How to cook a perfect stir-fry on a budget

Posted on: 02 August 2010 by Mark O'haire

Rather than wasting money buying a pack of vegetables, why not use up those leftovers in the fridge to cook up a special stir-fry on a budget.

The stir-fry is a form of chop suey which consists of mixed vegetables ranging from onions, mushroom, bean sprouts and bamboo shoot to water chestnut and sometimes baby sweet corn or even carrot.

The origin of chop suey comes from the Ching Dynasty in old time China where a Chinese Mandarin held a state banquet for some foreign ambassadors. As the myth goes, despite a sumptuous platter and a range of delicious dishes, there was still not enough food on offer for the guests to eat and the royal chef had to pick all the leftover vegetables to cook up a dish. Surprise, surprise the foreign ambassadors enjoyed the dish so much they asked for the name and the royal chef replied “Chop Suey”, which in Chinese means “mixed pieces”. The West went on to liberalise the dish but back in the Far East, you’re unlikely to find chop suey in any distinct Chinese eateries.

001Now back to the stir-fry. As most of us will buy vegetables such as potato, onion, carrot, cabbage, broccoli, celery, tomato, green pepper, courgette,lettuce, cucumber, spring onion etc. for our weekly shop to accompany the Sunday roast, for a good stir-fry, you need to avoid any high water content vegetables. That discounts  cucumber, tomato and lettuce as they will shrink and go pulpy.

Different types of vegetables like cabbage, carrot and broccoli require longer frying time than onion, pepper and mushrooms. For that reason, the ready-to-cook stir-fry vegetables should not be packed or mixed; instead it should be packed in different portions and not mixed at all.

Now go to your fridge compartment and look for those vegetables you bought last week and have not yet been used. The ideal time for a stir-fry will be either be midweek or towards the end of your shopping week. Judge by the freshness of the vegetables itself rather than the ‘sell-by’ date and cut off those bits that aren’t fresh enough and treat it the same way as you do with cheese.

Let’s stir-fry

  1. Cut the vegetables (onion, carrot, broccoli, cabbage, bean, mushroom, celery etc.) into slices or cubes whichever way you prefer.
  2. Boil or blanch the hard vegetables first (carrot, broccoli, cabbage) for a minute or two and drain.
  3. Drizzle some oil in the non-stick wok or pan.
  4. Fry the onion (for the flavour), then put back the part-boiled hard vegetables and the rest of the vegetables plus any others such as bamboo shoot, bean sprout and baby sweet corn which are ideal for stir-fry; sprinkle some salts, pepper and soy sauce and stir and fry until they are cooked.
  5. Thicken with some corn flour mixed with water if desired.

5For the noodles

  1. Use the ready to cook noodles or dried noodles (Pour the boiling water to the wok with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of oil. Put the noodles to the boil and once it starts boiling, turn off the heat to avoid over-cooking and just leave to rest for a few minutes, draining the water and leave to cool).
  2. Drizzle some oil to the wok and put a quarter of the already ‘stir-fried’ vegetables and the noodles to the wok and drizzle more oil with a pinch of salt and pepper, soy sauce and start stirring and frying. (Bamboo chopsticks are ideal to separate the noodles and mixing it and also do not scratch the non-stick wok).
  3. Once it’s nearly done, you can pour the ‘stir-fried’ vegetables onto the noodles and mix them and ‘stir-fry’ a bit more or alternatively, just put the vegetables on top of the noodles.

For the meat

  1. Use pork, lamb, duck, chicken, beef or seafood but do remember different types of meat require different cooking times as in the above order and also how thin/thick you sliced them.
  2. Cut the meat (use chicken in this instance and add a cube of chicken stock if you desire) into medium slices, marinate it with a pinch of salt, pepper, 5 spices or mixed herb, corn flour, Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry (even white wine to moist and relax the meat), Soya sauce, ginger and garlic (or the powder alternatives) with a drop of oil for at least half an hour or longer (cover and put it back to the fridge if you want to marinate it for longer).
  3. Put some oil (any type but ideally to use rapeseed oil for its low cholesterol) in the heated wok; put a quarter of the ‘stir-fried’ vegetables and the chicken together and keep on stir-frying. Add your favourite ready-made sauce: oyster, black bean, chilli, sweet and sour, seafood or hoi-sin (most of them you can get from the Chinese /Oriental or well stocked supermarkets); or just soy sauce and thicken it with corn flour mixed with water.
  4. Now you can either pour the chicken onto the already cooked stir-fried vegetables and noodles or alternatively stir-fry them all together for a minute or two at your own desire and garnish it with some spring onions, roasted sesame seed or crushed cashew nuts then serve.

12Top tips

  • Pour some sherry or Chinese cooking wine onto the stir-fry vegetables to minimise the ‘greenish’ taste of the vegetables.
  • Keep some tins of bamboo shoot and water chestnut as they are ideal for stir-fry but do rinse them in cold water several times before use. They can also be kept in the fridge in a plastic container filled with cold water and change it every two days and they will last for a week or two. Do not freeze them as they will turn pulpy and lose the texture after defrosting.
  • Use sesame or walnut oil for that extra oriental flavour.
  • Use dark soy sauce to give the extra colour but not too much as you don’t want a charcoal coloured stir-fry.
  • It’s important to cook the vegetables in stages to avoid some being under-cooked or over-cooked.
  • Do not over-boil the noodles as some restaurateurs even just simmer the dried noodles in boiling water instead of cooking them.
  • Always buy your noodles, sauces or other produces in the Chinese/Oriental supermarkets if there is one near you as the price, quantity and quality are far better than your local chained supermarket. Remember, economical and budget are the buzz words.
  • Be creative, brave and taste as you go along.

That’s all folks. More to come next time…

The Shopaholic

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