Universal Stir-Fry

Don't be intimidated by its length. This recipe is really more of a template, full of options to make this dish yours. Customize the protein, customize the vegetables, customize the sauce, customize the grain. But follow the outline of the recipe, and you'll be rewarded with a stir-fry better than anything you can get at your favorite takeout place. And believe it or not, you can complete this dish in around 45 minutes.

If you've never stir-fried before, you'll want to make sure you use a high-temperature oil, like grapeseed or peanut oil, because you need it to be screaming hot. Also be sure to have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go because stir-frying is fast and hot — it waits for no one. Lastly, you need the right tools for the job: a sturdy wok (flat-bottomed if using an electric stove, curved with a diffuser ring for gas) and a long-handled spatula or spider are essential.

Because poorly-made rice should be a federal offence, I've included steps for the most perfect, restaurant-style steamed rice you'll ever have. Yields 4-6 servings.

Meat options — pick one:

  • 2 pounds Chicken breast or thigh
  • 2 pounds Beef tenderloin or ribeye
  • 2 pounds 18/20/25-count shrimp

Grain options — pick one:

  • 1 lb whole-wheat spaghetti
  • 2 cups Jasmine Rice
  • 12 oz Soba noodles

Veg options — pick at least three:

  • 2 small green/red bell peppers
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 pound snow peas
  • 1 pound sugar snap peas
  • ½ pound broccolini or broccoli rabe
  • 1 head broccoli
  • ¼ savoy or napa cabbage

Aromatics — use all:

  • 6 scallions, more if small
  • 6 cloves garlic, more if small
  • 1 very large piece of ginger, about 2x4 inches
  • 1-2 cups basil leaves, optional
  • 1 small hot chile pepper, optional

Sauce — use all:

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce or oyster sauce
  • 2 tablespoons palm sugar or honey
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons sherry or black vinegar
  • 1½ tablespoon cornstarch
  • Extra slurry: 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water

Garnish:

  • Small basil leaves
  • Sesame seeds
  • Thinly-sliced chile pepper
  • Shredded carrots
  • Shredded snow peas

Prepare everything:

  1. Prepare the meat. If using chicken, slice into thin strips, no more than ¼-inch wide. If use beef, de-bone and freeze 10 minutes to make slicing easier. If using shrimp, peel, de-tail, and de-vein.
  2. Season the meat liberally with salt and pepper — most of it will fall off during cooking. Let sit while you prepare everything else.
  3. Prepare the grain. If using whole-wheat spaghetti, boil in heavily salted water for 5 or 6 minutes. It should be tender on the outside but just under-done on the inside, a bit shy of al dente. When done, shock in ice water and drain throughly.
  4. If using soba, boil in salted water for 2 or 3 minutes, a bit shy of al dente. When done, shock in ice water and drain thoroughly.
  5. If using rice, rinse about ten times, until the water is mostly clear. Bring 3½ cups of water to a boil with a big pinch of salt, add the rice, and reduce to a low simmer. Cover the lid of the pot with a tea towel, then put the lid on the pot and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and remove the pot from the heat. Fluff with a fork after 10 minutes or so.
  6. Prepare the vegetables. Thinly slice the bell peppers. Shred or julienne the carrots. Stack the snow peas and cut into thirds on an angle. String the sugar snap peas. Peel or discard the lower third of the broccolini or broccoli rabe and slice into thirds. Cut the broccoli into florets. Slice the cabbage into thin ribbons.
  7. If using sugar snap peas, broccolini, broccoli rabe, or broccoli, you should blanche then shock the vegetables. Let drain very well while you prepare everything else.
  8. Prepare the aromatics. Slice the scallions about ¼-inch thick. Peel and grate the ginger and the garlic on the large holes of a box grater. Tear or roughly chop the basil leaves if using. Thinly slice the chile pepper if using; use as much of it as you like.
  9. Prepare the sauce. In a bowl, mix together all of the sauce ingredients except the cornstarch. Taste for balance and adjust as necessary. Whisk in the cornstarch until smooth and lump-free.

Cook everything:

  1. Cook the meat. In a smoking hot wok with 2 tablespoons oil, stir-fry the meat just until done. If using chicken thighs or ribeye, you can spread the meat out into a layer and let it sit for a couple minutes to get some color without risking overcooking. Chicken breast, beef tenderloin, and shrimp will not tolerate this. Remove to a colander and let the fat drain off while you prepare everything else. Wipe the wok clean with a paper towel.
  2. Cook the vegetables. All of the vegetables benefit from a dry-fry to char and tenderize them. In a smoking hot wok with a scant tablespoon of oil, stir-fry each vegetable separately until crisp-tender and starting to color. Be sure the vegetables are free of excess water or oil will splatter everywhere. Pay attention to how quickly the vegetables cook — snow peas will cook faster than bell peppers, for instance. Nothing should take more than 3 or 4 minutes.
  3. Cook the aromatics. In a smoking hot wok with 2 tablespoons of oil, stir-fry the scallion and ginger about 3 to 4 minutes. It will be very aromatic. If using a chile pepper, add it now and stir-fry just a minute. Add the garlic and stir-fry just until the garlic starts to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Do not stop moving the aromatics around or they will burn.
  4. Finish the stir-fry. Add the meat, all of the vegetables, and the basil, if using, and stir-fry vigorously so that everything is mixed well.
  5. Add enough sauce to coat but not create a soup, and continue to stir. It should come up to a boil then thicken. If a stiffer sauce is desired, add in the extra slurry and return to a boil.
  6. If using the whole-wheat spaghetti, add to the wok now. Continue to cook for 3 or 4 minutes, tossing and mixing continuously. Rice and Soba don't take well to tossing, so serve them at the table.
  7. Garnish as desired.