Eating down the fridge: Skip waste, save money, make an easy meal

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Simple Stir Fry Dinner

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: You’ve got a crisper drawer brimming with newly purchased produce in a gorgeous array of colors. But other than the same-old tossed green salad, you haven’t got a plan (or a clue) for what to do with it all.

Despite all good intentions, we tend to stick those beautiful fruits and veggies in the drawer and practically put them under lock and key – until it’s too late. About one-fourth of the food we buy goes to waste. So how can we turn our virtuous intentions into dinner?

In two words: Stir-fry!

A centuries-old cooking technique originating in China, stir-frying traditionally (and ideally) is done in a wok. But these days, a 12-inch stainless-steel skillet is a respectable stand-in. There are, however, a few defining elements: high heat, minimal fat and a brisk tossing or stirring of ingredients that have been cut into bite-size pieces. If you do all of those things, you’ve got a stir-fry.

And in the spirit of kitchen thrift, the stir-fry is an economical way to eat well. In her book, Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, wok doyenne Grace Young (who’s taught me everything I know about stir-frying) writes: “I cannot think of another cooking technique that makes less seem like more, and by which small amounts of food feed many.” She describes the stir-fry as “the transformation of humble ingredients into rich, delectable, healthful meals using precious little food and cooking fuel.”

To prove just how quick and easy it is to whip up a stir-fry, I’m serving up a two-step program, starting with my Wok Salad, which I like to think of as stir-fry with training wheels. (Plus, it’s a new twist on an old -- and cold -- classic, and a very fine way to work through the crisper drawer.) When you’re ready to graduate from salad to main course, have at my version of stir-fried rice (or whatever leftover grain you’ve got lingering in the refrigerator).

You’ll notice I’ve listed lots of AND/OR options in the following recipes; think of them as templates that you can work from (rather than obey) based on your mood, preferences and what’s on hand.

Eating Down the Fridge Step 1: Wok Salad

Before you heat up the wok (or skillet), prep the following:

  • 2 cloves whole garlic, peeled and smashed AND/OR
  • 1x1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced AND/OR
  • ½ of your favorite fresh chile pepper, seeded and minced AND/OR
  • ½ small red onion, cut into half moons
  • 1 bunch romaine lettuce, washed thoroughly, dried and cut into 2-inch pieces (p.s. iceberg lettuce works equally well)
  • Generous pinch of granulated sugar
  • About 1 dozen cherry tomatoes (or another small variety), halved
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce or wheat-free tamari

Heat the wok (or pan) over high heat until, as Grace Young says, “a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact.”

Swirl in 3 tablespoons of neutral oil with a high smoking point (Safflower, sunflower and grapeseed oils are among my picks) so that it’s equally distributed on the surface of the wok.

Add the garlic, ginger (and chile pepper, if using). With a Chinese metal spatula or metal pancake spatula, stir-fry—quickly and continuously scoop and toss—until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Using the onion? Add it now and stir-fry for about 60 seconds.

Add the lettuce, sprinkle the sugar on top, and stir-fry until it is wilted and bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes (and red onion if using) and soy sauce and continue to stir-fry, tossing vigorously, until the tomatoes are warm and slightly softened, about 30 seconds.

Eat hot.

Makes 5 to 6 salad-size servings.

Eating Down the Fridge Step 2: Graduating to Veggie Fried Rice

First thing’s first: The key to a successful fried rice is cold rice (or quinoa or barley), i.e. leftovers from the night before. The next time you cook a pot of your favorite grain, make a double batch for a stir-fried adventure later in the week.

You’ll want a minimum of 1 cup cold cooked rice (all shades work equally well), quinoa or barley, ideally about 3 cups.

As with any stir-fry, prep all of the aromatics and vegetables before heating up the wok.

The job of the aromatics (other than making the house smell great) is to season the vegetables. Possible contenders are:

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced AND/OR
  • ½ cup shallots, diced (about 2 bulbs) AND/OR
  • ½ your favorite fresh chile pepper, seeded and minced AND/OR
  • 1x1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced

Look through the crisper drawer for quick-cooking vegetables that will still have a crunch on the plate. Ideally, you want one vegetable from each group, but the world will not end if all groups are not represented. In fact, I’ve made fried rice with just shallot, carrots and bell pepper, so put on that improv hat and make some magic.

Some of my favorite combinations include:

1 cup diced carrots (about 2 carrots) OR chopped fresh snap beans OR zucchini cut into half moons OR a combination;

½ cup diced red bell pepper or your favorite sweet pepper OR ½ cup corn kernels OR a combination

1 cup baby bok choy, chopped into 1-inch pieces OR 1 cup minced celery OR snow peas OR a combination;

Whatever you decide, you’re looking for a total of 2 ½ to 3 cups of vegetables.

Other options for consideration:

  • A beaten egg (or two) for extra protein
  • 1/3 cup unsalted cashews or peanuts, chopped, for plant-based protein
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Now let’s heat things up:

Cook the eggs first, if using: Heat wok over high heat, then swirl in 1 tablespoon of neutral oil (and if you have it), 1 teaspoon sesame oil.

Pour in the beaten egg(s) and tilt the wok so that it covers the entire surface, making it as thin as a pancake. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about 60 seconds; the egg will set quickly. With a thin-edged flipper or tongs, grab the edges of the cooked egg and fold it on top as best as you can. Transfer to a cutting board, and cut into thin strips.

Add 1 additional tablespoon of neutral oil, followed by the aromatics, and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. (For NO EGG option: Eliminate the sesame oil and start with 2 tablespoons neutral oil to cook both the aromatics and vegetables.)

Add the vegetables from the carrots group along with the bell pepper (these vegetables need a little extra time), stir-frying for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the mixture begins to soften. Add the rice and choices from the bok choy group. With a wooden spoon, break up any clumped rice as needed. Add about ¼ cup soy sauce and stir well, and cook for any additional 3 minutes or so. If mixture seems dry, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water.

Stir in the egg strips, if using (If not, add the nuts.), followed by the cilantro, and drizzle 1 teaspoon of sesame oil, if you like. Makes about three to four 2-cup servings.

For more than a decade, journalist and chef Kim O’Donnel has dispensed cooking advice at numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Culinate and USA Today. Kim is the author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook and most recently, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations. Based in Seattle, she is the founder of Canning Across America, a collective dedicated to the revival of preserving food. Follow her on Twitter.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.