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Monday, August 8

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It's rare that I've had time lately to make a dirty-every-pot kind of meal. It's the type of cooking that I enjoy the most, but I've been leaving work late and arriving home to meet a lengthy to-do list, and weekends have been just as hectic. But I've grown tired of my quick standby meals. I knew that I needed to push myself to come up with a quick and easily adaptable meal that also seemed interesting.

And the answer was stir-fry. It's not a challenge to throw some sauce on some meat (or tofu) and veggies, cook everything for a few minutes and then pour it over some cooked rice and enjoy. For many years it was one of my standard weeknight dinners. I ate it frequently enough that it became monotonous. And I started reading labels on the sauces and became appalled by the amounts of sodium, MSG and sugar, so I began to look for a different way to make a quick dinner.

The obvious answer was to make my own sauces, but I had a hard time finding sauces that were quick to make, would last for at least a week or two in the refrigerator, and were versatile enough to keep me from getting bored. But my success with the miso glaze several weeks ago, combined with the container of miso still in the refrigerator, led me to think about what else I could do with it.

So I did what I think many people do: I opened all the cabinets and stood in front of them thinking, "Now what?" And instead of waiting patiently for inspiration to hit, I decided to channel my inner-child and create what I used to call an "experiment." Which means mixing several things together that may, or may not, go well together and then cooking it and hoping it's edible.

I began with 1 tablespoon of miso paste. I wanted to thin it out a bit so I added 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and used a spoon to blend them. It was very salty and a little tangy, so I decided I would calm it down a bit by adding some rice wine vinegar. Two tablespoons later and I had a consistency that I mostly liked and a flavor that was getting closer. I took some fresh ginger and grated it into the bowl. It was about a half teaspoon once I was done. This was closer but it still lacked a little something. It needed some sweetness, and a half teaspoon of honey seemed to be enough.

I now had a bowl full of a very dark, very richly flavored sauce that I was worried it would overpower the shrimp and vegetables I had. But I decided to continue with the experiment. And once I'd eaten enough to stop being grumpy, I was proud of myself. While operating at low brain-power I'd challenged myself and succeeded.

Time spent thinking about what to cook = 20 minutes
Time spent actually cooking = 20 minutes

I repeated the process with a similar set of ingredients the next week and skipped the 20 minutes of thought time. So I think I'm back on track making stir-fry more regularly. And the best part about making my own sauce is the cost savings. Not everyone has a variety of vinegars, oils and other ingredients to mix together, but a bottle of vinegar is usually cheaper than one jar of pre-made sauce, it lasts a lot longer, doesn't contain a plethora of crap ingredients and is more versatile for using in other dishes later.

Miso Stir-Fry Sauce
1 tablespoon of red miso
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon of honey

1 pound of thawed and shelled shrimp (30-40 count) (1 pound of firm or baked tofu chunks, seitan, or other meat can be substituted)
2 tablespoons of peanut or vegetable oil
1 onion cut into thin slices
1 clove of garlic
1 bell pepper chopped in half-inch pieces
1/2 pound of snowpea pods
1 can of drained ears of baby corn

Combine the ingredients for the sauce in a medium-sized bowl. Use a fork or whisk to break up any lumps. Add the meat or tofu to the bowl, toss to combine and let it sit while you begin the rice and chop the veggies. Wash and chop the vegetables. Keep each vegetable separate since you'll want to add them to the pan in stages. (Of course if you have a wok, that's great. But you can also do this in a skillet — you'll just have less flexibility and control.) Heat your pan or skillet over medium-high heat before adding the oil and the onions. Stir frequently until the onion has gone translucent and started to caramelize. This should take about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and the bell pepper pieces and let these cook for about 2 minutes before adding the bowl of sauce and the peapods. Stir to coat the vegetables with the sauce and let it cook for about 3 minutes, or until the shrimp start to turn pink or the texture becomes firmer. Add the can of baby corn and let them warm through for about 1 minute while stirring constantly. Once they're warm, place some of the cooked rice on four plates and pour the contents of the wok (or skillet) over the rice. Serve and eat.

Mildly Flavorful Stir-Fry Rice
1-1/2 cups of basmati or other long-grain white rice
3 cups of water
2 sections of lemongrass that are about two inches long (or 2-3 slices of peeled ginger root)
Several grinds or dashes of pepper

Rice cooker directions:
Add all the ingredients to the rice cooker, stir to combine, turn on the rice cooker, cover and come back 20 minutes later. Fish out the lemongrass and ginger slices and discard. Stir with a fork to fluff and serve. (Seriously, if you don't have a rice cooker I highly recommend you get one.)

Stovetop directions:
Combine all ingredients to a pan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir, cover, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Check rice for doneness after about 15-18 minutes. Once the water has been absorbed and the rice can be fluffed with a fork, remove the lemongrass and ginger and serve. Makes 3-4 servings.

Here are a few things to remember when making a sauce that you will be adding to a skillet full of ingredients or storing in your refrigerator:

  • Just because your sauce is highly flavored doesn't mean your stir-fry will be. Once the vegetables start emitting their water it will tone down the flavor potency of the sauce. And adding a quarter cup of sauce to 2 pounds of food stretches out the flavor.

  • Go easy on soy sauce and salt since it's hard to remove salt from a stir-fry. You can add more salt before serving and after tasting if necessary.

  • Mixing fermented or preserved ingredients together and storing in the refrigerator for a few days will permit flavors to merge without risking them going bad. But once you add fresh ingredients (garlic, ginger, lemon grass) you decrease the refrigerated shelf life. So if you find a combination you like and want to make a larger supply of it, combine all the non-fresh ingredients and store in a sealed container and add the fresh ingredient shortly before cooking. Or you can let the fresh ingredient steep in the liquid for several days before discarding the fresh ingredient. It may still reduce the shelf life of the sauce but not by as much.

  • Sour, salty, and sweet are the three flavors you need to merge. Something like balsamic vinegar may overlap the sour and the sweet, so taste before adding to the food. The flavor should be intense and will seem too strong, but you're not tasting for intensity, you're tasting for balance. Is it too sweet? Add more sour.

  • It's best to store your sauce in a glass jar. Aluminum can affect the flavor of acidic items and plastic can soak up flavors to leech out into other foods later.

  • Always taste the dish after the ingredients are cooked but before you serve.

  • After soaking meat in the sauce it either needs to be brought to a boil before being served or it needs to be discarded.

Sometimes the obvious foods are the ones I tend to overlook. I think we all become caught in food ruts on occasion. After a long day, when your brain feels jellified, it's hard to suddenly turn on the creative juices and make a healthy balanced meal that tastes good enough that you'll want to repeat the dish later. What are some of the things you do to keep challenging yourself when cooking during busy times? I'd love to hear, so leave a comment to serve as fodder for a future column.

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Kevin / October 9, 2006 1:56 PM

I have found that the Chinese rice wine can but put in instead of the honey to even out the vinegar. But then you need to add some arrowroot or corn starch to thicken it up a little.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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