That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

Category: Meals

Stir-Fry 101

I’ve been enjoying Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop’s book on everyday Chinese cooking, and as a result we’ve been eating more stir-fried meals. It’s very easy to whip up a stir-fry that tastes authentically Chinese, but you have to know a few things. Here’s a very general outline.

You’ll need a decent-sized skillet. A wok is perfect if you have one, but a regular western-style skillet works fine if you don’t overfill it.

Before you start frying, cut up your vegetables (and tofu if you’re using it) into bite-sized pieces. Some hard vegetables like broccoli won’t cook adequately in the few minutes they spend in the skillet, so it’s good to pre-cook them quickly. If you’re using broccoli pieces, for example, put them in a pot of boiling salted water for a few minutes; remove them while they’re still bright green.

Pour a generous amount of cooking oil — a couple of Tablespoons or more — in the skillet and turn the heat under the skillet to medium-high or hotter. (Note: if you avoid oil during the fast, Chinese cooking is probably not for you; it makes generous use of oil.). Peanut oil is traditional in Chinese cooking, and has a distinctive, if very mild, flavor. But any standard cooking oil will do.

Finely chop a couple of cloves of garlic and a comparable amount of fresh ginger. Work fast so the oil doesn’t start to smoke. If you don’t think you can work that fast, cut up the garlic and ginger before you turn on the burner.

When the oil is hot (a small piece of food sizzles when you drop it in the oil), toss in the garlic and ginger and stir them into the oil. If you like spicy food, throw in a big pinch of red pepper flakes too (or use some hot pepper as one of your vegetables). Let them cook briefly, just until you can smell their aroma. Watch the garlic like a hawk: it will brown very quickly in the hot oil, and burnt garlic has a very unpleasant taste. Next, toss in the rest of your vegetables. Stir them constantly for the few minutes that it will take for them to cook. Taste little pieces as you go to decide when the vegetables are cooked; you’ll quickly get a feel for how long it takes.

Remove the skillet from the heat, stir in soy sauce to taste, and you’re done. You can also stir in a small amount, maybe a teaspoon, of sesame oil. Don’t use sesame oil as your cooking oil: it’s expensive and the flavor will in my opinion be too strong. I think it works best in small amounts as a flavoring.

Serve over rice or noodles. Eat with chopsticks if you know how.

On rice and noodles: Rice is more popular in southern China, noodles in the north. If your supermarket has an “ethnic foods” section you can probably find several kinds of authentic Chinese noodles there. Wheat-based noodles are a popular variety, and for the life of me I can’t see how they’re different from spaghetti, so spaghetti is what I use, pre-tossed with a dash of sesame oil.

On green onions/scallions: These are a mainstay of Chinese cookery. If you use them in your stir-fry, cut them up and reserve them till near the end of cooking. When the rest of the vegetables are partly cooked, toss in the onions, stir them in and let them cook just until they’re not completely raw.

Little-known fact: Celery is a vegetable

We tend to think of celery as little more than a source of crunchiness in salads, but it is in fact a vegetable.

Today I was looking through the refrigerator and found that, like many refrigerators, it had a half-used, wilted bunch of celery lurking in the bottom of the crisper.

Since something had to be done with it, I chopped the celery up along with an onion, put the mixture in a skillet along with a few spoonfuls of canned tomato, added some soy sauce and pepper. I kept the skillet hot until the onions were transparent and everything was sizzling nicely, then turned the heat to low, covered the skillet and went away for about 20 minutes. When I came back the mixture was nicely cooked. The vegetables had given off quite a lot of juice, so I turned the heat up again and stirred them, uncovered, until the liquid had mostly cooked away. Then I served the mixture over rice. Very tasty!

And there, in narrative form, is a recipe for Hot Celery Lunch.


We’ve been enjoying these on fast days. They don’t taste anything like hamburgers, but they do taste very good, and you can eat them on a bun. Add a salad and you have a complete meal.

Bean Burgers
1 onion
1 carrot
3 cups = about 2 cans = about 600 grams cooked beans (black or pinto)
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes, with juices
1/2 cup = 2 oz dry rolled oats
1 Tbsp chili powder and/or curry powder
2 Tbsp oil
salt & pepper
dried herbs, or chopped fresh herbs

Finely chop the onion and grate the carrot.
In a good-sized saucepan, fry the onion gently in oil until softened and lightly browned.
Add the grated carrot and continue frying until it’s soft. Add tomatoes, spices and the oatmeal. Cook briefly to allow the oats to cook a bit.
Pour in the beans and mash them well with a fork or the back of a big spoon.
Form the bean mixture into hamburger-sized patties.

At this point you can fry them in a skillet, grill them if you have a grill (we don’t), or (what we do) array them on a cookie sheet and bake them in the oven at 350° for about 30 minutes.

Serve on hamburger buns, with the usual hamburger options: ketchup, lettuce, and pseudo-mayonnaise.

The uncooked burger mixture keeps well in the fridge; in fact, if it’s sat for awhile it tends to hold together better. Think about preparing the mixture one day, cooking it the next.

We cook dry beans, though you can use canned beans too. If you cook the beans yourself, be sure that they’re cooked until they’re a bit mushy and can easily be mashed in with the other ingredients.

I don’t have to tell you how to make a salad.

Salad Dressing
On wine & oil days, you can make a standard vinaigrette of olive oil, vinegar (rice or wine vinegar preferred), herbs, salt and pepper. You can create some creaminess by whipping in some tahini or hummus.

If you use non-olive oil on strict fast days, just substitute some other vegetable oil for olive oil. It won’t taste quite as good, but oh well.

If you don’t use any oil on strict fast days, you can leave out the oil, stir in some tahini or hummus with vinegar and the other ingredients, and create a pretty good dressing.

A note on pseudo-mayonnaise: Vegenaise and Nayonaise are two brands you can probably find in the health-food section of your grocery store. Both are good. Both depend on oil, naturally, so they’re out if you want to avoid oil.