“Maybe I should just quit and go back to making noodles“ – Kung Fu Panda (2008) Do grapes grow in the Black Forest? This has been vexing me. It’s all Waitrose’s fault. I noticed this week that their Black Forest frozen fruit selection is 25% grape. GRAPES! Naturally, I was outraged at such blatant supermarket cost-cutting duplicity. But then a quick look on the internet told me that Tesco and Sainsburys were up to the very same thing. Only Asda seemed to agree with me. AM I BEING UNREASONABLE (as I believe ‘they’ say on Mumsnet)? I am doubting myself, you see, because I don’t really know very much about German things. I enjoy a schnitzel as much as the next girl but Germany is something of an inexplicable omission in my European travel. I went to Frankfurt once in my (relative) youth but only remember that nightclub under the European Central Bank with its terrifying scenes of non-ironic dancing to Enrique Inglesias. Certainly my only experience of Baden-Württemberg is of those photographs of competitive WAG tanning/shorts/hair-extensions from the 2006 World Cup and I am not sure they are greatly instructive as to the indigneous flora of the Der Schwarzwald. Please do enlighten me if this is your specialist subject (ideally before I write to Waitrose). Why is this relevant? Well, it isn’t really except that it got me thinking about that other example of supermarket treachery. The stir-fry vegetable pack. Average content: 86% cabbage, 13% beansprout and 1% pepper. The stir-fry should by rights be the saviour of the time poor healthy cook – noodles and vegetables cooked very quickly with very little oil (thus preserving loads of their veggie goodness) – all on the table in 10 minutes. Nonetheless, while we (too) regularly got takeaway noodles, we never made them at home. I had written them off as being a bit studenty. Maybe it’s all that cabbage but they never felt very special. I mean, they are fine but it wasn’t something I particularly looked forward to eating in that way that I would, say, an Italian sausage pasta bake. They were always either too crunchy or too soggy or both, and those ready-made sauces are ever so slightly medicinal and always loaded with a spoonful of sugar (or two) to help said medicine go down. JUST ALL A BIT AVERAGE. But then I unlocked the secret to the Really Great Stir-Fry and now we eat them all the time. It wasn’t really rocket science so I expect you all already know this and are knocking up great stir-fries left right and centre while not inviting me over for dinner. But just in case you haven’t been let into the secret sect of the stir fry, here are the rules:
SECRETS OF THE STIR FRY
- Less is more. Like so much in life. Pick 2 or 3 vegetables and stick with them. And no more than one kind of meat/tofu/fish. Make sure one of the vegetables has some crunch (e.g. broccoli, pepper, water chestnuts). Banish the supermarket bags (yes, even those fancy looking M&S ones with the carrot curls – they don’t cook evenly at all). Allow around 120-150g of veg per person. 2. Always keep garlic, ginger and chilli in your fridge. They make a great flavour base for any stir-fry (irrespective of whatever sauce you then add), and are absolutely loaded with goodness. 3. Make sure everything is ready before you start. EVERYTHING. Vegetables chopped, egg beaten, noodles (or rice) cooked (or unwrapped if using straight to wok noodles), sauce mixed. The whole cooking process should take about 4-5 minutes tops. Thrashing around in the cupboard midway looking for your soy sauce will make the difference between stir-fry triumph and stir-fry mediocrity. Stopping to finely chop your garlic (unless you are a professional chef) will equal sure fire stir fry failure. 4. Chop your vegetables into similar size pieces so that they cook evenly. If you are using leafy greens (pak choi etc) add these right at the end – they don’t need more than a minute. 5. If you are adding meat or prawns, allow around 100g per person. Remember that minced meat can be great in stir-fries as it absorbs flavours really well (if you like spicy food look online for a Sichuan Dan Dan noodle recipe with minced beef. The Best). Always cook slices of meat, tofu or prawns first in the wok and set aside to add back in at the end with the noodles and sauce – that way you know they are cooked and you won’t destroy your vegetables waiting for them to cook through. Minced meat can go in at the same time as the veg. 6. Your wok needs to be hot when the vegetables go in. Really really hot. Do not fear heat. Gordon Ramsay once said that the two things home cooks don’t use confidently are heat and seasoning. These are wise words. 7. Use groundnut or grapeseed oil or something else with a very high smoke point. Do not, whatever you do, use olive oil. 8. Have a go at making your own sauces. They can be really simple (like in the recipe below) but don’t have all the refined sugar and nasties of the shop-bought ones and the ginger, chilli, garlic base gives you a decent start anyway. Oyster sauce mixed with a bit of soy and lime juice is great with red meats or a simple Thai style sauce is good with chicken (lime, fish sauce, lemongrass and a little palm or brown sugar). If you have Japanese store-cupboard ingredients, try mixing mirin, lime juice, honey and Japanese soy (particularly lovely with anything involving shiitake mushrooms). Or on a less virtuous day heat some soy, brown sugar and water until it begins to caramelise and throw in some fish sauce and lime or rice vinegar for fabulous Vietnamese caramel chicken and peanut noodles (pictured below). 9. You need a wok. Preferably a thin carbon steel one. A frying pan will not cut it.
The recipe below reignited my love for home cooked noodles. We eat this at least once a week in different forms and knock up a chilli-free version for my son as well so that the same ingredients can be stretched a bit further. It is incredibly simple but as good as anything you’ll get from the takeaway. It is from Leith’s brilliant How to Cook. If you don’t already own this book you should. Even if you already have any of their older “Bibles” series it is worth buying this for the lovely pictures alone, but it also has many new more ‘modern’ recipes than the older books. SINGAPORE NOODLES (adapted from Leiths How to Cook) Difficulty: Easy Crazy Ingredient Rating: Low/medium (includes the Japanese rice wine mirin. But this is available in most supermarkets now and keeps very well) I find that this recipe works better with ready cooked, straight-to-wok type noodles. I use these (and freeze the other half of the packet. Waitrose also do a ready made Singapore noodle pack but they put glucose syrup in them for some ungodly reason and I don’t think they taste as good as these anyway). I can never seem to get the dry rice noodles ones to retain any bite once soaked and stir-fried and it all goes a bit mushy. If you do use dried noodles soak them for 2-3 minutes less than the packet suggests. This is also great with prawns, chicken or char sui pork if you can get hold of it. You will need:
- 150g ready to cook rice vermicelli noodles (or 75g dried)
- 2 tbsp groundnut oil
- 2 small garlic cloves (or one large), finely sliced
- 1cm piece of root ginger, grated
- 1/2 an onion, sliced into thin wedges
- 1/2 red pepper, sliced thinly
- 1 spring onion, sliced on the diagonal including most of the green part
- 1/2 red chilli, finely sliced (deseeded depending on how spicy you want it)
- 50g beansprouts
- small handful coriander leaves (to taste), chopped roughly if large
- 1 large egg, beaten well
- 1/2 tsp curry powder
- 1/2 tsp turmeric (optional)
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp mirin
- If you are using dry noodles, soak as per instructions (see note above). Toss with a little oil to prevent sticking once soaked.
- Mix the soy sauce, oyster sauce and mirin in a bowl. Taste and adjust as you like.
- Heat the wok over a medium heat to start with, add the all but half a tablespoon and fry the garlic and ginger until lightly golden.
- Increase the heat and add the peppers and both types of onion and cook for 1-2 minutes until just beginning to soften
- Add the curry powder and turmeric (if using) and cook for 1 minute
- Add the noodles and beansprouts* and cook for another minute and then add the sauce.
- Draw the noodles to the side of the wok and add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil to the empty part of the wok and pour in the beaten egg. Swirl the pan so that the egg goes into a thin layer. As it starts to set stir the noodles back through it. Take off the heat straight away. Add the coriander and chilli and EAT.
*Leiths add the beansprouts at the end, along with the coriander and chilli. This is better as the beansprouts retain their crunch but if you want to do this you should look for beansprouts that are specifically marked as ready to eat. Most aren’t and therefore should be cooked through in light of the recent E-coli outbreaks that have been traced to beansprouts. Kitchen Song of the Day: Jolene (Live under Blackpool Lights) – The White Stripes