Stir-fries conjure up mixed feelings in me. It is hard to forget the bad ones, those shady packs of precut veg, baby corn and raw red pepper, limp veg, sticky sweet sauce. All too often we get them wrong, but done right they are hard to beat as a midweek dinner, a great a way of getting in a good number of the now 10 portions of fruit and veg the government suggests we eat, super quick and usually they come together in just one pan.
In our house it’s my husband John who is the king of the stir-fry. He takes a measured approach, getting everything prepped before hand so it’s all ready to throw into the pan. This is the KEY element to a successful stir-fry. It is so quick to cook you need everything ready – it goes from perky and crisp to overcooked and sticky in no time at all – so have your veg chopped, your sauce mixed and any finishing touches ready to go.
There are 12 secrets to elevating your midweek stir-fry:
1. Follow this formula for a balanced plate every time:
- Start with your main hero vegetable
- Pick 1 or 2 back up vegetables
- Add some protein (egg, tofu, tempeh in my house)
- Rice or noodles
- Aromatics – ginger, chilli, garlic, lemongrass, herbs, spring onions
- A good sauce or dressing
- Some texture, herbs or crunch to finish
2. Think outside the box. You don’t have to choose Asian flavours, I often cook in this way using lemon and green herbs as my finishing dressing.
3. A good heavy frying pan or wok style pan will help – we just use a large heavy frying pan.
4. Prep is key. Chop all your ingredients before you start and get your sauce mixed and toppings ready.
5. Think about how you chop your vegetables, slower cooking veg like sweet potatoes and squash can be used if you slice it thinly. Cut slower cooking veg wafer thin and leave quicker cooking veg in bigger pieces.
6. Make sure you get your wok or pan screaming hot, hotter than you think, it will cool immediately after you put anything in.
7. Start by adding the vegetables that will take the longest to cook, once they are a couple of minutes away from being cooked you can add your protein and quicker cooking veg and greens.
8. With a minute or so left add the aromatics (if you add them at the beginning they’ll burn)
9. Add your cooked rice or noodles and toss well. Avoid the pre-cooked stuff if you can, fine in a fix but it takes under 10 minutes to cook good rice or noodles.
10. Finish with your sauce or dressing, and immediately take off the heat. You will need much more dressing than you think as the noodles or rice will soak it up.
11. Don’t be tempted by shop-bought sauces or dressings. Invest in a few bottles of condiments and they’ll see you through months worth of stir-fries and taste much better. Add a couple of tablespoon of something salty (soy or miso) something sweet (honey or maple) something sour (citrus of rice wine vinegar) and something rich (olive or sesame oil or even a spoonful of nut butter.)
12. Add a finishing touch which will elevate your bowl - crushed toasted nuts, herbs, chopped chilli, a squeeze of citrus. This really is where you take your plate of food to the next level.
Here’s my flavour map for six of my favourite ways to take the humble stir-fry for those of you who like to freestyle a little, but for those who like the safety of a recipe, this is a favourite simple one too, you can add tofu or tempeh of you see fit.
PURPLE SPROUTING BROCOLLI, KALE + CASHEW STIR-FRY
I crave this stir-fry and eat it for dinner often. It’s fresh, green and delivers on flavour in a big way. This is a super-quick supper that comes together in 10 minutes. Serve with brown rice or some noodles – I like soba noodles, but rice or egg noodles would work too. This recipe is just for two, as it’s best not to overcrowd the pan when quick-frying – if you want to serve more, I suggest you cook it in a couple of batches.
- Sesame oil
- 6 spring onions, sliced
- A thumb-size piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 250g of purple sprouting broccoli, ends snapped off, cut into 2cm pieces
- 200g kale, stalks removed, roughly torn
- A pinch of dried chilli flakes
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- Grated zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lime
- A small bunch of fresh mint or coriander, or both, roughly chopped
- A big handful of toasted cashew nuts
- Fill your kettle, put the broccoli in a heatproof bowl and over with boiling water, leave to sit for 5 minutes. Heat your biggest frying pan or wok and add a splash of sesame oil. Add the spring onions and ginger and fry for a minute or two, then add the brocolli and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the spinach or greens and kale and stir until wilted.
- Mix the chilli flakes, maple syrup, soy sauce and the lime juice and zest in a little bowl and then add to the pan and take off the heat.
- Stir in the herbs and scatter over the cashews. Serve straight away, with rice or noodles.
Anna Jones' book A Modern Way To Cook is out now.