Of the 50 years of sound nutrition research out there, it is clear that a whole foods plant-based diet is generally the healthiest diet regimen. (I will explore this more in a future blog and elucidate what I mean.) Besides the hang-ups we have with the word “diet,” the biggest obstacle to implementing healthy dietary habits is the lack of a familiar cuisine repertoire of plant-based dishes. Most traditional cultures have many “soul food” dishes that consists of small amounts of meat or animal fat with many vegetables and grains. Take for example a simple cabbage roll. The cabbage roll is an almost ubiquitous cuisine found across cultures. Traditionally, it is made with some minced meat, some barley or rice, and vegetables and mushrooms. The Eastern Europeans pour tomato sauce on top of theirs, the Chinese use seafood and tofu as their stuffing, and some in the Middle East season theirs with lemon and olive oil. When dishes like these are modernized/Westernized, they become more focused on meat and less on the other ingredients. These dishes become “beef-stuffed cabbage rolls”, ground beef/turkey chilis, and steak and a few potatoes. Think of what an average hearty American meal entails. Most will conjure up an image of spaghetti and meatballs, steak and potatoes, or hamburger and fries. Some might think of a chicken leg with vegetables, or steak and salad. Though these dishes have their own nutritional value, they focus on a huge amount of protein as the star, and less on other aspects of the dish. Don’t get me wrong, some people are leading the frontier of building a healthy American cuisine repertoire.
Since I was born in Hong Kong, a cuisine hub of the world, I want to contribute to this canon of good food by adding my knowledge of easy recipes and healthy eating. Stir fries are wonderful ways of focusing on entire dish, not just the protein. Here are a few of essential tips for making the perfect stir fry.
Heat, Baby, Heat. High heat is an essential component of a good stir fry. It cooks the food very quickly retaining the color and vitality of your ingredients. Using a wok and a gas stove is truthfully necessary for a perfect stir fry. But having an electric stove and skillet gets the job done and will have your mouth asking for more. Always heat the pan slightly before adding oil. Therefore, you have to use a pan that can tolerate that amount of dry heat like cast iron skillets or stainless steel pans. You also want to use an oil that can tolerate that amount of heat like canola oil, coconut oil, or grapeseed oil. You want the oil just hot enough before it smokes and after the point at which you add an ingredient and you get to hear that celebratory simmer.
Its all about the marinade. Usually you want to add some flavor to the component of the dish that will cook fast and won’t have time to absorb the flavor. This includes meat, shrimp, fish, tofu, and thick mushrooms. A good stir-fry marinade consists of a teeny bit of liquid, spices, some oil, and cornstarch. The types of these ingredients you choose depends upon the flavor you want. Liquids can be cooking wine, lemon juice or soy sauce. Cooking wine drives the spices deeper and add a complexity to the flavor. If you’re going for an Asian flavor, spices must include grated/sliced ginger, minced garlic, and sesame oil. Cornstarch and oil act as binding ingredients that will set the marinade and allow the ingredient to marinade with much less time. Usually, a good stir fry marinade will do its job in five minutes (the time required to heat up the pan.)
The best thing since (very thinly) sliced bread. In order to maximize the flavors and shorten cooking time, thinly slicing the meat you use for a stir fry is very important. Thinly sliced meat will soak up the marinade flavors quickly, and cook very quickly in the hot pan. In fact, the entire of process of actually cooking the stir fry in the pan may take less than 10 minutes. Often it will only take about 5 minutes.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Stir-fried pork and chives.
- Marinade: 1 tsp grated ginger, 1 clove minced garlic, 1 tsp salt, 1 tbs rice wine, 1 tbs sesame oil, 1 tbs cornstarch
- 1 tbs canola oil (or other high heat oil)
- 1 clove minced garlic
- 1/2 pound pork loin or loin chop, very thinly sliced
- Large bundle of Chinese long chives, cut into 2 inch strips
Marinade the pork. Heat the pan and add oil. When the oil is hot, quickly add minced garlic. After a few seconds, add pork. Cook until the pork is cooked. Add the chives. Stir fry for a few minutes until the greens are a vivid color.
If you want to have a sauce in this stir fry, add a little water. You should hear an impressive simmer sound indicating that the pan is hot. Add 2 tbs of cornstarch water to this sauce. You can make the cornstarch water with 1 tbs of cornstarch mixed in 2 tbs of cold water. This dish is delightful with rice.