… Not Nearly as Expensive:
(c) 2016, Davd
Day-to-day cooking should not need expensive ingredients. A good cook should be able to make the good, staple foods taste delicious—not exquisite, maybe, but delicious. As seasons go ’round and prices change over the years, some foods may go from staple to expensive, as broccoli and zucchini do from summer to winter, and back again; and shrimp have gone up in the past ten years. Some would say beef is now too expensive for regular cooking—but i expect beef prices to ease sooner than shrimp prices, and indeed this January 2016, beef can be bought for less per kilo than can shrimp. I’m eating less beef; i haven’t bought shrimp in six months or longer.1
In a Canadian winter, especially this winter when the Canadian dollar is “down”2, economical cooking means making good use of four basic winter vegetables: Cabbage, carrots, onions, and bean sprouts.3 With pork or chicken, plus of course rice and soy sauce, those first four basic winter vegetables can make you a delicious, economical, nourishing meal.
The meat should be cut no larger than 1”[25 mm] on its longest dimension, and ¼” [,7 cm] on its thinnest. This will facilitate browning and make sure it is fully cooked. The onions should be chopped fairly small, but not “fine,” The cabbage and carrots should be in strips which may be a wee bit longer than the meat [maybe 3 cm] but thinner—an eighth of an inch, or 3mm, would be about ideal. (The [mung] bean sprouts are the size they are, and need no cutting, duuuuuuuhhh.) If you have mushrooms (and in Edmonton in January 2016, mushrooms cost less than half the per pound price of broccoli!) they can be cut roughly the size of the pieces of meat.
I haven’t used a wok in months, perhaps years. They are useful and effective, but awkward to fit in and work around in an undersized kitchen; and i can do an acceptable job with a frying pan—of which i have three good cast iron examples.
Stir-fry technique starts with hot oil4 in a seasoned pan. Then you put in the meat, and as it starts showing that it’s browned, the onions. When the onions are lightly browned, add the carrots (and mushrooms if you have them), and almost immediately, some vegetable stock. (If you have plenty of meat stock to go with cooked meat that you are using, add that; with raw meat or smoked ham, vegetable stock will do fine.) Add a little soy sauce also, lower the heat under the pan, and cover while you are cutting or assembling the carrots and cabbage.
If you’re new to cutting carrots into small strips, start at an easy pace rather than hurrying; the knife can slip because carrots are cylindrical rather than rectangular in shape. It helps to cut them in half lengthwise, and lay the flat sides on the cutting board. It helps to use a vegetable knife rather than a generic cook’s knife. Until you get used to cutting carrots into strips, cut them before you start cooking, so you won’t feel a need to rush.
Cabbage can be cut more easily because it naturally comes layered, and in more neatly flat layers than onions. I sometimes use Fiskars cook’s scissors, sometimes a vegetable knife [which in my case is also Fiskars brand—both items made in Finland5.]
After a minute “or three” of wet cooking, check the stock level and if the carrots are getting close to tender, add the cabbage. After another “minute or three” add the bean sprouts. The goal is to have sprouts, cabbage, and carrots, three very different vegetables, all at the bright and slightly crisp state at the same time the meat and mushrooms are just fully cooked.
If you want a thickened sauce, mix some corn starch into cool to cold stock, stirring preferably with a fork,while the vegetables are cooking. Add this when the sprouts and cabbage brighten, quickly stir into the hot stock with a fork, and as the stock returns to a boil, it will thicken.
You can add rice to the pan, or put the rice on plates and then top it with the meat, vegetables, and sauce. A bachelor eating alone can add the rice and eat from the pan, for minimum dishwashing burden.
As you get used to making stir-fry meals, you’ll also get used to how fast the meat and vegetables cook in your particular pan on your particular stove; and to how much soy sauce to add, when. You might get it just right the first try; but be willing to settle for “pretty good” on the early efforts. You are using economical foodstuffs to make an “upper middle grade”, one-dish meal that can even become a presentation item. (It does not, however, carry well to potlucks away from home. It should be eaten within minutes of becoming done.)
If you “run into” a specially low price on sweet bell peppers, pineapple, or broccoli, they are very good in stir-fry. I tend to steam broccoli tops and slice the peeled stems like i do carrots, but a little thicker, into stir-fry. When using broccoli, reduce the cabbage accordingly.
I stir-fry often, with chicken, ham6, raw pork, sometimes leftover beef. Fish hasn’t worked well for me stir-fried with vegetables; and has been delicious steamed, or poached in salsa (or for the stronger, fattier fishes, grilled, fried, pickled, or smoked. Salmon and trout are good raw-salted.) Chicken “burgers” have been an economical form of mostly meat with a little breading, which has also worked for stir-fry meals.
This year, the high US dollar and low Canadian dollar, plus the fact that most Canadian stores stock US rather than Canadian grown vegetables, has driven prices well above a dollar per pound for most.
The sensible answer to Canada’s vegetable supply predicament is to grow plenty of good winter vegetables here, store them as our grandparents did (and have larger scale storage for urban stores), and use them as our staples when our gardens are not producing. Stir-fry is one way to do that which is quite different in taste and texture than the Euro-Canadian staple, stew. If the Asians who showed us the basic technique, insist on exotic vegetables, let them; i’ve learned to use staple vegetables i can grow myself to produce a reliably good result with chicken, ham, pork, and when it’s less expensive, beef. (Meatless stir-fry also works; but with meat, it has better protein balance.)
Part of the pleasure of eating, is having chowder from time to time, Likewise for stew, steamed fish, pork chops and porridge, … and stir-fry. Adding this technique to your repertoire will make your meals more diverse and enjoyable for many winters to come—and come fresh garden broccoli, beans, and tomatoes, those will make a stir-fry repertoire different enough to give a change of pace. Then next winter, the winter version will be less repetitious—and again, nourishing goodness from plain staple foods.
1. This fall, pink and then sockeye salmon have been the most economical seafood in Edmonton (and Edmonton is far indeed from being a port city.) From what all i know, they are more nourishing than shrimp. So while six years and longer ago i ate quite a lot of shrimp and very little sockeye, this winter i eat shrimp only when somebody else serves it, but lots of salmon. That calls for quite a change in cooking techniques. Changing from summer to winter stir-fry, doesn’t.
2. In the stores in mid-January, i looked at the bags of carrots and saw California, not Canada, as the place of origin. I know damn well that Canadian grown carrots can be stored in sawdust or even their own greens, in buckets with air holes too small to admit mice, in a cold room or cellar. That’s how i stored my home grown carrots last winter and the winter before.
3. Sorry, but so far i haven’t had any good experiences using beets, parsnips, or rutabagas in stir-fry. I’ve already written-up a good, easy way to cook beets that provides a change from plain boiling; i eat turnips white and yellow, sliced raw with a sprinkling of salt, or as lazy man’s pickles; and parsnips remain outside the range of my cooking. (Anyone care to tell me the great, easy way to really enjoy them? There’s a contact link you can click near the top of the page.)
4. If you are cooking children and have some saved chicken fat, or likewise for beef, pork, or turkey, use that or a mixture of fat from your meat animal, and canola oil. Olive oil does not usually perform well at meat browning temperatures; US readers might want to use corn or safflower oil. Soybean oil will work, but with canola oil so inexpensive in Canada and my preferring its taste, i use canola.
5. I’ve been quite satisfied by Fiskars kitchen and garden tools made in Finland, where the firm originated; but not with Fiskars garden tools made in China. Quality control is a fairly general problem with “outsourced production”… indeed, “Made in Japan” once symbolized low quality, while today, Japanese goods are respected for the same high quality that made the katana famous centuries ago.
6. Mushrooms don’t seem to go as well with ham as with other meats.