When the garden is in full swing and sailing season is on, one of my go-to meals is a stir-fry. In the time it takes to cook a pot of rice, the rest of the meal can be chopped, cooked, and ready to serve from one pan as a single-dish meal. In spring, asparagus, early onions, young garlic, snap peas, spinach, and herbs dominate the stir-fry; at the height of summer, freshly harvested onions, peppers, carrots, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes take over. By late summer, corn, eggplant, and fall broccoli and peas are ready to mix in.
When you’re rich in a particular vegetable, you can let it solo in a stir-fry, backed by aromatics such as garlic, ginger, and chilies. But my favorite stir-fries are created with dibs and dabs of many vegetables and a protein such as tofu. To guarantee success, fry quickly, at high heat, in an order that lets the ingredients brown evenly, with plenty of movement. It’s in the name: stir and fry.
Fresh Improv Stir-Fry
1/4 cup Vegetable Stock
2 tablespoons dry sherry, rice wine, or white wine
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons sunflower oil or other high-smoking point oil
2 pounds various vegetables, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1/4 teaspoon Home-Smoked Chili Paste or crushed red pepper flakes
14 ounces Pan-Fried Tofu (optional)
1/4 cup cashews or 2 tablespoons sesame seeds (optional)
Prepare the glaze: in a small glass measuring cup, add all liquids, except the sunflower oil, and whisk in the cornstarch until thoroughly combined. Cut up all vegetables and aromatics as indicated.
Preheat a wok or a large nonstick pan over high heat. Add the sunflower oil and heat until just below smoking. Add the vegetables in stages, dropping in the densest ones first, and cook, stirring often, for several minutes, until all are slightly browned yet still crisp-tender. Push the vegetables to the edges of the pan and drop in the garlic, ginger, and chilies; stir constantly for 15–30 seconds, until fragrant. Mix the vegetables back into the aromatics.
Whisk the glaze again, until the cornstarch dissolves, and add it to the pan, along with the tofu, if desired (see below); stir frequently until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat, toss with the nuts or seeds if using, and serve over basmati rice. Serves 4.
Tips & Tricks
- The 2 pounds of vegetables recommended in this master recipe can be divided among a half dozen or more vegetables. It’s easy to prep too big of a batch, making it difficult to keep the pan hot enough to brown the vegetables evenly. So if you’re mixing in many vegetables, think in terms of a handful or less of each type.
- Most of the year, I make stir-fries entirely from homegrown vegetables. I make exceptions for ginger, an essential aromatic, and mushrooms, which we have yet to grow successfully in large quantities.
- I have the best success with stir-fries when I add the liquid mixture at the end, treating it more as a glaze than a marinade. Be sure to add a small amount of cornstarch or other thickener; too much makes the sauce gooey, and leaving it out keeps it runny.
- Vegetables star in stir-fries, and nuts, seeds, and fried tofu (see below) tossed in at the end add crunchy protein to make a complete vegan meal. Fish and shellfish can be mixed in as well; these work best when marinated in the liquid ingredients and fried at a slightly lower heat at the end. For other meats, marinate and fry them first, set them aside while you cook the vegetables, and return the meat to the pan just before serving.
- I typically serve stir-fries over rice; long, thin basmati works well, whereas the strong flavors in the marinade overwhelm a fragrant jasmine rice. For a bonus burst of flavor, cook the rice in stock instead of water.
Twice as Tasty
Carnivorous friends and family may laugh or turn up their noses if you suggest adding tofu to a dish, but a bite of well-prepared tofu can convert everyone from 2-year-olds to grandmothers. The tofu’s blandness makes it beautiful: Silken tofu can thicken smoothies and sauces without changing their flavor, and firm tofu readily absorbs any flavor it’s cooked with, including stir-fries and curries.
The secret to selling people on readily identified cubes of tofu is how it’s prepared and cooked. A deep fryer quickly turns bean curd into attractively crisp and golden bites, but shallow frying makes the most sense at home. Because tofu is usually packaged in water, removing some of that water first produces better results once the tofu cubes hit the oil. So does patience.
sunflower oil or other high-smoking point oil
Cut open the tofu package and drain off the water. Press the tofu block by turning a plate upside down on the edge of a sink or in a tub and placing a cutting board half on the plate so that it is tilted. Set the tofu on the cutting board and weigh it down, such as with a bowl holding a full quart jar. Leave it for about 20 minutes, until the excess liquid flows off.
Remove the weights and pat away any remaining exterior moisture with a clean tea towel. Cut the tofu into your desired shape and size; cutting the block in half along its long, narrow edge and then into squares works well for Fresh Improv Stir-Fry.
Heat a large cast-iron or other nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add enough oil to completely coat the pan’s bottom. When hot, add the tofu cubes, leaving space around each cube, and cover with a splatter shield. Cook, without disturbing, for about 6 minutes, until golden and crisp. Carefully lift off the splatter shield and, using a spatula or tongs, flip each piece, adding more oil if needed. Cook undisturbed on the other side for an additional 3–4 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel on a plate to drain before serving, or mix directly into stir-fried vegetables. Makes about 32 tofu cubes.
Tips & Tricks
- Four techniques make tofu easy to cook: Remove water, heat high, leave space, and give it time.
- To follow all of these techniques, I find it easiest to cook the tofu in a separate pan. If you’re cooking Fresh Improv Stir-Fry in a single skillet, you can run through the tofu first, set it aside, cook the other vegetables, and then add the tofu at the end just long enough to bring it back to temperature.
- The hardest part of cooking tofu is not touching it for several minutes. This point is crucial to delicious tofu; turning too early makes it stick and break, and turning too late can scorch the fat-heavy soybeans.
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Tried & True
These tools and supplies may help you make the recipes in this post:
- Even when you drain, press, and dry tofu, it holds a surprising amount of water. I use a splatter shield like this one to minimize mess and burns. Avoid silicone splatter shields; although brightly colored, they tend to collect water on their undersides that splashes on the pan and you when you turn the tofu.
- Even though woks are designed for pit-style stoves with open flames, rather than flat-burner stoves, I still like this one for stir-frying vegetables because I can pull fully cooked ones up the angled sides and continue cooking the remaining ingredients. But a skillet actually transfers the heat more efficiently, boosting browning and flavor, so just use your skillet if you don’t want to add a wok to your pan collection.
- For tofu, skillets are best. I love the cast irons I inherited from my grandmother; if you’re not so lucky, you can grab a new one.
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