Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fried Rice

Fried rice is familiar to most people, but it obviously presents a couple of challenges.  Those would be onions and soy sauce, both of which are a problem at my house.  However, neither is a problem to replace.  With onions, roughly cut shallots create the same appearance.  Scallions actually improve the appearance - you can cut them into small horizontal rings, or you can cut the green part diagonally to create a very nice look.  If it's allowed at your house, a bit of onion powder works.  Soy sauce adds two things to the dish:  saltiness and color.  Saltiness is easy enough to manage.  I won't insult you by telling you how.  Color is a bit more tricky, but the solution is a favorite - oyster sauce without added MSG.  Oyster sauce adds brown color similar to soy sauce, and the taste is pretty subtle:  it adds just a bit of depth to proteins.  I'm no expert, but I'm guessing that the taste is heavy on "umami", the fifth taste that Asians love.  You find this stuff at farmer's markets and Asian markets.  The regular version is often red, while the "No MSG Added" kind is green.

The technique:
1.  Cook rice in advance.  I use cheap long grain rice in the microwave.  The longer you allow it to cool, the better it will firy.  Otherwise, the extra moisture will not have evaporated, it will steam up, and the texture will be "mushier".
2.  Prep your fresh veggies and protein.  For veggies, you can use carrots, peas, shallots, scallions, and celery.  Some people like to throw in bok choy, peppers, bamboo shoots (bought in cans) and water chesnuts (also canned, in various shapes).  This is where you go wild - you can pick and choose veggies, you can dice, julienne (long thin strips), or cut the carrots and celery on the bias into long, thin, diagonal slices.  As for proteins, this could involve dicing boneless chicken breasts, cleaning shrimp, slicing flat iron steak or (if you're nostalgic for the Rice-a-Roni/Hamburger Helper days) simply popping open the ground beef.  If you're not yet versed in food safety, finish the veggies and seasonings before cutting meat.  You don't want a cutting board used for raw meat to touch any other food (including cooked meat).  I keep two plastic cutting boards handy, plus a little one for emergencies and small jobs.
3.  Prep your seasonings (see preceding warning).  Seasonings include garlic and ginger.  I've gotten tired of wrestling with ginger peels and fingers that smell like garlic, so I've resorted to garlic in a jar and ginger in a tube.  However, fresh is definitely better.  You can slice, dice or pulverise your garlic and ginger.  I usually divide it into two or three portions.  No need to separate the garlic and ginger, as they both cook quickly.  I'm not a fan of relying on powdered ginger or garlic, so don't blame me if you do that and you are not happy with the results.  Speaking of powder, onion powder is ok if it is tolerated.
4.  I usually start with the fresh veggies so the flavor gets in everything else.  Canola oil allows hot temperatures, it does not add inauthentic taste (although you might like olive oil if you're not going for 100% authentic), and it is not a trigger like peanut oil.  I coat the bottom of the saute pan and saute the veggies with a touch of salt and oyster sauce.  Before adding the veggies, this is a good time for the powdered seasonings that I told you not to use and cook them for a minute or so.  If small quantities of soy sauce are tolerated, a few drops could be added.  Finally, I sometimes throw in some Better than Bullion (no water).  Since the veggies are cooked separately from the meat, this gives them a bit of meaty taste.  Cook until almost done - my wife likes her veggies still crispy.  When they are almost done, I add some fresh garlic and ginger.  You can add the bok choy tops at this point too if you don't want them completely wilted.  I throw the finished product into a large mixing bowl and cover with foil to keep warm.
5.  Recoat the bottom of the saute pan with oil.  Throw in your meat and add your seasonings.  This can include garlic, ginger, onion powder, a touch of salt, a few drops of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and another dab of Better than Bullion.  While this is cooking, put any frozen veggies you are planning to use  (I always use peas, and you can some work by using frozen peas and carrots) in a microwave-safe container with some water on the bottom.  Get the microwave ready to start.  When the meat is finished, throw it in the mixing bowl on top of the cooked veggies (this will keep them hot) and replace foil. 
6.  Start the microwave
7.  Now it's time to cook the rice.  I keep the pan pretty hot.  If you made two cups of rice, you might want to do this in two batches, especially if your saute pan is not very big.  This reduces the mess.  Recoat the pan.  If you like scrambled egg in your rice, this a good time to fry it so it will not sit or get cold.  Then add in the remaining ginger and garlic.  Cook for 30-60 seconds.  Now, add the rice.  Add a few more drops of soy sauce if tolerated, but only for color.  Then add in some oyster sauce.  Oyster sauce is not as efficient as soy sauce for adding color, so don't be surprised about how much you will need to use.  The idea is to keep the rice moving (so it doesn't scorch) and add a bit of sauce to the white spots as they turn up, until all the rice has some color.  A little bit of sear on the rice is good and helps with the color, but that gets difficult if you use a non-stick pan.  Add salt gradually and taste as you go.  Once you get the rice to a good color, salt level, and sear/crust, add it to the bowl.
8.  Drain the microwave veggies and add to the bowl.  At this point, you can add a small bit of sesame oil.  A little bit goes a long way, but it adds a bit more authenticity to the taste, if that's what you're going for.  Stir and serve.  Non-patients can add soy sauce.

There's not anything advanced here - just a lot of steps, but no multi-tasking.  You get complete control, which can be intimidating.  Here are some quantities that you can use for starters:

Meat - two pounds
Rice - two cups rice, four cups water
Shallots (medium), Rice and Celery - two each
Baby Boy Choy and Scallions - one bunch
Peas - 1/4 cup
Peas and Carrots - 1/2 cup
Bamboo Shoots and Water Chesnuts - 1 can, drained
Ginger - one "thumb"
Garlic - two cloves
Sesame Oil - 10 drops
Salt - pinch for veggies and meat, to taste for rice

Once you are comfortable with this process, you can adapt it to other styles, like using Cajun seasoning and vegetables instead of Asian.  You can add sauces too.  Or leftovers, or whatever. . . fried rice is just a canvas and you get to choose the paints.

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