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How to Stir-fry Any Vegetable

February 14, 2011

It feels weird to blog again after unplugging. I’m not going to lie– I’ve never felt better in my life. To not even know what time it was, to realize that cliched as it sounds, setting daily routines make every day the same– when in actuality, every minute of every day is different. I felt cleansed, wishing I wasn’t such a slave to technology.

And then I remembered how rewarding it is to blog, to take photos of food, to get feedback from readers, and to feel like somewhere out there, there’s a world of people I don’t know who are hopefully reading this. I’m not going to stop food blogging– it’s my passion– but I am going to take Saturdays off, and that’s that.

Moving on: HOW TO STIR-FRY ANY VEGETABLE. Well, let’s just say any green vegetable for the time-being. I feel the need to do a post on this because my stir-fried vegetables are hardly even recipes. It feels redundant to post them again and again, yet I don’t feel confident that people think of various vegetables as interchangeable.

(See recipes for garlic spinach, watercress, and asparagus)

For as long as I can remember, my dad, FOOG (Father of Octopus Gourmet, if you’re new to the blog), has been making wonderful stir-fried vegetables in what he calls a “pure” style: with no ingredients other than garlic or ginger, peanut oil, salt, and sometimes corn starch, the vegetables really shine through. When you go to Chinatown, similarly to if you went to a Farmer’s Market, you wouldn’t pick what vegetables you were buying in advance; you would base your meal on whatever looked the best.

In Chinatown, they have all the classics: bok choy, baby bok choy, spinach, watercress, broccoli, etc., but they also have all kinds of leafy green crucifers that are not easily translatable. But you know what? It doesn’t matter what they’re called, or even what they are, really: as long as you get the feel for them, they can all be used interchangeably.

There really isn’t any “rule” as to whether you use garlic or ginger (or even scallions), but this is my opinion: vegetables that remain “drier,” like string beans, are best made with lots of slightly burned garlic (sliced, not chopped), whereas dishes that use cornstarch, like bok choy and broccoli, sing with the addition of slivered ginger. Watercress and spinach can go either way, but FOOG usually uses garlic and leaves out the cornstarch, letting the leaves wilt in a broth that then gets poured over rice.

Instructions for any green vegetable:


  • Obviously, your first step is to wash your vegetables, especially if they’re leafy. Dry them if you want, but you don’t have to be too thorough. If you’re using something firmer, like broccoli, you can save time by parboiling it first, then rinsing it under cold water.
  • Have your garlic/ginger chopped and ready to go, plus some cornstarch whisked with cold water if you’re using it. Next, heat some peanut oil in a wok until it smokes. Add the garlic/ginger and stir-fry on high until crispy.
  • Add the vegetables and a pinch of salt. You may or may not need to add water. Let them cook down, but keep it on high. This is stir-frying, after all.
  • Add cornstarch to wok if necessary, making sure it doesn’t clump. Taste for saltiness, let it all cook down, and serve.

Embarassingly easy, right? While I’m a purist and in this case less tends to be more, this “recipe” is really a rough guideline for what could metamorphose into a one-wok meal.

Example: what could have been a simple bok choy dish with ginger turned into an enormous medley of tofu, shiitake mushrooms and glass noodles.

Possible Additions:

  • Oyster sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Glass noodles
  • Vinegar
  • Dried shrimp
  • Dried mushrooms

You get the idea. Stir-frying is meant to be easy. Why do you think I make so much of this in my dorm room? It’s simple, it’s quick, it’s real Chinese cooking– forget those everything-but-the-sink stir-fries that involve water chestnuts and baby corn (blasphemy!). A Chinese meal is meant to have multiple dishes– the whole point is to serve these dishes with something that contrasts well. So pull out the wok, cover up the smoke detector… and if all else fails, you can smother it all with chili paste.

Suggested pairings:


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    February 14, 2011 3:35 pm

    Having massively over-stir-fried some spinach the other day until it was a limp mess, this recipe is lacking instructions on how to tell how much/when water is necessary, and how to tell when the food is done.

    • February 14, 2011 6:36 pm

      You have a point. I’ll modify it later.
      In the mean time: use your intuition. Spinach should be limp, but the stems, if you’re using anything other than baby spinach, should still be slightly crunchy. Your vegetables should NEVER be mushy.
      Make sure (this is VERY IMPORTANT) to serve right away, even if it seems like there’s too much water (you really shouldn’t be adding more than 1/2 cup): otherwise, if you let it sit, the vegetables will discolor.

  2. Sam permalink
    February 14, 2011 7:13 pm

    Thanks! It was hard to tell visually what was happening to the spinach, particularly since I was using too much spinach for my not-a-wok pan. I guess I just need to keep tasting it as it goes along?

    (this is your cousin, in case there was any doubt).

  3. Tim permalink
    February 16, 2011 6:26 am

    Hey Lida, I used your stir-frying tips tonight and it worked great! I’ve tried to cook with tofu in the past and been less than successful – any tips? I really don’t know where to start…

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