Ahh, stir fry. The great staple of college students, working mothers, and amateur cooks. A quick, cheap, and easy dinner that is neither life changing nor gut-wrenchingly terrible. I’ll be generous and call it satisfactory. Actually, I’ll be real; I hate it.
I don’t hate it passionately, though. I just sort of sneer at the idea of stir fry in a cynical, and ultimately, hypocritical, way. The truth is, I stir fry a lot. After pasta, it is my most frequented dish when I’m living in the dorm. It’s quick. Period. If I have a lot of homework, I play responsible by cooking something that’s fast and doesn’t leave much of a mess.
That’s stir fry. Just heat your oil, throw in some meat, frozen veggies, and a bottled teriyaki sauce. Yum. I’m salivating as I write, for that bland, lifeless mush, suspended in a high fructose corn syrup laden goo. I try to doctor it up, adding a little minced garlic here and a dash of ginger there. It all gets lost in the artificiality, which is often the case when we attempt to make something semi-homemade. Thus, we strip the life out of stir fry in the same way that tacos lose their integrity to the packaged spice mixes and glorified tortilla chip shells we cling to in the name of time and ease.
It saddens me to see this. Even more, it saddens me that I often do what I hate. Let’s be real, jarred stir fry sauce isn’t cheap. Frozen vegetables might cost less than some fresh veggies, but they’re certainly cheap in nutrients! Making homemade stir fry isn’t that much more time consuming. This is not totally about time and money. It’s sort of about laziness. Actually, it’s very much about laziness.
Sometimes I’m lazy in the kitchen, and that just might be the root of my disgust with stir fry. It reminds me of my laziness and the sort of food that that produces. If you think I’m being a little too intense about this, you’re probably right.
Still, there’s something about stir fry. I just don’t crave it. So, when I chose a recipe for stir-fry citrus beef in my Culinary Institute of America cookbook, I was a bit surprised.
Zingy citrus on top of savory beef seemed refreshing and new. It is. The meat is accompanied by only two vegetables: snow peas and bean sprouts. Using such simple ingredients was mind-blowing. Stir fry doesn’t have to be an obnoxious, color wheel medley of vegetables. Brown, green, and flecks of orange zest. It doesn’t sound too pretty, but it is.
Another aspect of this dish that caught my eyes were the editions of fresh ginger and sherry. Ginger is definitely Asian. Sherry? I’m not so sure, but it added a sharp hit against such fresh ingredients.
Fresh ginger is spicy with a floral undertone. The fragrance just blossoms as the root is sliced, shaved, shredded, or minced. It is heady and strong in the most delicate way, like an exotic candy. Using ginger for the first time is a flavor shock, a sudden realization that there are ingredients we are definitely missing out on when we stick to the familiar. I love ginger, and even more, I love it with citrus.
Orange and ginger create a sticky-sweet, spicy flavor. Oranges blossom with fragrance, too. Watch carefully while peeling an orange. Fruity oils release into the air like mist. Nature’s perfume. The best thing about citrus are the jeweled tones of these juicy fruits. From lemon yellow to deep blood red, they are beautiful. Oranges are at there peak season during the winter. Yet another reason I was drawn to a dish that has so many negative connotations in my mind.
Prepping took a little time. Cooking went fast. Really fast. The general idea of stir frying is to get each ingrediant in and out of the pan as quickly as possible with as little oil as possible. In that way, it’s pretty dang healthy. The method evolved as a sort of poor man’s dinner in early China. Using less oil was less expensive. With fresh ingredients, stir frying did not have to mean less flavor. In fact, the colors and nutrients in the vegetables stay better intact because of their short time in the hot pan.
And the pan must be hot. Exceptionally hot. I had mine on high. If you have a wok, use it. Have every ingrediant prepped beforehand because you’ll have to be watching and tossing your meat and vegetables quite frequently so that they don’t burn. And please, please start the rice before stir frying. It will be quite the disappointment having to wait an extra twenty minutes to eat while smelling the delicious scent of orange-ginger sauce coming from your wok.
I topped each dish with a nutty drizzle of sesame oil and a sprightly tangle of cilantro. It contrasts well with the sticky-sweetness of the sauce, an astringent prick to the tongue.
This stir fry was delightful, a total stranger to the boring concoctions I’ve made in the past. So, I’m a little food snobbish when it comes to stir fry. Whatevs. It was so easy to make the sauce, and even if I resort to frozen vegetables on a particularily busy night, I’ll be sure to make the rest from scratch. A few oranges, a splash of sherry, a little soy sauce, and a sprinkling of sugar. Simple, delicious, and healthy. It brings the life back to stir fry in the freshest way.
Stir-Fry Citrus Beef
adapted from The Culinary Institute of America Cookbook
2 lbs oranges
6 tbls dry sherry
6 tbls soy suace
1 tbls vegetable oil
2 lb sirloin, timmed of fat and cut across the grain into 1/4 inch thick slices
1/4 cup ginger, minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
3 cups bean sprouts
3 cups snow peas with ends removed
2 tsp sesame oil
handful fresh cilantro
Zest half the oranges. Juice all of them. Put the juice in a measuring cup and fill the rest with water until it reaches two cups. Add to a bowl with the zest, sherry, and soy sauce. Stir well. Keep to the side until ready for use.
Heat a work over high heat until hot. Add the oil. When it begins to shimmer, add the beef, ginger, and pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occassionally. When the beef is browned and cooked through, transfer to a bowl using a slotted spoon. This will take about three to four minutes. Drain the oil from the wok.
Our orange juice mixture into the wok and let come to a high simmer. Add bean sprouts and snow peas. Let them cook, stirring occasionally, until the peas turn a brighter green This will take one to three minutes.
Lower the heat and return the beef to the wok. Cook just until the beef is heated through again. Serve over jasmine rice. Finish each bowl with a light drizzle of sesame oil and garnish with cilantro.