It never hurts to follow specific recipes for delectable, vegetable-rich stir-fries, just to get the hang of it. But this is the kind of easy meal every competent cook can learn to make spontaneously, depending on what’s in the fridge and pantry. These basic steps will show you how to make a vegetable stir-fry without a recipe — rivaling your favorite take-out!
When it comes to choosing and combining vegetables for the stir-fry, learn to use what’s in season — as well as what happens to be in your crisper. Cooked quickly and at high-heat, vegetables retain their color and nutrients. Here are the basic steps:
1 Cook your carb: While this is optional, a stir-fry perched on grains or noodles makes a more filling meal. The obvious choices are rice or Asian noodles — soba, udon, bean-thread, or rice-stick noodles.
There are other options — for grains, there’s no reason why you can’t mix it up and choose quinoa or whole-grain couscous. Whatever you choose, start your grains or noodles before the stir-fry. While these are cooking, go on to the next steps, and once they’re done, transfer to a covered container to keep warm.
2 Make the sauce (or choose a bottled variety): There are lots of good-quality bottled sauces in the Asian foods section of well-stocked supermarkets or natural foods stores — Asian black bean sauce, Korean BBQ sauce, Hoisin, and teriyaki, just to name a few. If using teriyaki, choose one that has some body to it, not the thin, runny kind. But if you prefer to DIY, making a simple teriyaki sauce isn’t difficult or time consuming.
Here’s a simple teriyaki sauce that makes about 3/4 cup:
- 1/4 cup good-quality soy sauce or tamari
- 2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons agave nectar
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar or rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh or squeeze-tube ginger, optional
- 2 teaspoons sesame seeds, optional
Combine all the ingredients in a bottle. Seal tightly with a lid and shake. Shake up each time before using.
3 Prep the vegetables: Remember, there are no set amounts. Learn what fits comfortably in your stir-fry pan, and choose at 4 to 6 different vegetables, choose among the following, if you need a point of departure; prepare as suggested and set aside within these groupings:
- Hard vegetables: Turn the heat up to high and start the stir fry with the vegetables that take longest to cook (that’s relative, of course, as all cook pretty quickly this way), including broccoli and cauliflower (both cut into bite-sized florets); celery and carrots (both cut into thick diagonal slices).
- Softer vegetables: Choose from among bell pepper strips, mushroom slices or small whole mushrooms, diced eggplant, thickly sliced green cabbage or napa cabbage, diced or matchstick-cut white turnip or daikon radish, hardier greens like kale or collards (cut into ribbons), zucchini or yellow squash (sliced into 1/4 inch thick half-circles).
- Vegetables that need just a minute or so to heat up: If using any of these, they just need to be tossed in at the end so that they don’t get over-cooked. These include bok choy or baby bok choy (both sliced on the diagonal), snow peas (stems trimmed), canned baby corn, mung bean sprouts, chopped Asian greens, whole baby spinach, watercress leaves, sliced scallions.
4 Choose a plant protein and crisp-cook it: If you don’t plan to serve a separate plant-based protein dish, you may want incorporate one of these plant proteins into the stir-fry toward the end. All should be cut into dice or bite-sized pieces:
- 14-to 16-ounce tub of tofu (well drained and blotted, or pressed ahead of time)
- 8-ounce package baked tofu
- 8-ounce package tempeh
- 8 to 16 ounces seitan, packaged or homemade (obviously, you’ll have to make homemade seitan several hours earlier, or the day before)
- 8 to 12 ounces of your favorite plant-based protein, such as vegan “beef” tips or chick’n
Heat a small amount of safflower or other neutral-flavored vegetable oil and reduced-sodium natural soy sauce or tamari in the pan you intend to use for the stir fry, or, you can cook these in a separate pan. Sauté the protein of your choice over medium-high heat until golden and crisp on most sides. If using one pan, remove to a plate until needed.
5 Start your stir-fry: Heat a little oil in the pan —use a high-heat oil like safflower or sunflower; add a little bit of dark sesame oil for flavor. Or, if you’re a no-oil person, heat up about 1/4 cup broth or water.
Do a quick sauté with a finely chopped medium onion or a few shallots, if you’d like. But do start with chopped garlic, at least! If you skip the onion or shallots, add some sliced scallion as you’re finishing the stir-fry.
Add any vegetables from the first grouping of hard vegetables in item #2, above, and stir-fry until about halfway to tender-crisp. Depending on how many vegetables are filling the pan, this means roughly 3 to 4 minutes. Stir-frying means just that — cooking while stirring nearly continuously.
Add vegetables from the second (softer vegetables) grouping and stir-fry until everything is just tender-crisp. Finally, add vegetables from the last grouping (vegetables that need just a minute or two to heat up), and stir-fry just until they’re heated through.
6 Add the optional protein and pour in the sauce: Stir in the optional protein from item #4. Shake up the sauce if using the one suggested in #2, or grab your bottled sauce. Pour as much as needed into the pan to generously coat the ingredients, but not drown them (you can always pass the sauce around the table) and cook for another minute or so. Remove from the heat.
7 Serve at once: Fresh vegetable stir-fries are best served right away, straight from the pan. Serve over the grain or noodles of choice, and pass around teriyaki or soy sauce, plus hot sauce (like sriracha) and crushed nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, or walnuts) or sesame for individual servings.
When all is said and done, if you prefer to follow a recipe for stir-fries, we’ve got lots of those, too!