By Alan Miles
I love stir fries. Not so much the ones on restaurant menus or from recipes in cookbooks, but the kind of easy stir fry I make out of leftover rice and odds and ends in the refrigerator and pantry. I love how much fun it is to cook them, how good most of them end up tasting and how no two of them are ever completely alike.
I’ve never made a stir fry from a recipe. My history with them goes back to my college days, when I first began to care about what I was eating, had little time or money to cook, and pursued a lifestyle that in no way included planning meals ahead of time.
With stir fries, I could load up on ingredients like bulk grains, nuts, seeds and fresh produce and throw it all together at the last minute for a healthful meal. Every so often I’d have the added step of cooking rice or another grain (usually a 2 to 1 mix of rice and wheatberries) — but I always made plenty extra, so most times I had cooked and refrigerated leftover grain to add to the pan as an ingredient.
Stir fry time machine
As I was making a quick stir fry the other day, I realized how little had changed from those college days — in either my cooking methods or my enjoyment of cooking and eating stir fries. My college stir fries were often pretty minimal. That was the situation with this one, too. Just like in college, I had few ingredients on hand, but I knew I was still going to be able to put together a satisfying stir fry.
I went to my time-tested, recipe-free method:
- I got out the cast iron skillet. I suppose any frying pan will do, but I only use cast iron. I like the even heating and rustic character.
- I covered the bottom with olive oil and added my spices. I like to slightly warm the pan and oil ahead of time and then put my spices in the warm oil while I chop veggies. This technique helps transfer the full flavor of the spices into the oil, which in turn will infuse into every ingredient during the brief stir frying. Like the other ingredients, the spices are a matter of opportunity — that is, I use what’s on hand. My go-tos are basics like cumin, garlic, oregano and turmeric, but it’s fun to experiment with unexpected seasonings and combinations. One such experiment led to Frontier Organic Salad Sprinkle becoming one of my favorite stir fry spices. (And speaking of blends, stir fries are a good way to explore ethnic blends like garam masala or Tandoori seasoning.) I don’t remember the spices for this latest stir fry, but I loaded it up to make sure it had plenty of flavor even with its limited ingredients. Variations in seasoning were the key to my being able to constantly eat stir fries in college — just frying plain rice can result in a dozen completely different meals if you keep changing up the spices.
- I sautéed an onion. For me, the first thing in after the oil and spices is the onion. There are theories about order of ingredients involving the infusion of flavors into the oil and the like, but I do onions first because I had a girlfriend in the ’70s who insisted the onions be cooked limp before any other vegetables went in, and it became a lifelong habit. After the onion is ready, I add ingredients roughly in the order of how long it takes them to cook, so things get done together. Raw stuff like nuts and seeds go in at the end to add crunch to the dish.
- I added an egg. Since those formative college days, stir fries have been almost entirely vegetarian fare, with an egg pretty much standard as a protein booster (unless my vegan daughter Emma is eating with us). In this case, the egg called out to me from the almost empty refrigerator shelves as about the only ingredient available.
- I added the rice. Once the (in this case, two) ingredients are hot, it’s just a matter of stirring in the leftover rice and you’ve got something substantial. Whether it’s adding the rice to something simple like this onion and egg pairing or to a whole skillet full of vegetables, stirring it all up with a wooden spoon and watching the spices and other ingredients mix into and transform the bland rice into a tasty meal is one of my favorite cooking experiences.
- I tossed on some cashews. As is so often the case with stir fries, I came upon an additional unexpected ingredient as I looked around the kitchen. I found a handful of whole cashews left over from a snack tray and forgotten on the shelf. Nothing tops off a stir fry like nuts and seeds. Not only are they another good protein source, they add the perfect touch of texture and flavor to complement the grain. From college days to these days, it’s cool to have some cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds or sesame seeds on your stir fry.
- I dished it up and ate it. I added splash of tamari and a sprinkle of Frontier Organic Thai Seasoning for a little heat and dug in. I typically leave the hot spices for table application so my dinner companions and I can adjust to our individual tastes. Also, there was that time when I used cayenne in the frying pan and ended up with a stir fry that had heat units approximate to molten lava. I had to mix in an equal amount of plain rice before we could look at it without singeing our eyebrows.
Whether you’re a young college student yourself or old enough to have kids around the dinner table, a stir fry is a great way to put together a quick and easy meal that’s healthful, fun to make and delicious in any of a thousand different ways you can choose.
What goes in your favorite stir fry?
About the Author: Alan explores ideas and issues related to a sustainable lifestyle — from cooking and culture to social and environmental responsibility. He enjoys Shakespeare, but not as much as college basketball (Go Hawks!). Alan is a family man, liking nothing better than spending time with his wife of 35 years, his four kids and grandkids.