Hsiao-Ching Chou is an award-winning food journalist and author of Chinese Soul Food and Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food. We asked her to tell us about her Cheap Thrill—the fast, affordable, and delicious meal she puts together when she’s too busy or tired to cook anything else. Her answer was a flexible stir-fry dinner that can satisfy everyone at the table.
First, I make a pot of rice (just so you know, I am in the rice cooker camp). Then, I almost always start with what vegetables I have in my fridge. I look for different texture and flavor components. If I choose tender, leafy greens like bok choy, then I’ll also want to bring in color and crunch—so I’ll add carrots, if I can. I think to myself, do I want spicy, bitter, or sweet? That helps me decide if I want to use jalapeños or chile peppers or a sweet bell pepper.
Then, I look for aromatics like onions, ginger, and garlic. I don’t always use these, it really just depends on what I’m feeling like. It’s all about mixing and matching. I’ll add meat, depending on the cuts of meat I have. If I only have an ounce of ground pork, that’s fine. In Chinese cooking, meat is treated as a seasoning, you can use it while not necessarily making a “meat dish.” Sometimes, I’ll add some sliced Chinese sausage.
I chop everything and cook the ingredients on high heat in a wok. The sauces I make vary, but I’ll usually go with a soy-based sauce. I’ll use garlic bean sauce or soy sauce with a little white pepper and the tiniest drizzle of sesame oil.
When I make a stir-fry, I’m actually making two or three stir-fries. Everyone in my family likes different things: My daughter doesn’t like most vegetables, and my son doesn’t like all types of protein. My mom and I like bitter greens, like Chinese mustard greens—my kids, not so much. So, I cook the greens on their own, and then I’ll separately make other, family-friendly stir-fries, like one with chicken and carrots.
Thinking back, I have never made just one stir-fry. I always make a few different options, and everyone adds what they want to their bowl. It’s all served family-style, and you take a little bit of each thing. To me, stir-fry means two to three dishes, served family style. This is the traditional Chinese style. My goal is to please a spectrum of palates that are sitting around the table: Stir-fries give me flexibility. I provide enough options, so that everyone can choose the flavors they want in their bowl.
The cooking doesn’t take much time at all, maybe three minutes. In 30 minutes, I can spin out three different dishes. It’s basically cutting the vegetables (and meat, if you’re using it). I prep all of the ingredients at once. One thing I’d say is: make sure to cut all of the ingredients into the same shape and size, so everything cooks evenly—you don’t want to overcrowd the wok!
Originally Appeared on Epicurious