What a feast we had while I was working on this cookbook! Stir-fry cooking can involve almost any savory ingredient you could name, and we put a good number of them to work as I created the recipes for 300 Best Stir-Fry Recipes. I arranged the chapters in the style of an Asian restaurant menu in the West, with Chicken, Pork, Beef, Fish, etc. as the organizing principle for the book. That’s because we tend to pick the protein and build a meal around it. If you’re looking for a way to fix boneless, skinless chicken breast that won’t put everyone around the table to sleep, open to the Chicken Chapter and start cooking. Stir-frying puts flavor and freshness front-and-center, and provides you with an amazing variety of ways to season the same ingredient and get it on the table fast.
I remember eating stir-fry dishes at Wong’s Chinese Restaurant in High Point, North Carolina, where sweet-and-sour pork and moo-goo-gai-pan came in small, lidded metal dishes that always reminded me of flying saucers. I adored everything I tried, but considered it all an exotic adventure, having little relationship to what my mother and grandmother cooked at home. My real introduction to stir-fry cooking came took place in Thailand, where I spent three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. I lived in a small town in Surin province, and quickly came to adore Thai food in all its manifestations. Stir-frying was an essential technique, and almost any meal included a stir-fried dish enjoyed with rice and other dishes. Vegetables came out crisp and gorgeously colored, meat bestowed deep flavors, and rice provided the canvas for enjoying them both.
Back home in North Carolina, I turned to Chinese cookbooks for instructions on how to stir-fry, and while I learned so much and benefited from many fine books (and more published since that time) I was surprised to see that it sounded difficult and fraught with rules. Some instructions called for precision chopping so that every ingredient was the same exact size. Others called for multiple steps of stir-frying this ingredient, then that one, then another one, and then finally putting them all together for a showstopping but laboriously-made dish. Some instructions told me to pre-cook meat in a panful of hot oil, then scoop it out, drain the oil, cook other ingredients, and add the partially cooked ingredient in to begin the final phase. For a restaurant cook these things may make great sense, but for home cooks on a busy weeknight, dumping out hot oil so you can keep cooking in the same pan is not a practical plan.
These techniques are part of classic stir-fry cooking in many places, but not in the world of simple, homestyle Asian cooking. Where I lived and taught school in the countryside of Northeastern Thailand, my neighbors would have laughed out loud and the thought of all that fussing over a little ol’ stir-fried dish. Thai cooks heat the oil till it will sizzle a spoonful or so of garlic, toss that to season the oil, add the meat and cook it till it changes color, add the vegetable (usually one, not 3 or 8 or 17 different vegetables by the way) and toss till it brightens, then add some seasonings, broth, fish sauce, sugar, salt, maybe oyster sauce or chilies or soy sauce for color, and then when it’s all done and beautiful and has a small amount of sauce, out it goes onto a platter and we eat with delight. Occasionally cooks add a cornstarch thickening to make a luscious gravy for a stir-fried dish, but usually they don’t believing that the pan-juices are all you need to have a grand dish.
In 300 Best Stir-Fry Recipes, you’ll find a collection of dishes from all over Asia, and from Chinese restaurants in the West, where I still love to dine out. Kung Pao Chicken, Clams with Black Bean Sauce, Thai-Style Chicken with Basil, Lemon Chicken, and Moo-Shu Pork are all there to enjoy, along with dozens of stir-fry dishes using ingredients that won’t show up on the table in Hong Kong or Taipei. I tried Italian sausage with green peppers and onions, and it was fantastic. I made a day-after-Thanksgiving turkey stir-fry that came out great. I tried kielbasa with cabbage, ham with salsa and corn, a simple version of veal piccata made with pork, and a fried rice dish made with black-eyed peas and ham in the style of Hoppin’ John. The results were amazing and we ate happily and well the whole time I was cooking up this book.
The thing to remember with stir-fry cooking is that your preparation time is the big part, with the actual cooking time being the fast finish. Cutting things up, chopping, measuring out ingredients for the seasonings and sauces that are added late in the cooking, these are the tasks of stir-fry cooking. You can do lots ahead, measuring out sauce and chopping up garlic, green onions, zucchini, and meat, and set it out by the stove or covered in the fridge for perishable things. For shortcuts in the prep process, look for recipes using ground meat or shrimp which need no chopping, and check the salad bar for ready-to-go vegetables from purple onion and peppers to broccoli florets and peas. Produce sections carry shredded carrots, trimmed broccoli and cauliflower, celery sticks, and sliced mushrooms, and frozen vegetables make a perfect standby. Frozen shelled edamame beans and petite peas or regular peas are mainstays of my frozen “pantry”, as are lima beans and corn.
Plan a stir-fry meal around a “satisfy-er”; I made up this word to substitute for “starch”, a word that though accurate causes me to wince because it sounds like laundry or else is so associated with “things we shouldn’t eat!” that I want to give it a new life in our food picture. Stir-fry cooking was born to go with rice, lots of rice, and that is the favorite all over Asia. I adore rice, and so does my family, but we love pasta and noodles as well, and noodles of any kind make a fine stir-fry companion. So does couscous, the five-minute miracle available in the supermarket nowadays. As long as you have something substantial to play chorus to stir-fry’s star-turn, you’ll have a fine meal. I included a chapter called Rice, Grains, and Other Sides, to provide you with an array of options for “filling out” your stir-fry meal. I like to include one other dish as well. Often it’s a simple salad made from mixed greens, sliced apples, dried cranberries, and sliced almonds, dressed with a simple vinaigrette. We also love a big bowl of frozen peas, cooked just till tender and tossed with a little knob of butter and a kiss of salt and pepper. Canned stewed tomatoes, a simple fruit salad, a plate of sliced cucumbers and sliced tomatoes with salt and pepper, and bowls of a favorite soup are other ways to complete the picture.
300 Best Stir-Fry Recipes is the biggest book I’ve ever done — four times as many recipes, and an intense exploration of one way of cooking in countless variations. I loved “touring the world” in my mind in the process of coming up with recipe ideas. Seeing my words and recipes brought to big, beautiful life was a thrill, and I am grateful beyond words to Bob Dees, publisher of Robert Rose, Inc., for the opportunity to write this beautiful and useful book. My editor Carol Sherman not only watched my words and made the jigsaw puzzle pieces fit together wonderfully, she cooked recipes and wrote delighted e-mails about them from her kitchen, which really cheered me on. Judith Finlayson, Jennifer MacKenzie, Daniella Zanchetta, and teams of talented people at PageWave Graphids and Robert Rose worked hard and wonderfully well to produce a book I love.
Whether you’re stir-frying in a large, deep skillet, or a wok, using a spatula or a big spoon to toss, scoop and stir up your dish, drawn to stir-fry cooking because it’s healthful, speedy, or simply because it tastes good and keeps you in close personal contact with our good friend, food, more power to you! I’m honored that you are reading these words, and thinking about cooking something to bring to your table. Let me know what you think, how things come out, and what’s cooking in your stir-fry kitchen.