Tonight, I’m making stir-fry—maybe you are, too. Fast, easy, and endlessly riffable, it’s the go-to meal in my house whenever I’m in a rush, have vegetables to use up, and/or can’t imagine washing anything more than a single pan. A stir-fry is practical, but that comes at a price; to clean out your fridge and have dinner in a hurry, you may not end up with the most exciting plate. I stave off stir-fry boredom with the help of one simple strategy, a rule that keeps things interesting even when my dinner plans are not.
Here’s the deal: Every stir-fry needs a ringer. One undeniably good, ace-in-the-hole ingredient, carefully deployed to amp up your weeknight dinner. I cannot say what counts as a ringer for you, because that is an individual journey, but I can offer some suggestions, like whole cashews, chopped dates, or crunchy coconut flakes. If you can imagine a world where, when no one is watching, you pick every last piece of this ingredient from a dish with your fingers to eat on its own because you like it so much—congratulations! You have found a ringer: perfect by itself and strong enough to carry the team. In the quest to find my own magic mix-ins, I’ve hit upon a few, but one literally back-of-the-pantry offering changed my stir-fry game for good. Especially when paired with crunchy vegetables and a bright, herby drizzle, it’s a ringer for the ages.
I humbly submit, for your weeknight dinner stir-fry pleasure: Spam.
If you’ve ever fried a slice of Spam, you know that something magical happens when it hits a hot pan. The result is like bacon but not quite, fried bologna but not exactly. It’s cracklingly crisp on the outside but meaty in the middle, a delightful combination that’s impossible to replicate. I love Spam as the backbone of musubi or in a bowl of great fried rice, but hadn’t considered it as regular stir-fry material until cooking from my pantry became more of a priority. Salty and porky, it’s the perfect addition to a pan of vegetables and grains—thinly sliced or even torn into bite-sized pieces.
According to Dale Talde, the chef at Goosefeather in Tarryton, NY, Spam’s unique texture is what makes it such a culinary asset. “It’s oddly porous,” he says. “It really does take in as much as it gives.” Adding a few slices to a stew, for example, as Talde does when making Korean budae-jjigae, means imbuing the broth with a ton of salt, while the Spam itself soaks in spice and other aromatic flavors. As a component in a stir-fry, Talde recommends pairing it with rice, grains, or noodles, “blank canvas” ingredients that will stand up well against Spam’s bold flavor. “Be judicious,” he advises, “because a little goes a long way, but it’s a great thing to keep around.”
For Amelie Kang, chef and co-owner of MáLà Project in New York City, there was never any doubt that she’d put Spam on her menu. “I grew up eating it,” she says, “and it’s common in China. The flavor is very nostalgic for me.” MáLà Project specializes in dry pot, a stir-fry version of Chinese hot pot flavored with tingly chile oil. Diners choose their own meat and vegetable combinations from a long list including Spam; the salty, savory slices shine when paired with bok choy, mushrooms, and noodles.
Keeping a can or two of Spam on the shelf is an exercise in taking care of future you. A ton of flavor potential in a small, unassuming package, Spam requires little more than a few minutes in a pan to reach its full potential, and can transform even your most lackluster stir-fries into dinners you’re actively psyched to eat. But cooking with Spam does require a game plan; to integrate its seriously porky punch into your repertoire, balance is important. Try crisping Spam in a stir-fry of Thai-inspired flavors, with fried shallots, mint, and a pinch of cinnamon. Tender broccoli and a hearty grain, like brown rice or farro, add heft and freshness, while a bracing vinaigrette cuts through the salt and fat. It’s a great place to start if you’ve never cooked with Spam before, but don’t say I didn’t warn you: It may very well become your weeknight stir-fry secret weapon.Kendra Vaculin
Originally Appeared on Epicurious