I like my veggies crisp), and you need to handle the different veggies differently, as described below.

For pasta, I'm partial to the packages of noodles you can get from H-Mart or some other Asian groceries. These packages have small bundles of noodles, pre-sized into reasonable portions and tied into neat bundles. Some variations call for other choices, but one of these packets is my default 75% of the time. One bundle is enough to feel like I'm getting some yummy starch, without it taking over the dish.

For sauce, there is a *world* of choices. Anything that can stand up to some heat can work. Some examples are given in the Variations below.

Preparation

Put up a pot of water for the pasta; salt the water if you prefer.

Cut the Protein Unit into bite-size chunks if necessary. Fry it in a non-stick skillet until reasonably "done", however that's defined for this foodstuff. Set it aside.

Cut the Veggies into bite-size chunks, and *separate* them by how long they need to cook. This is important, especially if you buy one of those mixed-veggie packages. Stir-fry them, starting with the "hardest" (or at least, most durable) veggies, and proceeding to the softest ones, adding to the skillet as you go. For me, the order is typically something like: mushrooms; carrots and broccoli stems; snow peas and broccoli fleurets; peppers and sprouts. If you like your vegetables softer than I do, you may need to add a dash of water and cover for a minute or two to soften in the middle of this.

While you are cooking the Veggies, toss in the Pasta -- time it so that the Pasta is ready about the same time that you are tossing in the softest veggies. Add the Sauce, and mix thoroughly; add the cooked Protein Unit; add the Pasta and stir in. Serve.

So much for the basics. Now, to make this a bit more concrete, on to some...

Variations

Each of these follows the Master Template, adjusting to suit.

Chinese: The above-listed Veggies work nicely. Ground pork is a good protein unit, as is cubed chicken or pseudo-meat. Oyster Sauce is a good option: several ounces of it, combined with some cold water and a bit of cornstarch, and maybe a bit of hot oil. My favorite "sauce" is adding some fermented black beans at the end, then 1/4 cup of chicken stock and an ounce of cold water with a teaspoon of cornstarch mixed in. The sauce combines and thickens in the skillet very quickly.

"Spaghetti": Use a thick pasta sauce, ideally with a lot of stuff already in it -- I'm fondest of a good Puttanesca, with capers and kalamata olives. Focus on "Italian" veggies -- maybe drop the snow peas in favor of some onions early in the fry. Ground beef is a good protein unit, and most pseudo-meats work well.

"Thai": Use a peanut sauce, and focus on more Asian veggies. Duck can be a great Protein Unit alternative, if you can get a few tenders of it. Possibly serve over rice instead of the pasta.

"Chili": Similar to the "Spaghetti", but use a simpler tomato sauce, and add your own cumin and cayenne. For the pasta, use Ditalini (aka "chili-mac").

Pesto: With a basil or sundried-tomato pesto, focus on a smaller number of lightly-flavored veggies. Scallops work well as the Protein Unit. Use bow ties or the like for the pasta, and up the amount somewhat.

And so on -- I think you get the idea. It's not so much about specific recipes -- it's about having this central approach, learning what your ingredients taste like and what works well together, and playing with the mix-and-match opportunities...
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This is very close to the master recipe for the Shun Lee cookbook, the one that broke the barrier between me and the Chinese food I've been wanting to cook all my life. The only difference I see is the protein cooking method. They use a method called "passing through", where you cook it in 300 degree oil for about 40 seconds. You cut it thin enough so that the meat is cooked through, but still tender and yummy.

I learned (from a Chinese American friend) that those noodle bundles actually cook fine if you just pour some boiling water over them and let them sit for a minute or two. The trick is getting the timing right for then tossing them into the stir fry. I often say "the heck with it" and just throw in the mass of noodles that have been sitting drained for the last ten minutes waiting for me to catch up. It mostly works.

That trick works for Ramen, too. Ramen, cabbage, and 4oz bacon (use the bacon as oil) is a surprisingly good stir fry if you throw in a few hot chilis, some star anise, and a bit of ginger.

What a very helpful system! Thank you for sharing. One of my favorite dishes to cook (and eat), "Pasta with Caramelized Onion Sauce," is flexible, in a similar way. The onions are the base, and you vary the combination of types of greens, nuts, wine, and cheese. The recipe for it comes from The Moosewood Cookbook, and it is a fabulous dish for entertaining or weekends (it takes too much time for a normal weekday evening).

Hmm -- I'll have to look that one up. I don't use Moosewood often, but I do have it, and have generally found good stuff in there...

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