Monday, January 22, 2018

Thrift Week 2018, Day Six: Stir-Fry

Our dinner for Day Six of Thrift Week is stir-fry, which is not so much a recipe as a method of turning whatever odds and ends we happen to have in the fridge into dinner. We make it whenever we have an assortment of veggies left over that don't fit into any other recipe: a half a green pepper left over from a pizza, a portion of an onion, a quarter of a head of cabbage that isn't enough for cabbage pasta or Rumbledethumps. Brian disposes of all these veggies by simply cutting them into smallish pieces, throwing them into a hot pan, cooking them until they're tender, and serving them over hot rice.

However, while there isn't exactly a recipe for stir-fry—and in fact, its very versatility is what makes it so useful—there is, nonetheless, a protocol for making it properly. Mollie Katzen, in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, recommends sorting vegetables into three groups, from toughest to tenderest, and adding them to the pan in order so everything cooks up to tender-crispness at the same time. The "Group 1" veggies—celery, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant, winter squash, thick chunks of asparagus, and even thinly sliced potatoes—go in first and get cooked until partly done. Then the "Group 2" veggies—mushrooms, peppers, summer squash, zucchini, and thin pieces of asparagus"—get added to the skillet and cooked until everything is nearly done, and finally the "Group 3" veggies—tender greens, scallions, and bean sprouts—go in for just a few seconds before you turn off the heat. She also recommends using very high heat and keeping the veggies moving constantly so they don't burn.

In addition to the veggies, Brian likes to throw in some cubed, fried tofu to give the stir-fry more substance, and a savory sauce of his own invention to give it more flavor. So his stir-fry protocol, from start to finish, goes like this:
  1. Cook 1 cup white rice in the pressure cooker.
  2. Cut up all the veggies. For this particular stir-fry he used 6 oz. broccoli, cut into florets; 3 oz. organic mushrooms, chopped; 8 oz. cabbage, shredded; and 2 scallions, diced.
  3. Prepare tofu cubes. Briefly press 8 oz. firm tofu to remove excess water, then cut into small cubes. Toss gently with 1 Tbsp soy sauce. Heat 2 Tbsp canola oil on high heat in a large skillet. Add tofu and fry until browned, turning cubes often. Remove from skillet and set aside.
  4. Prepare stir fry sauce. Crush 4 cloves garlic, then combine together with 1/2 Tbsp sesame oil, 2 Tbsp sugar, 3 Tbsp soy sauce, and 1/2 Tbsp corn starch. Whisk well to combine and set aside.
  5. Heat the same oil used for the tofu back up to high heat to cook the veggies. Add the toughest veggies first and work your way up. (In this case, Brian cooked the broccoli for 2 minutes, then added the mushrooms and cooked them until they started to lose water, and finally threw in the cabbage for another 5 minutes.)
  6. Add cubed tofu to veggie mixture. Remove from heat, add sauce, and sprinkle on scallions. Mix and serve with rice.
The cost for this exact version of the stir fry, by my calculations, is about $2.74, including the rice. The priciest ingredients are the broccoli (75 cents), mushrooms (47 cents), tofu (44 cents), and cabbage (34 cents). It should provide us with a dinner for us both and two lunches, so that's about 69 cents a serving.

However, the whole point of this recipe is that you don't actually have to go out and buy a specific ingredients for it: you can make it with whatever you have on hand. So it would be quite easy to make this dish for even less, using whatever veggies you were able to pick up on sale. In the past, we've found broccoli for $1 a pound, mushrooms for $1.60 a pound, and cabbage for as little as 15 cents a pound; if we were ever able to score all these deals in one week, we could make a stir-fry identical to this one for $1.93, less than 50 cents per serving. And if we only found one good deal, we could just substitute more of whatever happened to be cheap that week and leave out the other stuff.

Better still, this recipe is useful for using up leftover food that you have no other use for—food that would just moulder away in your fridge if you didn't have this dish to use it up. If you make the recipe in this way, you can argue, the veggies cost nothing at all; you're merely reclaiming food that would otherwise go to waste. And a recipe that turns waste into healthy, tasty food is about as ecofrugal as you can get.
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