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MacGyver Me This: Easy Weeknight Stir Fry

Two days before I left for Europe, I got this email from Susannah:

Here’s your challenge for the week!

I want to make Andy [her gentleman friend] a delicious stir fry  – brown rice bowls are one of his favorite things on earth. I would love some suggestions as to how to make a delicious marinade, how best to cook the meat, and then how to properly cook the veggies/meat together. What goes in first, etc. It seems simple but I am confused!

This was a challenging MMT question for me. Asian cuisine is admittedly my weakest discipline, simply because growing up, we hardly ever cooked it at home (which is pretty ironic, if you know what I look like…I don’t remember if I ever mentioned it on this site before, but I am adopted. From Korea. And I have an Irish last name. Family portraits are hilarious.). As a kid, we had a stovetop wok, but rarely used it, and when we did, the sauce was usually made from some McCormick’s spice packet. I somehow doubt that that Irishman knew much more about authentic Asian food than we did.

Moving to San Francisco was the first time I had more than a few Asian friends, and a whole new world of cuisine was opened up to me. The city has some fantastic Asian places (think San Tung, Katana-ya, Burma Superstar, Mandalay, and the like), and once I was in school, I also had the opportunity to take an Asian cuisine course, which often bordered on information overload.

Did you know there are lots of different types of soy sauce? Light, dark, sweet, and more — and they can all make a big impact on your final product. Same goes for rice vinegars. And if you’ve ever wondered how Chinese restaurants are able to get their meat so crisp-tender (think about that delightful snap as you bite into perfectly cooked stir fried shrimp), it’s because the meat is pre-cooked in a process called velveting. With velveting, proteins are coated in some type of marinade and egg white, then quickly fried in lots of vegetable oil while being constantly moved around. The meat is drained and set aside, then reincorporated into the final dish later. Easy to do in a restaurant kitchen with a huge wok that can get very hot, not so easy to do at home.

But even though authentic Asian cookery techniques often aren’t feasible for the home kitchen, the same flavors can be easily recreated if you keep a well-stocked Asian pantry. Items like sesame oil, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine or mirin, ginger and the like will all help you throw together a stir fry in no time. Buying these ingredients are an up front investment, but they should last you a long time after that.

This is what was floating through my mind as I responded to Susannah, slightly panicked that I hadn’t yet started packing:

Your MacGyver Me This is a good one, as Asian is by far my weakest discipline. Luckily, I have a HUGE binder of recipes and notes from my Asian class at culinary school, so I’m going to tag team this MMT with that resource.

A few questions for you:

–type of protein? (Chicken? Beef? Shrimp?)

–any particular type of vegetable blend?

— any type of sauce he likes (oyster sauce, sichuan, mongolian — or just a generic, soy sauce based, semi-sweet stir fry sauce?

The procedure itself will actually be pretty straightforward, so figuring out the ingredients you want will take first priority here. Also, you should have a good saute/frying pan.

–Andy likes chicken or beef.
–Veggies:  just about anything except broccoli (which I hate) – we’ll eat mushrooms, asparagus, carrots, bell peppers, green beans, etc. and if it requires cooking an onion in there too i will definitely give it a try, although cooking onions scares me. as long as they’re not raw i am ok with them.
–Sauce: something fun and delicious? he will eat anything. i just don’t like spicy sauces.

As you can imagine, stir fry is a fantastic way to incorporate more vegetables into your diet, and also use up any that are languishing in your fridge, about to go moldy. When prepping your vegetables, be sure things are cut to be relatively the same size, so they’ll cook evenly; or, for items like baby corn and asparagus (the odd shaped cylindrical items), consider how fast they will cook relative to the size of your other items, and dice those items accordingly.

You’ve all eaten stir fry before. You know how big the items are usually cut.

In my Asian class, we learned that items in a stir fry should be cooked separately (i.e., meat on its own, vegetables on their own), and often the flavoring agents (like ginger and garlic) should be used only to flavor the cooking oil at the beginning of cooking, then removed. I don’t necessarily agree with that last part (because ginger and garlic are delicious), and I often leave them in.

The basic cooking process is this: Add oil to a pan. Heat it up. Add in flavoring agents (ginger, garlic, green onion, chili flake for spicy dishes, whatever). Add in meat that’s been marinating in something simple (like soy sauce, ginger, garlic, rice wine, whatever). Quickly cook meat. Remove meat. Add in vegetables and cook. Add back in meat and sauce, along with a cornstarch slurry. Mix together and serve.

Sometimes, the order in which meat and vegetables are cooked can change.

Once you have everything prepped, it can take as little as 10 minutes to cook a stir fry, depending on your ingredients and how hot your pan is. Easy.

Here are a couple recipes I sent along to Susannah, taken from my old school files:

Stir Fry Chicken with Vegetables

Really Basic All Purpose Stir Fry Sauce

  • Soy sauce (start with a few tablespoons)
  • oyster sauce (same)
  • sesame oil (start with 1/2 a tsp or so — this is potent stuff!)
  • salt and sugar to taste


  • 1 skinless, boneless chicken breast, sliced very thinly
  • 2-3 tsp cornstarch
  • 2-3 tsp rice wine (look for mirin rice wine, it’s pretty common these days)
  • 2-3 tsp light soy sauce (most stores won’t carry light soy. Just buy regular Kikkoman soy sauce. In case you were wondering, light soy does NOT refer to sodium content, but actually color saturation of the sauce.)
  • 1/2-1 tsp sesame oil (keep this in the fridge after you open…it helps prevent it from going rancid)


  • Snow peas or asparagus or snap peas (snow or snap peas should have their little strings taken out)
  • baby corn or yellow squash (squash medium diced)
  • red bell peppers or carrot, medium diced
  • straw mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, or whatever is available at your grocery store (for shiitakes or other varieties like cremini, stem them and quarter the caps)
  • yellow onion, medium diced

You can really use any combination of the above vegetables that you like.

  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp ginger, minced (to do this, tear off a nub of the ginger and peel it either with a vegetable peeler or by scraping a spoon against the skin. Then just chop it up finely. And for the ginger, ginger is NOT a root, and I wish everyone would stop calling it that. It’s a rhizome).
  • A cornstarch slurry — start with 2 tsp of cornstarch dissolved into 2 tbsp of water. Stir this up.
  • A few green onions, roughly chopped (for garnish at the end)

Mix all the sauce ingredients together and give it a little taste. Add more sugar as necessary. You can also sweeten it with hoisin sauce, found everywhere these days. Depending on how much stir fry you’re making, eyeball the amount of sauce to make sure you have enough. 1/2 a cup or so should do it. You can always add in less sauce if you make too much.

In a medium sized bowl, mix the meat with the next four ingredients, then set it aside. Heat a very large skillet over medium high. Add in 2-3 tbsp of canola/vegetable oil and get it hot. Stir fry the vegetables (any combination from above), but don’t stir fry the garlic and ginger yet. Once the vegetables are tender but still crisp, remove them from the pan and set them aside in a bowl. Use tongs or a spider to do this, and turn off the heat if necessary so you don’t overcook the veggies.

Next, saute the ginger and garlic in the pan (back on medium high heat), and once fragrant, stir in the chicken pieces and the marinade they’ve been sitting in. When almost cooked through (probably 3-4 minutes if your pan is pretty hot), add in the sauce and stir. Next, add in the cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce. Add back in the vegetables and toss to coat everything. Dump the contents of the pan into a big serving bowl or plate, and top with the green onions. Serve with brown rice.

Beef with Oyster Sauce

4 tbsp vegetable/canola oil


  • 1/2 lb flank (or skirt or hanger) steak, sliced into very thin strips against t he grain
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground white pepper


  • 1/3 c chicken stock
  • 3 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 2 tsp hoisin sauce
  • 1/4 c rice wine
  • 1 tbsp dark (or regular) soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp ketchup
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp sesame oil


  • 1 tbsp cornstarch with 1 tbsp water


  • 3 tbsp minced ginger
  • 1/2 yellow onion, cut in half from root to stem, then sliced thinly along the axis to make strips of onion
  • 1/2 cup carrot, peeled and thinly cut diagonally to make little rounds
  • 8-10 cremini mushrooms, stems removed and caps quartered
  • 2 green onions, cut diagonally into 2″ long pieces (for garnish)

Mix the beef slices with the next 3 ingredients and let sit for 1/2 an hour. Have a glass of wine. Prep the rest of your veggies.

Combine the sauce mixture ingredients and set aside. In a skillet heated over medium high heat, add 2 tbsp of oil, heat, then saute the beef pieces until cooked to the desired doneness. Keep the meat moving around as you cook it. Remove the beef from the pan, and drain the pan of all the excess juices and oil. Put it back on the heat, and add in the last 2 tbsp of oil. Stir fry the vegetables for about 1 min. Add the sauce mixture, stirring, and bring to a gentle boil. Add enough of the cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce to a medium gravy consistency. Add back the beef slices, toss to cat, mix in the green onions and serve.

And finally, here’s a great recipe I found from Simply Recipes, which is a fantastic online resource:

Flank steak stir-fry with asparagus and red peppers


One Response

  1. MacGyver Me This: Easy Weeknight Stir Fry…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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