OK, I confess: I'm obsessive-compulsive about food grammar. You know, like the way cases and tenses have to match in prose? Well, components of a meal should do the same thing, or it bothers me -- for example, combinations that just don't go together, like guacamole and knackwurst. Or lamb curry and iceberg lettuce with blue cheese. Or sashimi and corn bread. Or chili dogs with dill-buttered Romano beans. Nothing exactly illegal about any of those, but something in me winces. They just don't belong.
This does not mean that I can't push the envelope: one of our favorite take-out meals is Crispy Szechwan Beef from Liu's in Eureka, combined with Vegi Samosas from Indian Cuisine. But there's still a note -- call it "Oriental Mystique" -- that bonds the two dishes. (Pssst: Both are deep fried. Tell no one.)
This attitude would be truly obsessive if both Beni and I did not enjoy cooking as a hobby. Since we do cook, it's more a theme. When the chili dog accompaniment came up, we made slaw. But in the midst of the Farmers' Market season, we seek out all the grand variety of flavors and textures. And often, finding ways of combining the food we've purchased (and much that we've previously frozen) is a welcome challenge.
So our meals -- usually planned by her, based on purchases we make Saturday -- are negotiated. Mary's bone-in chicken thighs, for example (the roasting of which we've been refining since we discovered them). She'll say, "You have to trim the chicken and marinate it. Do you have time to do that Friday afternoon, when we need to have a dinner picnic for four?" And we work it out.
One of the most glorious presentations I know is a cornucopia of blanched, chilled baby vegetables and home-cured pickles. But what of the rest of the year?
For many, the answer is "stir-fry" -- a verb become so ubiquitous it is now a noun. If I had no personal interest in culinary complexity, I could easily make delightful simple suppers of hamburger steak combined with a vegetable stir-fry. But for most people, a stir-fry is an Asian-derived meal. I sure used to think so. You need sesame oil, ginger, garlic, chiles, then you deglaze the pan with sweet white wine, and add tamari and/or black bean sauce. That's what we define as "stir-fry," a concatenation of flavors that are distinctly Asian.
And that's what bothered me earlier this summer. We were having lamb chops, and I wanted a kind of medley, or ratatouille of new vegetables, but not a stir-fry with the usual Asian flavors. I didn't want a sesame/soy/garlic sauce; I wanted a Mediterranean stir-fry.
So I tried it. I blanched most of the vegetables ahead. Using a wok, I heated olive oil (in place of sesame or peanut), adding shallot and celery to the garlic/ginger/chile sauté. When these became translucent, I deglazed the pan with vermouth (in place of wine and tamari), added a little heavy cream, and a sprig of thyme. When the chunky sauce had come together, I threw in the vegetables, tossed and put the whole thing in a serving container. It was a revelation -- not at all Chinese, but with bright flavors and firm textures.
It turns out that a slight change in ingredients will radically alter the dish. So I hereby patent the whole process. Here is my way to take the same basic stuff that's in a stir-fry and make it an international gourmet experience. First, the basic Mediterranean version.
Prep main ingredients
Blanch in boiling salted water until just al dente as many tiny vegetables (or cut into bite size) as you can imagine; more is better (wee potatoes, carrots, scallions, Italian or French beans, sweet pepper, eggplant, for example -- don't blanch mushroom caps or squash -- they cook very quickly).
Byrd's Basic Stir-fry Mixture:
Bias-cut Serrano chile
(Reserve finely chopped celery leaves, dill, fresh thyme, or other herbs)
Sauté all these on medium high heat 2-3 minutes, stirring, then add
Dry vermouth to deglaze the pan, stir, then add
Turn heat down. Cook another 2 minutes, then add
Mushroom caps (small)
Summer squash, preferably baby, cut into bite size
Reserved chopped herbs
Cover and cook another 2-3 minutes
(At this point, you might want to up the ante with some good Dijon mustard (Grey Poupon is not good Dijon mustard) or grated cheese, or simply enrich with a knob of butter. But it's not necessary.)
Now add the blanched vegetables, a couple squeezes of lemon, and toss. Remove from heat. Pour everything into a serving container and leave uncovered, so it doesn't turn mushy. When ready to serve, cover and heat in a microwave.
The lovely thing about this concept is that it opens the door to all kinds of other flavor combinations:
Southwestern: use sweet corn, peeled tomato and chiles, season with toasted cumin and oregano, deglaze with tequila, and add shredded cheddar instead of cream
Polynesian: fresh pineapple and crushed macadamia nuts, deglaze with 7-Up, thicken with sweet-and-sour sauce
Bubba: mustard or collard greens, cherry tomatoes, baby okra, deglaze with Jack Daniels, use barbecue sauce instead of cream
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, this process is patented. To use any of these recipes, simply go to PayPal and authorize 25 cents for a license, payable to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.