Ideapad recipes: chicken stir-fry

I cooked a perfect roasted turkey tonight! Which is noteworthy for many reasons, such as the fact that I hate touching raw poultry, I used the wrong kind of roasting pan, I’d never cooked a turkey of any kind before, and it wasn’t even supposed to be mine to cook. When my wife ran late I tackled the bird, and I have been marveling all evening at how easy it was to do well. I also whipped up some pretty tasty homemade stuffing.

I developed an interest in cooking fairly late in life. In my 20s, about the only time I cooked was to whip up some pasta and Perdue breaded chicken breasts in the minuscule kitchen of my minuscule walkup apartment. Now that I live in a four-person household, though, preparing and sharing a meal is fun, healthy and economical, and restaurant delivery has become a novelty rather than a routine.

For better or worse, when I cook, I like to make it interesting. If I’m going to all the effort, I’m going to have some fun along the way, trying new recipes and going all-in on ingredients and preparation. (See: homemade stuffing.) Having successfully banged out Thanksgiving dinner tonight, I’m thinking of posting my recipes and meals here as I go. They’re usually variations on top-five Google search results for whatever I’m looking into, but I invariably swap out an ingredient or two, too. I’ve been emailing successful recipes to myself and perhaps it will be more fruitful and entertaining to post my items publicly.

Of course, I have a handful of staples, one of which is a pretty basic and pretty tasty chicken stir-fry, which is easy to create while managing an active home, as you’ll see. I wrote this in 2010 but it was never published. It’s a good way to start this series.

Chicken Stir-Fry for the Modern Parent

To cook this dinner the way I cook it, first assume the appropriate mindset: consider yourself busy, tired, and sick of spending $35 on mediocre delivery for two, then layer onto that a spouse (partner, roommate, baby daddy, whatever) who shares the same busy-and-tired mindset, a blissfully unaware, curious and chipper 20-month-old boy, and a dog who begs like the hungriest panhandler you’ve ever passed in Union Square.

Now put yourself in the right physical scenario. It’s after-work-o’clock and the boy is running around the house, alternating between exploring things he shouldn’t and vying for your attention. The spouse isn’t home yet, but will be soon, and damn if you don’t want to eat dinner too late, since the kid wakes up at 7 in the morning and you both need to wind down early. So it’s time to cook while watching the kid.

I’ve found that a nice chicken stir-fry is low-impact enough to perform while juggling tasks, as it’s flavorful and reheats well, so you can cook a boatload of it in one shot and have leftovers for a day or two.

Start with rice. Any rice will do, really, so long as it’s not a cute seasoned thing, because your fine stir-fry will give you plenty of sodium to tinge the rice, but more on that later. Put up the pot, drop in your rice, listen for the boil, cover and simmer, giving a play-by-play to the tot, who repeats back every step. Once he can’t see the rice in the pot, the kid will lose interest and meander into the next room to play with trains and Elmo. Good enough.

Shortly after the rice is on, your spouse will arrive home, which is crucial, because she (or he) can assume some of the child-care duties, freeing you to wield a sharp knife without worrying as much about the tot. The dog, having picked up on the clatter and the scent of the rice, is now underfoot.

Get the chicken from the fridge, fresh organic breasts. Thin sliced is best. Don’t fall for the “chicken stir-fry” package, which conspicuously lacks the words “breast” and “white meat” and may not actually spell “chicken” correctly, like Krab brand imitation crab meat. You’re multitasking, but that doesn’t mean you’ve lost your sense of taste.

To prepare the chicken, you need a big bowl of Asian-style spiced liquid salt. In my house, Soy Vay is the seasoning of choice, mostly because of its awesome name. Any teriyaki or soy blend will do (not straight soy sauce, your blood pressure doesn’t need that, and it’s not all that flavorful). Throw maybe six ounces of sauce into the bowl, then cross-cut the chicken into smallish pieces or strips, larger than your fingernails and smaller than your index finger. Submerge all the chicken in the sauce and let it sit for a few minutes. If you want serious flavor, you’d do this the night before, or in the morning before work, but with the kid running around, who has that kind of time, or foresight? Fifteen minutes is enough to get things going.

Turn now to your cutting board and assemble whatever vegetables you have in the house. No doubt your fridge and freezer contain some combination of the following: celery, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, peas. Bean sprouts are probably good in this dish but lord do I hate bean sprouts so forget I even said that. Fish around your cabinet for a can of water chestnuts or bamboo, or both. If you have some sesame seeds or ginger, bonus! It’s almost real stir fry at that point. Put it all on the counter so you don’t forget an ingredient and sit down later wishing you’d remembered to toss in the bok choy.

Start chopping vegetables. There’s no necessary direction to this, not with all the activity around the house; the important thing is to make everything small enough to warm up quickly in the pan later. Thin sticks of carrot taste better than slices, though. Right around now, the dog is starting to love you again, because your vegetable prep is no doubt flinging things onto the floor, which Hoover down there is promptly taking care of.

Around this time, the kitchen will start smelling more like food, too, which draws in the toddler–nonono, don’t touch the stove, it’s hot. Yeah, “toooove.” And that’s chicken over there. Say “chicken.” Want to help Daddy cook? No? Smart, little guy. Let’s go get a book and keep you busy.

Back to business. Get a large pan warmed up over a medium-high flame. When it’s nice and hot, drop in the chicken, with a liberal helping of the Soy Vay or such, which is going to do double-duty on the veggies, so don’t be afraid to over-season at this moment. Let everything simmer for a few minutes, adding water as necessary to avoid char, and as the chicken turns white, flip it to cook the other side.

Once the chicken is on side two, give it a couple of minutes, then drop in any frozen vegetables. Wait long enough so that they don’t overcook, but not too long, because the frozen guys need a head start on the fresh ones. Right around now, your rice is probably done; turn off its burner and enter “let sit five minutes” mode, which you probably never do, I know I don’t, and the rice really is tastier when you do it, so consider your good fortune.

Return to the chicken. By now it should be mostly cooked through; the thinner your thin-sliced chicken, the faster you get out of salmonella range. When you hit “okay, I’m going to give the chicken two more minutes” time, drop in all the fresh vegetables. I like to make a little show for myself, putting them in one color at a time from separate glass bowls, but really, no one’s watching, except probably the toddler, who has no clue about food presentation, so just go for it. Mix up everything well so all the vegetables are in contact with the sauce, then usher the kid back out of the kitchen again, because we are deep in splattering-boiling-soy mode, and you don’t want to get that on your own skin, much less the baby’s, although the dog doesn’t give a damn, so long as you drop some more food on the ground before you’re done.

That about does it for the chicken. Cut through a piece to test for preparedness; that’s the beauty of stir-fry, you can just slice that piece in half without the ignominy of being That Guy Who Has to Cut into His Chicken to See if It’s Ready. With any luck, the chicken is cooked through within two or three minutes of dropping in the fresh vegetables, because their flavor is much more intense and healthy if they don’t sautee too long.

Turn off the stove and you’re ready to serve. Dole out the rice first and put the stir fry right on top, since that’s how the rice tastes best. Show the toddler your work and hope he doesn’t get all jealous and ask to eat dinner again. Toss something on the floor for the dog and call in your spouse for dinner. As my kid would say, “mmmMMMmmm.”

Pro tip: because you had very little time to marinate your chicken before cooking, this dish actually tastes a little better the next day, after the soy’s had a night to soak into everything. I usually cook a pound-plus of chicken and a good amount of vegetables and leave myself at least one serving for tomorrow. Because the last thing you want is to do this two nights in a row.