Say you’ve been running errands all day. You’ve been all over Hell’s half-acre; east of the Willamette, west of the Willamette, north and south of Burnside. I-5, 405, 82, 205, and 43 to boot. And then you get the call: “Can you handle dinner?”
It’s like a video game: you must create a healthy, flavorful dinner substantial enough to satisfy the needs of 2 big carnivorous men and their wife/mother. And it’s gotta have enough green veggies to satisfy your cruciferous cravings. AND you have to have it on the table in 1.5 hours and you have to get to the grocery store first. GO.
In order to defeat this dinnertime boss, I fall back on an old favorite: the stir fry. I used to eat a bare-bones version of this for lunch every day back in the Veggie Co-op in sophomore year; no thickening agent in the sauce, which was mostly soy and Bragg’s. And no chicken, of course; for protein, I had tofu if I was lucky enough to find some. I didn’t give a second thought to technique, but these days with the help of Lynne Rosetto-Kasper’s insight and instruction, I think I have a fairly good idea of what I’m doing (or at least what I’m supposed to be doing). Click over to that link and listen to the audio clip about the art of the stir fry, linked under the “Episode Rundown” heading.
So. Let’s get started. You’ll need the following hardware: wok (or, in our case, big glorious All-Clad wedding present; though a wok would be a hell of a lot cheaper), big knife for veggies, knife for chicken, 2 cutting boards, small saucepan and whisk. That’s it. Oh, and a tea kettle and a big bowl. And you can also get out your mandoline slicer and your Microplane zester to deal with the ginger. (Getting married was the best thing that ever happened to our kitchen.)
So here we go!
First, prep some rice noodles. You must have a starch on which to plop your stir-fry. Put a package of rice noodles in a big bowl and cover with just-boiling water. Test periodically until al dente, which should take between 3-4 minutes. Strain and toss with a little peanut oil to keep the noodles from forming a congealed rice brick. Easy. Set aside.
Next, assemble the Sexy Sauce (so named because a friend told me once that if I wanted to get up close and personal with someone, all I had to do was serve them something covered in this stuff).
- tamari (or soy sauce, if you’re not worried about the gluten–or the flavor, but that’s another entry entirely)
- 1/2 cup brown rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
- 1/4 cup natural creamy peanut butter
- 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root (keep it in the freezer–so much easier to grate frozen!)
- 10 drops fish oil
- dash(es) red pepper flakes
- juice of 1 lime, if you’re feeling crazy
- 2 teaspoons corn starch
Throw everything EXCEPT the corn starch in a small saucepan and set aside.
Now, grab your veggies and chicken. We go straight for the boneless skinless breasts, by which I am otherwise unimpressed. But trust me, this is where they belong. As for the veggies, go crazy. We like to use baby bok choy when we can find it. We always use broccoli because a) I love broccoli and b) it’s a flavor sponge. I’ve been known to use kale, green beans, zucchini, red cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, cauliflower–you name it, you can probably throw it in here with good effect. Anyhow, here are the basics:
- boneless skinless chicken breasts (for the 4 of us, with plans for leftovers, I pick up 2-3 pounds)
- 1 big onion, coarsely chopped
- 2-4 cloves of garlic, minced (Jesse likes to whack the garlic with the onion to peel it. Occasionally this results in projectile garlic.)
- 10-ish leaves of fresh basil, chiffonade
- 2-4 heads of baby bok choy, chopped
- 2 or 3 heads (do we call them heads?) of broccoli, cut into bite-sized trees
- 2 handfuls bean sprouts
- few handfuls baby spinach leaves
- several tablespoons of peanut oil
- chopped peanuts (optional garnish)
And now you’re ready to get going.
1. Butterfly your chicken and slice it into thin strips. Season with coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
2. Set your wok/skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the peanut oil and swirl to coat. After a few seconds, the oil should be shimmering. Add the chopped chicken and enjoy the sizzle. If you’re strapped for time (and that’s a big part of why you’re making this dish in the first place), you can chop your veggies while the chicken is cooking. No, I don’t always prep everything before I get going. Lynne Rosetto-Kasper says that you should, and I’ll forgive her for it. But if anyone tells you that you absolutely must prep each ingredient before you turn on a burner, they’re full of crap and don’t know how to live. The most exciting improvisation and invention-by-necessity happens when you realize halfway through that you don’t have an “essential” ingredient. Fly by the seat of your panties. Unless you’re preparing Thanksgiving dinner or trying to woo someone.
3. Once the chicken is cooked through, remove it to a plate and cautiously wipe out your pan with a paper towel. Add a little more peanut oil to the pan and throw in your veggies. Now, a note on veggie chopping: if you’re using something firm that takes a while to cook (say, carrot), slice it thin. Since you’re throwing in all the veggies at once, you need to cut them in such a way that they’ll cook at relatively the same speeds. With a little trial and error, you’ll figure it out.
4. As your right hand is dumping the veggies into the pan, your left hand can pop the saucepan of Sexy Sauce on a neighboring burner set to low-medium heat. Whisk the sauce a few times to get the peanut butter to make friends and emulsify.
5. Wait. Turn on the radio and after the first full song you hear is complete (change the station if you get Free Bird), add the cornstarch to the sauce. Whisk. You want the cornstarch in at the end because if you throw it in and heat it for too long, its binding abilities will fizzle. Trust me. I have science.
6. Throw your chicken back in the pan with your veggies to reheat and mix. Smother with the sauce. Remove from the heat and serve as soon as you can corral your people at the table. Pile the stir-fry on your rice noodles and sprinkle some chopped peanuts (raw or roasted & unsalted) over the dish for a garnish.
Fun to eat with chopsticks. Or a fork. I won’t judge. In fact, I usually start out with chopsticks and finish the last straggly strands of rice noodles and sauce with a spoon. Or if the bowl’s shallow enough, I’ve been known to just stick my face in there. Like the dogs.
Watch someone else do the dishes!