Chinese Stir Fry (or, How to Clean the Refrigerator)

I recently returned from a 3-day, mini vacation and while I was away, my thoughts turned to all of things in my refrigerator that would need to be used when I returned home.  I wasn’t preoccupied with those thoughts but, being the frugal person that I am, I imagined what I could do with the food that would likely be on the verge of spoiling when I returned.

Sure enough, upon my return, I opened the refrigerator to inspect the various vegetables and other odds and ends.   As I expected, the bell peppers were on their last legs.  The celery and green onions were going limp.  The red onion was holding on strong and the carrots were just fine, so no worries there.  And then, I remembered the unopened package of beef that I had left in the meat drawer.  I knew that it had been in the refrigerator for several days.  The solution was obvious.  A beef stir fry was the perfect remedy.

This was a meal made out of necessity and practicality but each of the components combined quite nicely and the quick stir fry allowed some items, that were past their prime, a chance to shine.

Ingredients for the stir fry:

3 cloves of garlic

2 Tbs thinly sliced ginger

2 Tbs canola oil

1 pound, thinly sliced beef

2 carrots

1 green bell pepper

1 red bell pepper

1 medium sized red onion

2 celery stalks

3 scallions

3 cups uncooked white rice

Ingredients for the marinade:

3 Tbs dark soy sauce

1 Tbs soy sauce

1 Tbs sambal (chili garlic sauce)

Ingredients for the sauce:

½ tsp sesame oil

1 clove garlic, minced

2 Tbs brown sugar

2 Tbs Hoisin sauce

1 Tbs honey

2 Tbs white vinegar

1 tsp hot sauce (your choice)

1 Tbs soy sauce

1 Tbs cornstarch

1 Tbs water

Directions:

Remove some of the starch from the rice by rinsing and scrubbing the rice by hand in a colander.  Put the rice in a large pot and cover with water.  Allow the rice to soak for 30 minutes. 

While the rice is soaking, marinate the beef and prepare a mise en place.

The beef that I used was a packaged roast that had already been thinly sliced.  It was marketed to be used for carne asada but, since it was not seasoned, it was suitable for my purpose. 

Slice the beef into ribbons and allow it to marinate for about 30 minutes.    

Peel, slice and chop the vegetables as you like.  Reserve some chopped scallion tips for the garnish. 

Preparing this mise en place took about 45 minutes.  I wasn’t rushed because I knew that the rice would take about an hour, from start to finish.

Cook the rice according to the directions on the package.  In this case, as I mentioned earlier, I soaked the rice for 30 minutes and then I cooked and steamed the rice for 20 minutes. I allowed the rice to steam for 10 additional minutes before fluffing with a fork.

I made the stir fry, while the rice finished steaming. 

Add the cooking oil to a hot wok.  Season the wok with ginger and garlic for one minute and then remove the ginger and garlic. 

Introduce the vegetables, starting with the ones that will take the longest to cook.  In this case,  I started with the carrots, followed by the bell peppers, red onion, celery and scallions.  Remove the vegetables to a bowl when they have softened but before they go limp.

Add a splash of oil to the wok and stir fry the beef.  The beef will cook within a matter of a few minutes.  Remove the beef to the bowl containing the cooked vegetables.

Add the sauce to the wok and stir until thickened.  Add the beef and vegetables back to the wok and stir to incorporate the sauce.  Turn out the stir fry to a serving dish and top with scallions.

Everything in its place

And, the hoity-toity French phrase of the week is…mise en place.

What is it about the French language that annoys me so much?   Maybe it’s the way that the French don’t bother to pronounce many of the letters that make up their words.   Maybe it’s the haughty names they give to such simple things like, “béchamel”, which is really just milk gravyC’mon, it’s gravy for cryin’ out loud!

But, I have to admit, the French were on to something when they came up with mise en place, the phrase that means, “everything in its place”.  The concept, as it relates cooking, is that a cook can set up a kitchen by organizing  ingredients that are needed for a certain menu.  Mise en place is intended to be a time saver. 

If I am making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I need four things.  Peanut butter, jelly, bread and a knife.  (Yes, just one knife.  I can smear some peanut butter on one slice of bread and then clean the knife on the other slice of bread, thereby permitting the use of the same knife to scoop out the jelly, without tainting the jelly jar in the process.)

Okay, the point I was trying to make before I became distracted by my own silliness is that you don’t need to lay out everything in place before making a PB&J.  You might grab a loaf of bread and put two slices on a plate.  And then, you might go to the pantry to pick up a jar of peanut butter and then smear some of it on a slice of bread.  Then, you might go to the refrigerator to hunt for the jelly.  Oh no, all you see is boring, utilitarian grape jelly…now, you have to search the depths of the fridge to find the delicious strawberry preserves.  Ah, there it is…that’s better!  Then, you finish the sandwich with a smear of strawberry preserves.  Even though you had to take time to search for the strawberry preserves, you didn’t really waste that much time.

But, there are times that you will want to have everything you need already in front of you, ready for action.  I find myself needing this sort of preparedness when I make a stir fry. 

Stir frying with a wok requires high heat and speed and it requires having the many vegetables and meats prepared, in advance.  You will want to have the menu items peeled, sliced or chopped and ready to introduce to the wok.  And, you will want to have everything within arm’s reach as you work your magic with the wok.  For this, you need to utilize mise en place.

I say all of this because I didn’t always understand the advantages that mise en place had to offer until I started cooking for parties and family gatherings.  Nothing can kill the spirit of a party like having to wait for hours and hours while a meal is being prepared.  Even if your goal is to immerse your guests in the act of preparing a meal, do you really want to have everyone tripping over themselves in your kitchen while they peel, grate, and cut? 

Here is an example of mise en place in practice, as I prepared for a recent stir fry dish. 

Now, I don’t always use this many prep bowls when I utilize mise en place.  Most of the time I just use one or two large, shallow bowls to hold the different items.  I grab what I need from the bowl and toss it in the wok, when I need it.  It makes for a quick clean-up.  But, for this particular culinary adventure, I decided to use lots of little prep bowls.

The rice is steaming on the stove and I am ready to crank up the wok!  After a few minutes of fire and frenzy, it will all be ready to serve.