Use up abundant produce with easy stir-fry suppers
Zucchini. Pac choy. Summer beans. Swiss Chard. Carrots. It’s mid-August. The farmers’ market is teeming with fresh goodness. An easy way to use up that produce is in a stir-fry supper.
A half-century ago, stir-fries were relatively unknown in America. Then in 1972, President Nixon made a historic trip to China. Today, stir-fries are common fare in every shopping mall food court.
Just how healthy is that food court fare? The stir-fry sauce has become excessively sweet. The meal is often served in a soggy pool of oil. The vegetable-to-meat ratio has been skewed to suit American palates.
True stir-fries are loaded with veggies and have just a little meat, or another protein, like tofu. Those veggies are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. According to a Dutch study, adding 10 grams of fiber to what average Americans eat — 14 to 17 grams — may reduce your risk of dying from heart disease by 17%. That’s because dietary fiber helps reduce total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity, and boost weight loss.
Stir-fries are usually served with white rice. Experiment with using whole grains like brown rice, barley, millet, or quinoa. You can also serve them over pasta for a different twist.
Scrumptious stir-fries are easy to prepare at home, with a minimum amount of fat and sugar and a healthy vegetable-to-protein ratio. And with some advance preparation, the meal can be ready to serve in minutes. Fresh, tender-crisp vegetables, chunks of lean meat, fish or tofu, and easy, zesty sauces offer great flavor.
The secret to great stir-fries is preparing ahead. Make the sauce first; then use it to marinate the meat or tofu. A simple sauce can be made by mixing in a little honey and lemon or balsamic vinegar with soy sauce and broth. Ginger and garlic add flavor.
Slice the vegetables and meat in bite-sized chunks and arrange them according to how long they take to cook. You can do this early in the day or the night before. When cutting, make all the chunks about the same size to ensure a uniform cooking time and make it easier to eat. Then all you have to do is put on a pot of rice and stir-fry while the grain cooks.
A wok is nice, but not necessary — a large skillet will do.
Heat the pan, add oil, and let it get hot. Peanut oil, traditionally used in Asia, is better than olive oil because of its higher smoke point. But use whatever cooking oil you prefer or have available.
Now you’re ready to begin throwing in your ingredients. I like to add onions first, then mushrooms and/or peppers, if using them. Then add the remaining ingredients — the harder the vegetable, the more time it generally needs to cook until crisp-tender. Carrots and other root veggies usually go in first. Add the garlic or ginger at this time, too, for lots of flavor. Although you can buy pre-minced ginger and garlic at the supermarket, fresh garlic and fresh ginger offer the best flavor.
Green beans and stems of pac choy or chard can go in next. You don’t need to wait long before adding the next ingredient. Keep stirring; this ensures everything cooks evenly. Remove vegetables before they get limp. If you’re using soft veggies like zucchini, sprouts or greens, these go in at the very end.
It’s ready to eat when everything is done crisp-tender and before it gets soggy. For many vegetables, like green beans or broccoli, the color changes to a more vivid or slightly darker shade. Greens are done as soon as they’re wilted. You don’t want them to become scorched or mushy. Take a bite once in a while to test for doneness and flavor. This will help you learn to judge for the next time, too. If you tend to get distracted and forget things, set a timer to go off every couple minutes to remind yourself to check and stir.
You can make completely different meals by varying the types of protein and vegetables in your stir fries.
Pork and pac choy stir-fry
1 Tablespoon sesame seeds
1 boneless loin pork chop, about 6 ounces
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
3 large cloves garlic, minced, about 11/2 teaspoons
1/2 teaspoon (freshly ground) black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
1 cup reduced-sodium broth (vegetable, beef or chicken)
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
4 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 bunch pac choy (bok choy)
Toast sesame seeds in a dry skillet, stirring, until light brown and aromatic — just a minute or two. Watch carefully. Set aside.
Cut pork into very thin strips — cut it in half horizontally, then down into matchsticks. In a small bowl, mix pork, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.
Combine broth and cornstarch in a bowl, and stir to distribute cornstarch.
Heat a wide cast-iron skillet or wok over high heat. Add oil, and heat until it shimmers.
Add meat, and stir-fry 2 minutes. Add bok choy, and stir-fry another minute or two. Stir broth mixture again, then pour into skillet and stir until it thickens, a minute or so. Stir in sesame seeds, and serve with rice.
Option: Substitute kale, broccoli, Swiss chard or spinach for pac choy. (Kale and broccoli need to cook a little longer, maybe 5 minutes; one minute for spinach or pac choy).
Chicken and Two-Bean Stir Fry
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
2 Tablespoons white wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh (about 1/3 to 1/2 pound)
1 cup broth or vegetable cooking water
1 Tablespoon cornstarch (or another thickener)
About 1 Tablespoon cooking oil
4 ounces mushrooms
A handful or two of green beans
A handful or two of yellow (wax) beans
1 small zucchini or other summer squash
Combine soy sauce, wine, minced garlic and broth in a bowl.
Cut chicken into bite-size pieces. Stir into the sauce to marinate in the fridge (anyway from 20 minutes to all day).
Remove stem ends from beans and break them in half or thirds. Set aside.
Dice the zucchini. Set aside.
Chop the onion and mushrooms.
When ready to cook, heat the oil in wok or skillet until it shimmers; add chicken pieces, and brown on both sides. Remove and set aside. Be sure to reserve the sauce.
Lower heat. Add onions and mushrooms and cook 5 minutes. Add beans and stir-fry for 3 to 5 minutes. Add zucchini and stir-fry a couple minutes longer.
Stir the cornstarch into the reserved sauce, and stir into the skillet along with the chicken. Cook until thickened, and serve over cooked grain, like rice or millet.
Stir-Fried Chicken, Carrots and Cucumbers
1/2 lb. chicken breast
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
1 or 2 cloves garlic
2″ piece of ginger
1-2 Tablespoons cooking oil
1 or 2 carrots
1 or 2 cucumbers
1 teaspoon cornstarch
3 – 4 scallions
Cut chicken into strips. In shallow bowl, combine soy sauce and vinegar. Peel and mince (or crush) garlic & ginger and add. Place chicken pieces in the sauce to coat; marinade 30 minutes. (This can be done early in the day and left to marinade longer).
Wash and slice carrot. Peel cucumber and cut in chunks. Set vegetables aside.
Heat oil in wok or skillet to medium high. Remove chicken from marinade (reserve marinade). Add to skillet and cook, turning, 3 – 4 minutes. Add carrots and cucumber, and cook 2 minutes more. Add cornstarch to marinade, stir to combine, and add to skillet. Cut ends off scallions and slice; add. Cook until bubbly and thickened, about 3 minutes. Serve over rice or other grain. Serves 2 – 3.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook at Words Are My World.