Unlike the root vegetables of winter, spring produce is ripe for quick-cooking methods. And making a quick weeknight meal is always in season. Make a batch of rice at the start of your week and use it for a stir fry, then refried rice meal, and work lunches. Or noodles are a fast choice. There are common mistakes that a little adjustment can solve. Follow these guidelines, and you can have a colorful, flavor-packed, well rounded meal on the table in fewer than 30 minutes.
- Cut vegetables strategically: Slice, dice, and chop your different vegetables into approximately the same size so they cook in the same amount of time. This is particularly important if you’re cooking harder vegetables like carrots or cauliflower. Or cut these tougher vegetables smaller than the softer ones so you can throw them all in at the same time. Of course, you can mince or grate your ginger and garlic and chop your onions smaller, as these aromatics are better when softened.
- Prep everything before you heat up: Chefs call it mise-en-place, meaning you have all your ingredients washed, dried, and chopped — basically all in place for the cooking to begin. This is especially important with quick cooking like stir-frying. Ensure your vegetables are totally dry too. Any leftover liquid will create steam in the hot pan and prevent browning. You might get wilted, mushy vegetables. So pat them thoroughly dry with a kitchen towel or paper towel.
- Use the correct pan: If your wok or skillet is too small, the vegetables get crowded, and they’ll steam rather than fry. When in doubt, go big. Also, use a carbon steel or stainless steel pan. Pans with nonstick coatings aren’t safe at such high heat.
- Heat your pan before oiling it: When you drizzle cold oil to a hot wok, it prevents sticking. You can tell the pan is hot enough by sprinkling a few droplets of water into the wok. When it sizzles and evaporates almost immediately, your pan is ready to be oiled. This helps the meat separate from the pan better after searing, retaining that browned texture and flavor we all love.
- Add your vegetables in the proper order: Like tasting wines from red to white, go hard to soft in the order you toss in your vegetables. Carrots and cauliflower florets go into the wok before beans sprouts or baby bok choy. And you may want to add parts of the same vegetable at different stages. Thick asparagus stalk-ends, for instance, take longer to cook than their tender spear-tips, so cook the stalks before adding the tips. Because stir-frying happens quickly, it’s helpful to line up your veggies in the order you plan to add them before ever turning on the stove. Then, when the heat’s on, you can add them in the right order without having to second-guess yourself.
- If you’re using chicken: Consider using boneless chicken thighs instead of chicken breast. The slightly fattier meat will retain more juices and flavor. Or, try a quick marinade for your breast meat for 5 minutes in something simple such as garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. It makes all the difference. Arrange the meat in a single layer in the pan after you put the oil in, and let it sear on both sides to get that slightly crusty exterior. Then stir-fry it for a minute before adding your aromatics and vegetables. You might need to move the chicken to a dish as you cook the vegetables, and then return it to the pan with the sauce to avoid overcooking the chicken.
Rusty wok? Watch our video on how to give your wok a facial. Try some of our favorite stir-fry recipes:
1. Grace Young’s Stir-Fried Ginger Beef with Sugar Snaps and Carrots
Oysters sauce, soy sauce, dry sherry, and peanut oil are the only liquids you need in this stir-fry. The two kinds of ginger add enough zing paired with the sauce’s umami. Get our Stir-Fried Ginger Beef with Sugar Snaps and Carrots recipe.
2. Japchae (Korean Stir-Fried Sweet Potato Noodles)
Called Korean vermicelli, these dried noodles are made from sweet potato starch and turn almost translucent when cooked. They’re great with a simple mix of vegetables, like carrots cut into matchsticks, spinach, mushrooms, yellow onions, and scallions. Get our Japchae recipe.
3. Grain-Free Cauliflower Fried Rice
A popular Paleo substitution for rice, cauliflower fried rice is a great way to get more vegetables into your day, even if you’re not following the caveman-eating plan. There’s some bacon and egg whites for protein, broccoli, pepper, carrot, onion, and of course, cauliflower. Get our Grain-Free Cauliflower Fried Rice recipe.
4. Shrimp Stir-Fry
This is a quick Chinese-American dish, lo mein, using either egg or wheat noodles. It’s a simple, flavorful dish to have in your repertoire. Oh, and it can take a little as 20 minutes to make. Get our Shrimp Stir-Fry recipe.
5. Spicy Chicken and Asparagus Stir-Fry
Small dried hot Thai chiles do the heavy lifting in this typical Sechuan stir-fry. You can add less and include the chile paste on the side if you’re unsure about the heat. Get our Spicy Chicken and Asparagus Stir-Fry recipe.
6. Wild Mushroom and Beef Stir-Fry
Get a pound of wild mushrooms for this dish, and only 8 ounces of flank steak that sits in a quick marinade. Choose ‘shrooms such as maitake, lobster, chanterelle, porcini, or shiitake. Get our Wild Mushroom and Beef Stir-Fry recipe.
7. Spicy Snow Pea and Sesame Stir-Fry
Unlike that Sechuan stir-fry, this one only has a touch of heat in pepper form. Just some red pepper flakes. You also get the flavors of sesame oil and crunch of white sesame seeds. Get our Spicy Snow Pea and Sesame Stir-Fry recipe.
8. Stir-Fried Tamarind Eggplant
There’s a trick in this recipe to keep the eggplant cubes from soaking up too much oil. Instead, it will absorb the tamarind paste, fish sauce, and soy sauce. That’s what you want. Get our Stir-Fried Tamarind Eggplant recipe.
9. Chicken Pad Thai
This is a quick version of traditional Pad Thai, using strips of boneless, skinless chicken breast and a bag of frozen vegetables. Medium-wide rice noodles, a flavorful peanut sauce, ginger, and garlic make this dish sing. Get our Chicken Pad Thai recipe.
— Photos: Chowhound.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She’s trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.