Admit it. There are days when you come home tired and the last thing you want to do is cook. All that stirring, and chopping, and pouring, and mixing…all that effort. So you go to your stack of menus and lo and behold that trusty Chinese takeout menu beckons you with their pretty pictures and before you know it, you’re curled up on the sofa watching Seinfeld reruns eating sesame chicken out of the carton. You know you’ve been there.
One of the amazing things about growing up in a city like New York is having access to so many different cuisines everywhere. Of course you can pretty much find Chinese food all over the country, but see, I grew up in Chinatown. I still live in Chinatown. And there’s something a bit different about eating takeout when you’ve got Chinatown in your backyard. Even for an immigrant family like mine, we found ourselves having “chinese” night where my mom would cook fried rice inspired by our surroundings, although it was hopelessly unauthentic. I dubbed it “Chiminican” because really her fried rice was more Dominican than anything else. It’s still in high demand in my family. Ask anyone!
I’ve never traveled to China (bucket list top 5!) but I’ve had many Chinese friends over the years tell me how different Chinese-American food is to what’s served in Asia. No kidding. It’s the same with Mexican and Italian food. Once immigrants from those respective countries came here anad began to expand their offerings beyond the classic menu (typically consumed by other immigrants looking for a taste of home), they noticed that their dishes needed to adapt to an American palate.This meant significant changes to the cuisine and basically led to the creation of a new sub-genre that has taken over our notion of what Chinese food really is.
I’ll be honest here. I go into a Chinese restaurant in New York and you’ll be hard pressed to see me order anything beyond fried rice, meat and broccoli, stir fried veggies, or some kind of dumplings. There’s rumors that many of these restaurants offer a “phantom” menu to their Chinese customers with plates that you won’t find on the regular menu offered to Westerners. Whether it’s true or not, the idea that classic Chinese cuisine has evolved into something that is considered appropriate for the American appetite is correct and it leaves me wondering if we’re just getting jipped here simply because we’re conditioned to go for the familiar.
In many ways, East Asian cooking and Chinese in particular is considered one of the greatest and healthiest cuisines in the world. The emphasis on vegetables and leafy greens as the main components in their dishes reflects a focus on fresh food with minimal fuss. When translated to a Western dinner table, however, those vegetables take a backseat as a garnish or side dish. Then there’s MSG. MSG is used in Asia, particularly in Japanese food, but there has been significant attention paid to the use of MSG in Chinese restaurants here at home. For those following strict gluten-free diets, this is especially worth noting when looking at your options for takeout.
Here’s another idea. Making your own takeout-inspired dishes at home with ingredients that you can control without worrying about that food coma later. I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about foreign cuisines being adapted and essentially Americanized to meet our taste guidelines. There’s inherent beauty and wonder that should be embraced when you’re approaching a culture different from your own, and food is a great starting point to begin that sort of cultural exchange. Nonetheless, this is how food evolves and has always evolved throughout history and for what it’s worth, there’s value in that. So I’ll save the deep thoughts for another day and get to my point here. The point is, you can make your own healthy version of a classic takeout favorite in the middle of the week. You don’t even have to use chopsticks if you don’t want to.
Please note that the recipe I’ve linked above is actually more of a guideline (for measurements and the like since I don’t measure anything unless I’m baking) for all of you wok and stir fry novices out there. I’ve taken a TON of liberties with this recipe based on my basic principle of doing what works for you in the kitchen. I approach fried-rice and stir fry dishes as a produce fire sale. Everything I have in my fridge that’s on its way out and tastes well together, goes in the wok. This recipe just happens to have some of the same ingredients in common, including the oyster sauce. More on that in a bit. As always, science first.
FOOD4THOUGHTNYC’S NUTRITION FACTOIDS
I grew up in a white long-grain rice eating family so switching to brown rice the last couple of months has been interesting. I thought I’d hate it initially but I actually really enjoy the nutty flavor and chewier texture of brown rice. I think it goes well with fried rice because it reminds me of sticky white rice. I thought I’d take a step back here and dig deeper on the nutritional profile of brown rice, although I was pretty confident I’d find that there was loads of nutritional value.
Turns out there’s not a tremendous difference between brown and white rice as we’ve been led to believe. But there are some notables. Take a look:
- A whole grain of rice is made up of multiple layers, with most of the nutrients packed in the bran and germ layers. Brown rice is what’s left when only the outermost (and least nutritious) hull is removed.
- Manganese: Brown rice supplies approximately 88% of your DV. This mineral helps produce energy, build bones, and the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system.
- Fiber: Brown rice supplies approximately 14% of your DV. This of course aids digestion and keeps you feeling fuller longer.
- Selenium: Approximately 27% of your DV. Selenium plays a critical role in cancer prevention, works with vitamin E to help prevent heart disease, and helps decrease the symptoms of asthma and the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Magnesium: Approximately 21% of your DV. Magnesium helps keep our muscles and nerves functioning normally, supports a healthy immune system, and keeps bones strong. Magnesium also helps to regulate blood sugar levels, thereby promoting normal blood pressure and supports energy metabolism and protein synthesis.
A full cup of brown rice will yield about the same number of calories as white rice (216cal vs 205cal) but you will get more nutritional value out of the former. Please keep in mind that this isn’t a green light to gorge on brown rice. Always control your portions and vary your food sources.
Pull out that wok! It’s time to stir fry with the best of ’em. 🙂
Note that this recipe will be done in two parts. The first part is making the rice and this should be done a day ahead. Fried rice is best when you’re using a cold rice that’s a day old. We’ll start there.
The only time I ever had a rice cooker was when I was in college, and as spoiled as I was with that particular gadget, it went home with my roommate and I went back to making rice how I was taught at home: with a pot, a watchful eye, and patience. If you’re like me and don’t have a rice cooker, here’s how you make perfect rice every time in a pot.
Heat your pot (preferably heavy iron or a dutch over but NEVER non stick!) over a medium-high flame. Measure your rice and water. In this case I used 2 1/2 cups dry long-grain brown rice and 3 1/2 cups of water. I never follow the instructions on the packaging. Normally it’s cup for cup with white rice, but I add a cup more for brown rice since its a tougher grain. Set aside.
Once the pot is heated, add a small amount of canola oil to coat the bottom and let it heat. Add your water to the pot and let it boil. Add a dash of salt to the water for taste. Cover. When it starts boiling you can pour in the brown rice and stir until its completely submerged. Leave the heat on high and the rice uncovered. You want a lot of the water to evaporate at this point.
When the water level reaches just above the rice, lower the heat to a simmer and cover. Now this is critical: please be sure your lid is on TIGHT! The steam needs to be trapped within the pot to evenly cook the rice. My mom is so particular about this step that she actually takes a plastic bag, cuts it up, and layers it over the rice to seal in the heat. It’s unusual, but it works!
For this amount of rice, I estimate the steaming process to take about 20 minutes. Take a fork and check the rice to see if it’s fluffy. Taste a few grains yourself and test the chewiness. If it’s still got crunch, cover, and give it another 5 minutes or so. If it’s soft and chewy, remove the lid and flip the rice. This step is another must. You want the rice on top to get some of that heat as well, so take a big spoon and going in a circle, flip the rice around from top to bottom. Once that part is done, cover, and let it cook for another 10 minutes. Then you’re done. Not too bad, right? Pack it up in a container and put it in the fridge for tomorrow.
Through the magic of blogging, we’ve now fast forwarded to the next day and we’re ready to make our fried rice! I put chicken in my dish, but you can easily make this vegetable only or with tofu. Take your pick. If you’re using chicken, slice it up thinly in bite size pieces, season, and marinate. For my marinade, I used smashed fresh garlic cloves, reduced sodium soy sauce, lemon, salt, and pepper. If you have fresh ginger, even better. Take a thumb sized piece, peel it, mince it, add it. I didn’t have any so I just used a dash of ground ginger. I left the chicken to marinate for about 20 minutes.
I’ve made comments in the past about cooking prep, usually on the negative side (ugh, I have to chop all of these vegetables? why?!), but there’s no greater need for it than here. The trick to pulling off a good stir fry or fried rice is having all of your ingredients at the ready because the cooking time is so fast. So chop, we must. I like my rice to have big chunks of vegetables in it so I’ve coarsely chopped mine here. You do what works for you!
One more note: aside from picking vegetables that are preferably in season, you should also arrange your chopping by cooking time, starting with the veggies that take longest like the onions and peppers. Why is this? Because as you’re adding things to your pan, it’s easier to just slide them off your board in that order to make for quicker cooking and easier cleaning. Just a tip.
Place your wok on the burner and heat about a tbsp of canola oil over medium high. The wok is going to heat up very quickly so be ready! Once it starts to smoke, add your chicken and stir it around to make sure there’s an even layer in the pan. For about 1 1/2 lbs of chicken, it should take between 10-12 minutes to fully cook through. I add a dash or two of soy sauce as its cooking to give it some color and additional flavor. This will seep into the veggies later, so I add it in this initial stage. Just remember to keep stirring.
Now its time to get dexterous and light on your feet. First add the peppers and onions (or whichever veggie you have that might take a little longer to cook) and stir with the chicken. Be sure to scrape off any of the bits that may be coated on the bottom of the pan since they’re packed with flavor. After a couple of minutes, add the sugar snap peas and repeat the previous step. Once all of the veggies have cooked through but still have a bite to them, add the rice.
This is where you really have to be quick because the rice will stick to the pan. Lower the heat to medium if you have it on high. Stir the rice and constantly flip over. Now add about 2-3 tbsps of reduced-sodium soy sauce and 1 1/2 tbsp of oyster sauce. The oyster sauce is completely optional. I like to add it because it gives the rice a nice color and a richer flavor. It is also made from sugars and cornstarch, so I admit it’s not the ultimate in clean eating. Which is why it’s optional, so you can totally leave it out if you want.
Keep stirring and flipping the rice around in the pan making sure to incorporate all the veggies and the sauces. Add 2 tsps of rice vinegar, squeeze the juice of half a lime, and add the scallions. We’ve got a lot of salty elements in this rice so I like to cut it with something mild and a bit sweet like the vinegar and lime juice. The lime juice is less Chinese and more Southeast Asian, but it helps balance out the flavors nicely. Stir this into the rice and keep flipping it around for a minute or two to distribute the green onions. That’s it. You’re done. Get the bowls. It’s time for dinner.
I’ve made some variation of this rice for years now but only recently started making it with brown rice. My rice intake has gone from almost daily when I was growing up to maybe once or twice every other week. It’s more of an indulgence and something I do on a Sunday or if I absolutely cannot go another day without rice. I think what I love most about this dish is that even though I can never claim to cook authentic Chinese, I’m having fun putting something together that has some of the elements of Chinese cooking but is also completely me. I’m creating it layer by layer as I go, which is my favorite kind of cooking.
Hope you all liked today’s recipe! Are there any other takeout dishes that you’ve reinvented or would like to see me reinvent? My ears are open- drop me a line. Happy Thursday. 🙂